In the Samburu district of Kenya, women formed a village in order to protect one another, Umoja, which translates to “unity.” Outraged by constant rape and forced marriages, Rebecca Lolosoli created a village in which, “No men are allowed to live here,” she states proudly (Griswold). Female empowerment has always been a concept that women strive for within every society. Umoja has paved the way for women in the Samburu society and has inspired other women’s rights movements to be more proactive worldwide.
The Samburu people of Kenya were originally a nomadic tribe that now mostly resides north of the equator in the Samburu County of Northern Kenya. They are still very traditional and have not parted with old customs, participating in their nomadic ways and additionally running Kenya game lodges and depending on their livestock for survival. Their tribe is run as a Gerontocracy, which means the elders make all the decisions for the people. A decision that the elders make is the ceremony of circumcision occurs which moves into the women’s rights of the tribe. Without being circumcised, you are still considered a child. This means you are not allowed to marry if you are not circumcised because you have not entered womanhood or manhood.
Male circumcision provides health and medical benefits: It reduces the risk of urinary tract infections and can prevent foreskin problems. Yet, female circumcision is defined as genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation has many frequent health impacts. They include urinary or vagina infections, pain, infertility, hemorrhage, and complications during childbirth. Not only does it pose health problems, but it promotes decreased sexual desire, pleasure, and presents pain during sex, difficulty during penetration, and decreased lubrication during intercourse.
Once a male is circumcised he is considered a Moran, which translates to “warrior.” From there, the man can move up the social ladder in the tribe and eventually become an elder. As for women, once you are circumcised and married, you are unable to get a divorce as well as move up the social ladder. They are unable to own land or work and are expected to live a life that consists of keeping the house clean, gathering vegetables and roots, caring for their children, and collecting water and firewood. The overall value of a woman within the tribe is beneath a man due to the fact they have no voice or authority in the tribe because the possibility of them becoming an elder or learning from work is non existent.
As a Samburu man, one of the responsibilities you have is the overall safety of the tribe. Unfortunately since the women of Samburu are expected to collect water and firewood, many were sexually assaulted and raped during their task by British soldiers who were stationed and trained nearby. “Wearing green uniforms they blended with the trees and when women collected firewood, the soldiers would jump out and rape them, laughing like it was a game,” Rebecca Lolosoli says (Griswold). Unfortunately you were seen as tainted once you were raped, shunned by the tribe, and even by your husband. Most women didn’t speak up. As a woman in Samburu, you are oppressed by the men of the tribe. You have no voice, no choice for what you want to do for the rest of your life, and even your body is not yours; you are property.
The Umoja Village’s matriarch and founder is Rebecca Lolosoli, who established a safe haven on an overlooked piece of land that was granted to her by the Kenyan government in 1991. As a strong headed activist for women’s rights, Rebecca broke away from the Samburu people to start a tribe of her own that originally consisted of 16 women that were outcast by their families because they had been raped. Not only do rape victims run away to this village, but women that are trying to escape forced marriages, domestic abuse, and female genital mutilation do too. A woman residing in Umoja is no longer second class and is a participating human being in a society that thrives off of a new found hope for all women suffering with no voice in Samburu.
The women among the village protect one another. Remember earlier when I mentioned the rape that had occurred to the women from the British soldiers that were stationed near by? That could have been prevented if Samburu men could accompany the women on the way to collecting water or fire wood. Since sexual assault was a known thing that was happening, a part of protection is taking preventative measures. In addition, if the unfortunate event of sexual assault occurred to a woman, and a Samburu man couldn’t protect her physical body, he should be able to protect her emotionally. Standing behind a woman, comforting her, and assuring her that “I believe you,” does volumes for a victim and helps heal. Samburu men shun women who suffered, which is the complete opposite of protecting them.
When Samburu men were interviewed on their thoughts of Umoja, they had claimed that a society cannot survive without men. In fact they see the women as big headed. “According to Samburu tradition, women cannot lead themselves. It doesn’t make sense,” Leadisimo, a Samburu tribesman, says (Staff). Samburu men believe women cannot do anything without a man, let alone protect themselves. I find that belief to be quite arrogant, especially since one of the issues for the Samburu women is the lack of protection that leads to sexual assault and rape.
In Umoja, since only women are allowed to live on the land, they have Rebecca, a woman, to make decisions for what is best for the village, but they also do all the hard work and labor such as building homes and buildings for each other. With a fresh start for the women, being successful meant they had to form an idea to support the village financially. Thankfully Rebecca has improved the economic situation by receiving local and international training in business and crafts skills in which she passed down to the other women. Now the village has grown to be an artisan’s community of 64 women. Since Samburu National Reserve is nearby, the women sell traditional beadwork necklaces to travelers.
