Umoja: the Kenyan village for female survivors of gender-based violence

I recently read a travel post about a unique village in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya called Umoja. This village was founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli, a victim of domestic violence along with 15 other survivors of gender-based violence (some of the other co-founders of the village were raped by British soldiers in the early 90s). 

To find Umoja, you must embark on a six hour drive to the grasslands of Samburu, a long way from the busy capital city of Nairobi. Samburu women have a subordinate position in their society. They are not allowed to own land or other types of property, such as livestock. Women themselves are considered property of their husbands. They can be subject to female genital mutilation, forced marriage with the elders, rape and domestic violence. In the early 1990s, there were over 600 reports of Kenyan women who were raped by British soldiers. Since then, a case was brought up against the military for the rapes of over 1,400 Samburu women. The case was cleared. These women were abandoned by their husbands because they were considered to be “defiled.” Other men drove the women out of their houses fearing they would now contract sexually transmitted diseases from their raped wives. [1]

Umoja is a village of women for women – it is a refuge for girls and women who have suffered from female genital mutilation, rape, forced marriage, and spousal or domestic abuse. Widows and orphans are also part of the Umoja group which is currently just under 50 members. Umoja aims to provide security to its members and does so by pooling its collective members’ resources and skills.

The village is commonly referred to as a place in which men are banned. One misconception about the village is that men are not allowed in at all. Tourists of any and all genders can visit, and men that want to see their wives and children are also allowed inside to visit – but only under safe circumstances, and they are not allowed to live in the village. Umoja village is a safe place to preserve the physical and mental health of its members. Any woman who feels threatened by a man is always welcome to the village at any time. She is also free to go back to her husband if she wants to.

The women of Umoja support themselves and their children through their creative skills with beadwork and crafts. The village also creates income by collecting entrance fees from visitors/tourism. Rebecca, the matriarchal leader of Umoja travels around Kenya (and beyond) to educate rural populations about women’s rights. She teaches parents that their daughters have the basic rights to go to school, that each girl has the right to choose the man she’s going to marry, the impact of early marriage, the dangers of FGM, amongst other things.

Despite the village being in existence for over 25 years, there are still some people that are not happy with what Umoja stands for. Men have repeatedly come to the village and tried to attack or even kill Rebecca. Men have also come in groups, with the intentions to rape and abduct their wives who had escaped to the village. Fortunately, no women were raped or abducted because the women of the village stuck together and fought back to preserve the rights of the other members of Umoja.

Despite having a dad who was born and raised in Kenya, I had actually never heard of the place. I stumbled across a post in a popular travel group on Facebook which is aimed at girls/women who like to travel. Amiko, from Laos, shared a beautiful story of her visit to Umoja village on her travels around the African continent. I contacted Amiko directly and asked if I could share some of her story on my blog, and she graciously obliged. 

Some excerpts from Amiko’s beautiful story about Umoja are below (you can read her entire story on her travel blog, https://onelifespenditwise.blog/).

*Note some edits have been made to the original post for clarity and conciseness

*All photos by Amiko

Rebecca and Amiko in Umoja village

From Amiko’s blog:

‘Many travelers around the world are familiar with Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara tribe, but there is little known about the unique village of Umoja.

I was fortunate to spend my 25th birthday in a tiny village where men are banned – Umoja Village in Samburu, Kenya.

My name is Amiko; I am an ordinary woman from a small country in southeast Asia, Laos. Citizens of Laos can only travel to 19 countries visa-free, and this inspired me to plan an exceptional adventure before my 25th birthday.

I’ve always dreamt of visiting the African continent, inspired by the animated movie “The Lion King”, which I first saw when I was six years old. Most of the people in my social circle would prefer travelling to Europe if they had to plan a big travel adventure, but not me. I had my heart set on seeing Africa, as it is a diverse place to see for myself and learn from. 

So with my destinations picked out, I started saving money, and researched for months about where to go and what to do and see on the African continent. It was through my research that I learned about Umoja – a village for women by women.

A warm embrace

Rebecca, the founder of the village, told me the stories of the women in the village along with her own painful stories and how she came to begin this village. My tour guide Sinja and I stood in the middle of the village for almost an hour, listening to Rebecca’s stories and exchanging stories. I was very lucky to meet Rebecca during my visit to the village; it is hard to meet her in person because she’s always out visiting other villages within Kenya helping, encouraging and empowering women from other villages, and educating them on their rights as women.

