Umoja, a small two-hectare village in northern Kenya, is unique. Forbidden to men, it was created by women who fled sexual mutilation, forced marriages, rape, domestic violence. They are called the Tumai, or “hope of life”.
A haven of peace and independence
In 1990, women united in community and created Umoja, meaning “unity” in Kiswahili. Among the fifteen founders, Rebecca Lolosoli, her current head, victim of rape by British soldiers, just like the others. She was then beaten by a group of men who accused her of informing women about their rights. This is what made her decide to create this refuge. Today, the village welcomes women who have undergone early marriage, genital mutilation, rape or domestic violence. It would seem that these realities are common among the Samburu people, who live on the territory where Umoja is located, meaning Unity.
Today, the village became known and became a tourist accommodation. Its inhabitants live independently in huts, built by themselves, without drinking water. Sex is accepted but only outside the village. Women are the only children of both sexes, who are kept with them and can go to school. The community earns money through tourism, encouraged by a cultural center, but also at a shop where it sells local creations.
A 100% female participatory democracy
The inhabitants of Umoja have built a true participatory democracy 100% feminine. The Tumaï represent the founding council of women, which now has 58 members for a total population of 150 (including 90 children and adolescents). Thus, whether it is for purchases, sending children to school or any other decision, a debate and a show of hands are organized.
A prosperous economic organization
Umoja has a rather prosperous economy. The women have flocks of goats. In order to protect their animals, they built fortifications in acacia branches around their huts. Similarly, as a tourist place, the Tumaï live by their crafts and visits.
To protect themselves from the attacks of men who judged this village immoral and provocative, they still recruited three men to protect them. Their economic viability, which provokes jealousy, as well as their rejection of traditional customs such as the practice of excision and early marriage, puts this peaceful community in danger.
Other models more tolerant of men have emerged
Umoja, although a forerunner in her quest for women’s rights, saw other parallel communities emerge that were more tolerant of men. For example, nearby is the village of Nang’ida, meaning “Happiness”. The latter tolerates the return of husbands, but under well-defined conditions. Thus, this village advocates the sharing of tasks asexually.
In a country like Kenya, where violence is known to affect nearly one in two women, this community is at least an example of progressism in terms of women’s autonomy. It proves its capacity to create a prosperous economy and a peaceful democracy. It is a definite step forward in favor of women’s rights in the region. It remains to be seen whether she will succeed in spreading her feminist ideas beyond her territory.
By Céline Bernath