Umoja, named for the Swahili word meaning “unity,” is an exclusively female village in Kenya. Here, women are leaders, homeowners, entrepreneurs, and caregivers. They govern and sustain themselves successfully. They choose their own marriages. They coexist peacefully and teach their children the importance of gender equality.
Though Umoja initially started as an exclusive escape for Rebecca Lolosoli, an activist and her 14 compatriots, the community eventually opened to all survivors of sexual abuse and violence as a place to escape abuse and heal. If and when inhabitants choose to leave, they are empowered, ready to start anew with partners of their choosing.
As such, the community’s population is in constant flux. At times, the village has housed as many as 60 women (and their collective brood of 200 children). Nowadays, the population hovers around 20 women, and their families. They sustain themselves by making intricate beaded jewelry unique to their tribe, which they sell to tourists passing through the village. Umoja’s leaders also enforce a $12 entry fee at the gates of the village, and sleeping accommodations at a nearby campsite are available for a small charge.
As a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind establishment, Umoja relies on the contributions of its frequent visitors to feed its inhabitants, and sustain its growth. In the typical Samburu village, money made by a woman is given to her husband, who controls the family’s purse strings. In Umoja, women keep the money they earn from their business ventures, and learn how to financially support themselves and their families.
Umoja stands in stark contrast to the lived reality of gender for most Kenyan women. All of Kenya’s major ethnic groups have a patriarchal structure where the oldest men within a tribe control politics, arrange marriages, and elevate younger men by awarding them properties, livestock, and women.
Most women are subjected to traditions that undermine their value as people, and, instead, treat them as property. By dominating the land and livestock, men control the flow of money in agriculture-based tribal economies; Kenyan women own just 3% of the country’s land, according to a 2013 study by the Nature Conservancy. Per Samburu customs, women are generally not allowed to own land or inherit it—even as the women themselves are inheritable property.
Umoja is a launching pad for societal change, eschewing and outright reversing Kenya’s more harmful cultural norms. Among the Samburu, female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely viewed as a rite of passage into womanhood for preteen girls; Lolosoli and her cofounders stress the dangers behind this tradition to young girls, encouraging them to denounce this antiquated and misogynist tradition.
Forced marriages are a prominent part of Samburu culture as well, in which young girls—often no older than 13—are betrothed to men who are decades their senior, with goats and cows given in exchange. By contrast, Lolosoli encourages women to find their own husbands and create families built by love rather than dowry trade-offs.
In 2011, Umoja’s success inspired the creation of Unity, a sister village. Half of the women living in Umoja left to establish Unity, in part due to political and ideological differences they had with Lolosoli. Despite those personal incompatibilities, Unity carries forward its predecessor’s tradition of spreading education to women and their children in the hopes that future generations of Samburu will acknowledge and support gender equality. Lolosoli has brought a small-scale enlightenment to the Samburu community, and her message has spread throughout the broader Rift Valley.
Across Kenya, though, the fight for gender equality is still very much in its infancy. Many men continue to push back against the idea of equality between men and women, and Umoja and Unity routinely receive violent threats from men in neighboring tribes. Most of these threats come from abandoned husbands, intent on forcing their wives back into subservience. Others target Lolosoli herself, who as the matriarch of the community is no stranger to death threats.
In Umoja, women are the heads of households, the supportive necks of their community, and the bodies laboring to sustain the village. In Umoja, women are everything.