As I listened to Rebecca’s powerful stories, I could see the pain, struggle, and fear in her eyes. At the same time you could hear hope in her voice. Despite all the pain she has endured in her life, something positive has come out of it, and she founded an entire village to help other women across Kenya.

Before starting the village, Rebecca was secretly helping and giving supplies to women in bad situations who needed help, money, and food. At the time, her husband’s family found out and accused her of stealing from them and giving away their property. One day when her husband was away, his family members beat her badly and left her to die. Fortunately, she was found and taken to hospital.

Umoja village, Kenya

At the time, despite the hell she was living in, Rebecca had no choice but to stay with her husband because she felt her children were not old enough for her to be able to leave him and his family for good. When Rebecca finally left her husband and his family, she left with nothing but the clothes on her body and her children to start a brand-new life.

Although it was good to be away from her husband and his abusive family, she still faced difficulties after starting a new life at the Umoja Village. Men would come to find her because they wanted her dead. They blamed her for founding the village as their newly empowered mistreated wives started to leave their abusive relationships to move to the village. Of course this was not the case – the women left their husbands because of the violence, and Rebecca and Umoja village were able to provide them with safety and keep them out of harm’s way.

During my visit, Rebecca kindly gave me a tour of the village. She told me it was the first time that she had ever given a personal tour for a visitor. It was such an honor for me to be that visitor. Rebecca showed me the house they live in. She introduced me to the ladies of the village and explained much of how the village functions. She told me the history of how they built the house, how they rule and run the village, and many other inner workings of their unique community.

Rebecca

As the village is getting older, the children of Umoja are getting older as well. The daughters and sons of the women of Umoja have the opportunity to go to a nearby school, which is luckily only 5 minutes’ walk from the village. The school is actually supported by an international organization. Rebecca and the other members of the village are very supportive of the children and tell them that they need to go to school because knowledge is the light of life.

Umoja

Men from a neighbouring village refer to the sons of the village as ‘The Sons of Women’ as a hateful way to express hatred because those sons are helping and protecting these ladies, which they disagree with.

If you ask me, I do agree with the name ‘The Sons of Women’ but not in a derogatory sense. Each and every one of us was born to a woman. My mother is a woman, so is yours and everyone else’s. Without them, or without women, there would be no living things in this world.

Nature created women and men to be partners in order to create life. Society should embrace that and we should all help each other, instead of imposing violence and abuse on each other (or men imposing violence and abuse upon women).

Rebecca is not only helping the women of Kenya, but she is also bravely sending out a message to the world that women are strong and powerful, we have rights and they are no less than the rights that men have. Rebecca has travelled outside of the Kenya to spread her message as well. In March 2011, she met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Women in the World Summit in New York. She also regularly participates as a speaker at different events.

This is a short story about Rebecca and the women of Umoja – this is the story they have created. All the other women of the world are busy creating our own stories as well.

The purpose of my visit to the village was that I really wanted to share this brave story and demonstrate to the world how strong and successful women can be if they stick together and support each other.

The issues of domestic and sexual violence is unfortunately something we see all around the world. Violence against women exists everywhere, including in home country, but generally victims are too afraid to speak out or take actions to stop the abuse.

Rebecca and Amiko

To anyone who is reading my story, I hope you know that it does not matter what your gender is – if you are a victim facing violence, please speak out and get help! I know it is not easy, but if you are willing to seek help, I’m sure that there are plenty of people and organizations that can help you.

I truly enjoyed my time in Umoja, a woman supporting other women (who support each other!) on my 25th birthday.

Thank you for reading my story. 

Amiko xoxo’

Read Amiko’s full story about her experience in Umoja on her blog: https://onelifespenditwise.blog/

Follow Amiko and her fabulous travels on https://www.instagram.com/amikolovestraveling/ and on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/amikolovestraveling/?view_public_for=368510323933978 

The Facebook page of Umoja village https://www.facebook.com/Umoja-Womens-Group-2213413878920981/?ref=br_rs

A french documentary about the village: Umoja, le village interdit aux hommes (Umoja: The Village Where Men Are Forbidden) www.umoja-film.com

Buy jewellery made by the women of Umoja and support them directly: https://umojajewellery.com/

Sources:

[1] https://onelifespenditwise.blog/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umoja,_Kenya

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