UMOJA - In a wooden hut in Archer’s Post, a small settlement in Kenya, three men of the Samburu tribe are drinking tea. The eldest is wrapped in a red-and-white checked cloth; the other two wear shirts and jeans. Nothing much going on, so they are happy to talk.
Question: Why should only men have rights? “Because it’s our tradition. Women are like children; they need to be trained. When they’re untrained, you have to beat them to discipline them.”
There are women who rule entire countries. Are they also children? “These women all have husbands who tell them what to do.” What if a woman beats a man? “Then you have to kill her. If I don’t have my stick, I’ll use my knife.“
Less than two kilometers from here is Umoja, a village of only women. If you want an idea of what it cost the women to build their own separate world, and why they are so happy with the hard lives they live there, you only have to sit down and listen to the kinds of things Wilson, Barasi and Douglas, in the year 2012, say as they drink tea at Archer’s Post.
Surviving in Kenya’s semi-desert is an art in itself. Every dry bush that has managed to take root shields itself with thorns. Scorpions and snakes are armed with poison. Crocodiles lurk in the brown waters of the Ewaso River. Not far from the river, surrounded by barbed wire, is the protected area where 48 women live with their children in manyata huts built of branches, mud and cow dung.
Only two buildings are made of stone-- the school, for women and children from Umoja and the surrounding area, and a small museum where tourists can learn about Samburu history. It is hot and windy in the village. The only living creature that looks as if it is in a hurry is a scrawny hen pecking busily about.
The women sit on white plastic bags in small groups, their legs stretched out in front of them, one foot over the other. They cannot do much about the sand that sticks to their skin and their brightly patterned clothes, but they can do something about stray plastic bags, which they diligently collect. Today, as every day, they are making beaded jewelry to sell to tourists. This and a small camp they run down by the river are the only ways they earn their living. The women themselves are covered with jewelry, rings, earrings, head adornments, and layer on layer of necklaces.
An idea, a chief
The only woman sitting on a stool is Rebecca Lolosoli, the village head. She has the look of a leader, perhaps inherited from her father, a much-respected Samburu tribal chief. Her cell phone rings. She reaches under her beaded jewelry for the Nokia, answers the call and takes a booking for the camp.
Lolosoli had the idea of founding a village for women 22 years ago, when she was in the hospital, recovering from a beating by a group of men. They were angry that Lolosoli was always gathering the women around her, that she stood up to her husband and father-in-law, and that at village meetings she even dared talk about women’s rights.
Originally nomads, the Samburu have traditionally been led by men, who rule their families, own the land and animals, and eat first. Most of them have more than one wife, and wife-beating is accepted practice.
The British army used to have a training camp near Archer’s Post, and the soldiers there often raped local women. Nagusi Lolemu tells of the time she was down by the river doing her laundry when three men in uniform assaulted her. Hurt, she managed to crawl back to her hut and tell her husband what happened. Instead of tending her wounds, or going after the soldiers, he took a wooden stick and beat her, yelling that she had brought shame on the family, and ordering her to leave.
Umoja means unity. In their own village, Lolosoli and Lolemu decided, women would protect one other, and show each other the respect that men were light-years away from being able to muster. They selected a location near Samburu National Reserve, where they hoped to be able to earn a living from safari tourists, and started building huts.
They recall an intoxicating sense of freedom at doing all the things that had previously been forbidden to them, like slaughtering a goat. The first time they bought an animal at Archer’s Post, some men followed them back, asking what they intended to do with the goat. “Eat it!”
The men were beside themselves, and wanted to see this spectacle of the absurd, the shamelessness and scandal of it, with their own eyes. They watched as the women held the animal down, slit its throat, skinned it and placed it in the fire at the center of the village square. In Samburu tradition, only men are allowed to eat meat. Women get innards only.
“'What are you going to do with our pieces?' the men asked. 'And what pieces might those be? We bought the goat, the meat belongs to us!'" Lolosoli still laughs so hard at this she has to wipe the tears from her eyes. The women now have their own herds of livestock.
A dream man
Until a few years ago, however, men would show up, randomly beating women and stomping their beads into the mud, just to make sure the women understood their place. This has changed now that some of the boys in the village are older, like 15-year-old Benedict, who speaks articulately about equal rights for women. The world now has its eyes on places even as remote as Archer’s Post, and Hillary Clinton’s organization Vital Voices has given Rebecca Lolosoli a Global Leadership Award.
Once they started breaking taboos, the women were up for a few more, and invited experts to talk about education, AIDS, and female circumcision. What a shock it was to learn that what Samburu girls are taught is a proud rite of womanhood is thought of in other parts of Kenya and many countries of the world as genital mutilation!
The women soon took positions against forced marriage, marriage for minors, and forced sex, and in favor of women’s education and the right to own land. They saved 100,000 shillings (around 1,000 euros) to pay for the land their village stands on.
Many women have come to Umoja over the years. They are not necessarily Samburu women; everyone is welcome. Some stay; others leave to marry, although abstinence is not part of the package. Village women are visited by male friends and make no secret of it.
The women of Umoja have nothing against men per se, and have also developed an idea of their dream man who listens and respects their dignity. Such notions have of course spread to other villages, and thousands of women have formed groups. Yes, their husbands beat them for this, and yes, they show up at meetings anyway.
It could be that Wilson, Barasi and Douglas are a dying breed. The energy the women have unleashed is unlikely to be reversed. Especially among the better-educated young, like Tom, one of Lolosoli’s sons, a big man with a powerful bass voice. A computer programmer, he is visiting for the weekend. On his laptop, he shows visitors the home page he has created for Umoja. He refers to Umoja as a successful brand, and his mother’s work as "revolutionary.” Perhaps most importantly, he adds, “My wife expects me to respect her rights.”