Due to traditions of strict patriarchy that spanned over five centuries, women living in the Samburu region of northern Kenya were expected to be submissive and obedient to their husbands, even in the face of female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence, and forced child marriages. They were treated as property and granted no way to support themselves besides marriage.
That all changed 25 years ago, when Village Chairwoman Rebecca Lolosoli founded what is now one of the world’s most successful matriarchies.
Vice Video recently aired a 10-minute Broadly documentary episode that offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the women running their own successful society, completely free from the influence of men. The women build and maintain their own houses, earn their own incomes, and educate not only their children, but children from the neighboring villages as well.
When asked to speak about what motivated her to break so drastically from the traditional culture in which she was raised, Ms. Lolosoli shares her own story with Broadly’s journalist. She says that she has long been a women’s rights advocate, and that in the past she used her voice to denounce the rapes of Samburu women committed by British soldiers in the region.
Angered by the outspokenness of a woman, some men from Ms. Lolosoli’s village ambushed and beat her so severely that she had to be hospitalized. When Ms. Lolosoli’s own husband did not protest the beating of his wife, she left him.
Ms. Lolosoli explains, “[The] Samburu woman has no rights – if husband wants to kill you, he has right to kill you any time. Because you are like a property.”
This was the centuries-old tradition that Ms. Lolosoli set out to change.
Now, 25 years later, Broadly states, “People come from all over to see how the Land of No Men (another name for Umoja, which literally translates to ‘unity’) thrives.” The community seems, in a word, idyllic: the women have taken control of their own government and are free from the violence that plagued them at the hands of abusive men. While they still have boyfriends and still may raise children in their community, their sons are only permitted to stay if they follow rules and “don’t try to dominate women.” The women create stunning traditional jewelry and sell it to tourists and travelers so as to support themselves.
This is not to say that there haven’t been challenges for the residents of Umoja. Samburu men have accused Ms. Lolosoli of ruining their culture and tradition, ignoring the fact that these very same traditions have been the source of oppression and misery for the women who were mutilated, married to men when they were as young as 12-years-old, and treated as objects. They have attacked the women as they sold jewelry, and have even stolen their earnings. Angry husbands continue to come to the village demanding their wives in such frequency that the women now stay up all night in shifts to watch out for these violent intruders.
Yet even in the face of such challenges, Umoja stands out as exactly what it was intended to be: a safe haven for women. The matriarchal society has gained world recognition, and even celebrities such as Hillary Clinton have gotten to know Ms. Lolosoli because of their respect for the incredible community she has built and maintained.
While a women’s-only community is a drastic response, it seems that in this case, drastic responses are what is required in order to upheave centuries of oppression. The courage of Ms. Lolosoli and the rest of the women of Umoja will not only improve the women’s current realities, but the futures of generations to come. No woman should be subjected to the conditions in which Samburu women were living, and thanks to these pioneers, maybe in the future no woman will have to.
To learn more about Umoja, watch Vice’s documentary here.
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