Umoja is the Kenyan word for “unity,” but for battered and abused women it can also mean a sanctuary. The village of Umoja, located about 240 miles from the country’s capital, is a female-only town that takes in women who want to escape their abusive patriarchal tribes.
Umoja was founded by Rebecca Lolosoli, who was originally a member of the Samburu tribe. Growing up in her village, she noticed a number of downright sexist practices. Lolosoli spoke out against them, and was intensely disliked by the male leadership because of it.
Lolosoli is quick to defend her own husband as being a good man, but blames the misogynistic culture of the village for all the violence:
My own husband was not bad. We married when I was 18, and he paid a dowry of 17 cows. But four men in the village didn’t like me because I started selling goods, and they beat me up and took my money. Then I started talking about helping the rape victims and the next time my husband left on business, the men beat me severely. I left the hospital and my parents said I should rejoin my husband. He said nothing about what the men had done, and so I realized I could be killed, so I left,” Lolosoli says.
In 1990, Lolosoli departed her village with 16 survivors — many of whom had been assaulted — and set up a camp in a barren grasslands. The woman took up craft-making to support themselves, and the town eventually became a tourist attraction, bringing in more revenue still.
It wasn’t an easy road, however. When the breakaway “female-only” village first started attaining some financial success, men from the traditional villages attempted to blockade the road and prevent tourists from spending their money there. At least on one occasion, the men also came and attacked the women, in an attempt to make the village appear dangerous and corrupt.
The residents of Umoja eventually saved up enough money to buy the land their encampment sat on, which stopped a great deal of the abuse. Many political and cultural challenges remain, however:
“The Samburu are a patriarchal society where women are bunched together with children,” Lolosoli explains, “They do not have the right to make decisions or own property. Even men who went to school and some political are fighting us on this but we are soldiering to reverse this. Our area Member of Parliament could not believe we have a website and was really infuriated how advanced we are!”
Umoja now has a sickness and disability fund, a community center, and a school. While men are not permitted to live in the village, they may visit as long as they behave.