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Umoja - Single-sex community

Umoja is a village in the grasslands of Samburu, in northern Kenya. The village was founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. Rebecca Lolosoli is the founder of Umoja and the village matriarch. 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, speaking 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.

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 marriage 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 the child becomes pregnant, she is forced into an abortion, conducted by other women in the village.

“If a girl is married at an early age, that girl will not be a competent parent. Giving birth they face a lot of challenges: they rupture, they bleed, because they are young,” says Milka, head of the academy school built on the land owned by the Umoja women which is open to children from surrounding villages. “Even performing their duties, their chores, it is hard for them. They are thrown into taking care of animals.”

Some of the shocking facts about the women in the tribe include the story of a 11 year old girl who was traded for cows by her father. Her husband was 57 years old. Another young lady has five children, all with different fathers. Girls are married off to men, the age of their grandfathers. Women have little or no say in matters pertaining to the Samburu community. 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.

On occasions, men are allowed to meet the women of the community. However, who comes in and who goes out is dictated by Rebecca. The rules of the village are crafted solely by the women. The young girls are allowed to meet their boyfriends but outside the village. When they get pregnant, their children can live in the village but the male must leave the village once they are eighteen years of age. All decisions are collectively made by the women of the community under the “tree of speech”, a place where they gather for discussions on issues plaguing their community.

Career Point of view Umoja is a common neighborhood for all potential jobseekers because life is relatively cheap and decent.” says Kevin Wandera, an electronic expert in a small business in town. Located in Thika road the place is 10km away from the CBD meaning traffic jam is less of a problem. Community started as a sanctuary for 15 women, who survived sexual assault and rape by British soldiers, has today grown to give shelter, livelihood and a future to any and all women trying to escape harrassment, repression and rape.

Rebecca Lolosoli, who started this movement recollects, “As a woman you have no right. If the husband wants to kill you, he has the right to kill you anytime because women are like a property. Men wanted to destroy our village but we resisted. We are not going to move an inch even if it means they kills us. Let them kill us all and make history of killing all the women in the village.”

Inspired by the success of Umoja Uaso, several all-feamle societies have cropped up across Kenya. While some villages forbid men completely, others allow men to be part of the community but it is the women who have an overriding say in all matters pertaining to their community. Gender inequality is the blemish of the 21st century, a remnant of the past that the tide of time should have long washed away. It’s easier for girls in urban places to fight for equal rights but for a tribal women like Rebecca Lolosoli to raise her voice in a patriarchal society and highlight that misogyny is not normal, is indeed a rare achievement and ofcourse commendable.

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