Umoja village is quite an unusual place. It is inhabited only by women, their children and livestock. No men are allowed there. Most of the women that dwell in Umoja, Kenya, are the victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Umoja is a village in the grasslands of Samburu, in northern Kenya. It is surrounded by a fence of thorns. There are goats and chickens, beautiful children and women who make jewellery to sell to tourists. Their fingers work quickly as they talk and laugh with each other. It is a typical Samburu village, except for one thing: no men live there.
At Umoja they wear traditional Samburu dress of patterned skirts, brightly coloured shirts and a kanga (a colourful wrap) tied on their shoulders. Their necklaces are made of strings of vividly coloured beads from stunning circular patterns around their necks. The colourful clothing contrasts with the dry air and terrain, and the harsh sun that picks out the dust that fills the air.
The village was founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. Umoja’s population has now expanded to include any woman escaping child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu.
Rebecca Lolosoli is the village matriarch and a founder of Umoja. She was in hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men when she came up with the idea of a women-only community. The beating was an attempt to teach her a lesson for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights.
The Samburu are closely related to the Maasai tribe, and they speak a similar language. They usually live in groups of five to 10 families and are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Their culture is deeply patriarchal. At village meetings men sit in an inner circle to discuss important village issues, while the women sit on the outside, only occasionally allowed to express an opinion.
Umoja’s first members all came from the isolated Samburu villages dotted across the Rift valley. Since then, women and girls who hear of the refuge come and learn how to trade, raise their children and live without fear of male violence and discrimination.
Statistics show that there are currently 47 women and 200 children in Umoja. Although the inhabitants live extremely frugally, these enterprising women and girls earn a regular income that provides food, clothing and shelter for all.
A kilometre away by the river, village leaders run a campsite, where groups of safari tourists stay. Many of these tourists, and others passing through nearby nature reserves, also visit Umoja. The women charge a modest entrance fee and hope that, once in the village, the visitors will buy jewellery made by the women in the craft centre.
One of the unique features of the Umoja community is that some of the more experienced residents train and educate women and girls from surrounding Samburu villages on issues such as early marriages and FGM.
Ornate beaded jewellery is an important accoutrement of Samburu culture. Girls get their first necklaces from their father in a ceremony known as “beading”. The father chooses an older “warrior” male with which the daughter will enter into a temporary marriage at this time.
Pregnancy is forbidden, but contraceptives are unavailable. If a teenager becomes pregnant, she is forced into an abortion, conducted by other women in the village.
There is a tree known as the “tree of speech”, where the women gather to make decisions. There the women also speak freely of their fears, dreams, goals and achievements.
The only man seen in Umoja is Lotukoi. He arrives in the village every day, before sunrise, to tend to the herds. “Children, firewood and cooking are women’s business, and men look after the animals,” he said. The women tend to need him to help.
Lotukoi says: “It’s funny because you don’t see men around here but you see small children, which means women go get men outside.” There is speculation about the village in the neighbourhood. In the next village, Samuel, the village elder says that “the majority of men have three to four wives in this village”.
“This is a village of women who live alone, who are not married – some of them are rape victims, some are child marriage cases. They think they are living without men, but that is not possible,” Samuel points out.
The village head continues: “Many of them end up with babies, because they meet men in the towns and get seduced by them, and men come here in the nights and go into their huts. Nobody else sees them.”
As the community of Umoja has grown, the memories of one of the main causes of it – the rape they were subjected to by the British solders and Gurkhas – do not fade.
Sammy Kania, 33, says: “Once a woman is raped, they are not clean any more in Islam and Qur’an culture. It is not fair, because it happens by accident. The husband could have taken them for an HIV test so that they can continue with life, take care for their children and feed them.”
In 2003, a group of women from Umoja met with solicitors from Leigh Day, a UK-based practice that held a monthly surgery in nearby Archers Post to work with locals who had been injured by bombs left behind by the British army.
The women disclosed allegations of rape spanning 30 years. Most women reported cases of gang rape by soldiers, who attacked the women when they were out gathering firewood or fetching clean water.
Many of the women tell me they cannot imagine living with a man again after they have been living in Umoja. Mary, 34, who says she was sold to a man of 80 for a herd of cows when she was 16 years old said: “I don’t want to ever leave this supportive community of women.”
Rape is a very traumatic experience and a sensitive issue, that most times is either not reported or under-reported to fieldworkers and the authorities, no matter how carefully designed the process applied. However, this risk can be minimized by giving sensitivity training to fieldworkers by qualified counselors.