Umoja is literally a no man’s land in Kenya – a matriarchal refuge where men are not allowed. The village, founded 25 years ago by Rebecca Lolosoli, is meant to be a safe haven for women and girls who want to escape abuse in the otherwise patriarchal society of the Samburu people, in northern Kenya.
Rebecca, a member of the Samburu tribe, now serves as the chief matriarch of ‘Umoja Usau Women’s Village’. Having witnessed occasional violence as a child, she slowly came to the conclusion that some of the traditional Samburu practices were inherently abusive towards women. So she began to speak out against these practices, in favour of widows, orphans, and victims of rape, female genital cutting, and forced marriage.
Rebecca’s outspoken attitude was met with a lot of resistance. Things got out of hand when she spoke up for a few women who were raped by British soldiers training nearby. Men in her village beat her up, and her husband did not protest on her behalf. So in 1990, she led a female exodus and started her own village.
“For more than 50 years, British soldiers trained in our area,” she told Satya Magazine. “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. The men made their wives leave, taking the children with them. Then they had nothing and many would resort to brewing changaa (an alcoholic drink) to earn money, but it is illegal to sell this, and the women were jailed, leaving their children without caregivers and some were eaten by hyenas.”
“My own husband was not bad,” she added. “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.”