For some, the word ‘Umoja’ might be better recognised as referring to the ‘Africa Umoja’ musical theatre performance. However, Umoja, which means ‘unity’ in Swahili, also refers to a small rural community in Samburu Country, located about six hours from Nairobi. What sets this village apart from other communities located in the area is that it is known as the ‘village where men are banned’. While the concept of an all-female village may sound like it came straight out of a dystopian Amazonian-esque fantasy novel, the origin story of this village and the women who reside in it is far more real than anything we can imagine.
Nineteen-year-old Judia (center) came six years ago to avoid being sold into marriage. Photo by Georgina Goodwin for the Observer.
The story starts with a woman named Lengope, who after being sexually assaulted by British soldiers in 1990, was cast out from her family home due to the shame of her assault. In the months that followed, Lengope did any work she could find in order to survive and support her children. It was during this time that she met Rebecca Lolosoli, a woman with a passion for gender equality and the will to improve the lives of other women. It was during the same year that her assault occurred that Lengope, Lolosoli and 13 other women, all who have suffered acts of sexual assault from local British soldiers, claimed a patch of land and founded the village of Umoja.
Since its founding, the village has become a safe haven for girls and women wanting to escape from child marriage and female genital mutilation practices (both practices have been outlawed by the Kenyan government), sexual assault and a lack of educational opportunities. In fact, the members of the village opened up a school that provides approximately 98 students (boys and girls) with academic, sport and recreational opportunities. In addition to the school, they have also erected a museum showcasing and keeping alive the spirit of Samburu culture.
The Umoja villages is not simply a safe haven for women, it is also a platform of women empowerment and gender activism. Lolosoli and other leaders of the Umoja village are working to advance women’s rights in Kenya, and to break the silence concerning some of the illegal practices and harmful treatment of women and girls that persist in rural villages.
The village of Umoja may have been conceived out of the all too common tragedy that women face concerning sexual abuse, but it brought these women together and in their unity they found strength to help and empower each other, and pave the way for future generations. The existence of this village is an act of resistance against a patriarchal culture which attempts to control and silence women. The Umoja women are disrupting the narrative that attempts to silence them all the while continuing to embrace and preserve the Samburu way of life, history and culture
We can ask ourselves what lessons can be learned from the Umoja women and can the idea of an all-women village be successful in other contexts?