In my opinion, I wish that the village didn’t thrive off of tourism in order to support the community financially. I feel as if, when tourists are frequent in an area, that the authenticity of the people and area begin to do things that appeal to the tourists. For example, if the women notice that most tourists buy traditional beaded necklaces with the color way of blue and yellow, they’ll begin to make more or only necklaces that are blue and yellow. Granted, the money from the hard work of their beading has made a great home for the women, and they have started the expansion of adding a school for the children. The school house is a co-ed school since the women were allowed to bring their sons into Umoja because their minds are still young and can be taught the true value of a woman and equality. Rebecca has been open to the idea of other children from nearby villages attending the school.
A building within Umoja, built by the women.
Umoja is not the only matriarchal village in Kenya, surprisingly! With Rebecca’s success, others sought out to make trickling villages with her permission. Faith among the women of Kenya has been restored by the opportunity of these matriarchal villages such as Umoja, and Rebecca Lolosoli has been a vital voice for the women.
As an American woman, I can’t help comparing the Samburu women’s rights movement to the long line of women’s rights movements in America, beginning in 1848 when the 19th amendment granted the right for women to vote. This sparked my interest in the timing of our movements. I realized how the Samburu women’s rights movement is over 143 years later than ours. Not too mention, that is 143 years difference from them breaking away from Samburu society versus the comparison to America, when we were signing a bill to have women’s voices heard in government. Which means the beginning of America’s fights for human rights happened even earlier than the 143 years difference!
Although our movements have incredible similarities, the women of Samburu have several differences they must fight for. Not only is female genitial mutilation a difference of our battles, but the fairness of being counted as a human being is what they are fighting for as well. Not only must they fight for their rights of being a woman, but they have also begun a human rights movement. As I stated before, women in Samburu society are property. For instance, they are traded for value in forced marriages as well as when you are married, your husband owns you. This reminded me of slavery within America and the fact that people were once property, and that had ended when the Thirteenth Amendment was made in 1865, which still shows the massive time difference between America and Kenya.
Overall, it’s never too late to fight for your rights; I just believe it is shocking to know that it is still a prominent struggle among different societies of people around the world.
Rebecca Lolosoli has inspired women rights movements to be more proactive worldwide and has paved the way for women in Samburu society by establishing Umoja. Since the day Rebecca decided to fight for women’s rights, she has been targeted, threatened, and beaten. She has come close to death numerous times, once almost being beaten to death by men while her husband was away traveling. Rebecca is a genuine voice for her fellow women because she has experienced the struggle and shame for herself.
When she was 15, she was held down and had her vagina cut with a razor. Three years later, her husband bought her for 17 cows (Griswold, Eliza). “A Samburu woman does not have a single right,” she says. She had also escaped a group of British soldiers that had tried to sexually assault her. Not only has she experienced violence before the start of Umoja, but when she established her village, a group of samburu men came to ruin the village and assault the women in hopes of scaring them to run back to Samburu.
Through the ups and downs of Rebecca’s journey, she has never given up, let alone slow down. She has served as chairperson for her local chapter of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization, which is a national empowerment and development organization for women. Rebecca has attended numerous events on women’s rights which has given her the knowledge to raise awareness to not only the women of Samburu and Kenya, but for all women across Africa. Thus, Rebecca Lolosoli’s story has influenced women worldwide and has motivated them to never give up on fighting for what’s right even though it won’t be easy.
If you’d like to support the cause of Umoja by purchasing traditional beadwork made by the women of Umoja, visit: https://umojajewellery.com
“Circumcision.” Raising Children Network, 17 Dec. 2018, raisingchildren.net.au/guides/a-z-health-reference/circumcision.
Griswold, Eliza. “Rebecca Lolosoli: The Beadmaker’s Refuge for Women.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 8 Mar. 2011, www.thedailybeast.com/rebecca-lolosoli-the-beadmakers-refuge-for-women.
“Health Risks of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/sexual-and-reproductive-health/health-risks-of-female-genital-mutilation.
Preston, Keith. “The Land of No Men: Inside Kenya’s Women-Only Village.” Attack the System, 10 Aug. 2017, attackthesystem.com/2017/08/09/the-land-of-no-men-inside-kenyas-women-only-village/.
“REBECCA LOLOSOLI: Kenya” Vital Voices, www.vitalvoices.org/people/rebecca-lolosoli/.
Staff, Broadly. “The Land of No Men: Inside Kenya’s Women-Only Village.” Vice, 8 Sept. 2015, www.vice.com/en_us/article/qvdeq5/the-land-of-no-men-inside-kenyas-women-only-village.
“The Samburu Tribe of Kenya and East Africa.” The Samburu Tribe – Samburu People And Culture – Kenya Travel Guide, www.siyabona.com/samburu-tribe-kenya-culture.html.