Umoja village: Rebecca Lolosoli and the fight for gender equity in Kenya
If you have not listened to it yet, the latest Those African Chicks podcast featuring Kaz Lucas is dope AF! Kaz is a Kenyan artist who hosts a sex positive podcast called The Spread, which is about making sex a comfortable topic for African women, given the cultural confines that shadow us on this topic. Her chat with Wummy covered a range of topics but the one that hit home for me the most was on consent. While the conversation with Kaz was about individual encounters, I want to extend this topic to attitudes to consent in African culture and more broadly, gender based violence and sexual harassment.
Gender based violence is a huge issue in African culture and African women, especially on the continent, are stuck in a power dynamic with society that dictates their lives and choices. Issues like child marriages, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, amongst other things are still very prevalent across the continent.
I could have a lot to say in this topic, but I want to introduce you to Rebecca Lolosoli, a charismatic and courageous Kenyan woman who has been on the forefront of fighting these issues for Samburu women in Kenya since 1990. She is the founder of an all-female matriarch village in Kenya, named “Umoja,” meaning Unity in Swahili that is a sanctuary for homeless survivors of gender based violence. She herself is a gender based violence survivor, and the idea for the village came to her while she was recovering from a beating by a group of men for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights.
The original Umoja village inhabitants were a group of 16 rape survivors, denounced and outcast by their families. The village has since grown to support up to 50 women and girls abandoned by their families, or were fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage or female genital mutilation (FGM). Rebecca saw the need to gather these women together and work collectively to find strategies for survival, and to begin to change the way families and communities in Samburu treat women.
The Umoja village is an economically self-sufficient community, where inhabitants earn a regular income that provides food, clothing and shelter for all in various ways. Residents of Umoja are engaged in traditional Samburu craftwork, some insane beadwork, that they sell at the Umoja Waso Women's Cultural Center.They also hosts tourists at a campsite and in their village. While the women started out on donated government land, they now own the land and have even built a school on it for their children. The women also go to other villages to promote women’s rights in order to campaign against FGM.
My favorite part about this village though is that, while men are not allowed to live in Umoja, the women are free to date and have relationship. I am like GET IT ladies! Two big points stand out to me about this piece on Umoja life.
Firstly, I am utterly floored by how the Umoja village shows that once you remove the slut- shaming and economic dependence on men, women can actually survive and thrive outside of traditional societal norms. I relate to this because of how some men still try to impress me with their education and money and I am like let’s try this again, what exactly are you about??! It is of course a state of mind I had to mature to, but I am a highly educated and accomplished woman, I have a whole tribe of girlfriends who support me emotionally so I always maintain I do not need a man, but as a heterosexual woman, I want one!
Secondly it is worth noting that the Umoja village children by all accounts are happy and well taken care of, which confronts the idea that the traditional family unit, of a mother, father and children is the only structure in which children thrive. This is a global debate about children of same sex parents and single parenting, and you cannot even start most Africans on the issue of gay rights. I strongly contend that a child thrives where there is love and support, no matter who is giving that love and besides, there are plenty of messed up kids from traditional family units anyway.
The existence of the Umoja village is an example of what I aspire my beloved African culture to evolve to, in how women are viewed. I know y'all thought Wonder Woman was a great movie, but these are real life wonder women, doing the damn thing and showing us all how it is done! I am here for all of this!
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Images from - Sante Fe Int'l Folks & 959Samburu