Monday, March 21, 2011

Umoja Village

Umoja Village
 Umoja Village

Location: Umoja, Kenya

Founded: Around 1995

Closed: Unable to find evidence it actually closed, but if Umoja Village still exists, it's under constant siege and critically endangered. UPDATE: As of April 2012, it still exists.

I find the story behind Umoja particularly fascinating. Rather than do a write up myself, I am including an excerpt from a 2005 Washington Post article:

A Place Where Women Rule
All-Female Village in Kenya Is a Sign Of Burgeoning Feminism Across Africa

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 9, 2005

UMOJA, Kenya -- Seated cross-legged on tan sisal mats in the shade, Rebecca Lolosoli, matriarch of a village for women only, took the hand of a frightened 13-year-old girl. The child was expected to wed a man nearly three times her age, and Lolosoli told her she didn't have to.

The man was Lolosoli's brother, but that didn't matter. This is a patch of Africa where women rule.

"You are a small girl. He is an old man," said Lolosoli, who gives haven to young girls running from forced marriages. "Women don't have to put up with this nonsense anymore."

Ten years ago, a group of women established the village of Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, on an unwanted field of dry grasslands. The women said they had been raped and, as a result, abandoned by their husbands, who claimed they had shamed their community.

Stung by the treatment, Lolosoli, a charismatic and self-assured woman with a crown of puffy dark hair, decided no men would be allowed to live in their circular village of mud-and-dung huts.

In an act of spite, the men of her tribe started their own village across the way, often monitoring activities in Umoja and spying on their female counterparts.

What started as a group of homeless women looking for a place of their own became a successful and happy village. About three dozen women live here and run a cultural center and camping site for tourists visiting the adjacent Samburu National Reserve. Umoja has flourished, eventually attracting so many women seeking help that they even hired men to haul firewood, traditionally women's work.

The men in the rival village also attempted to build a tourist and cultural center, but were not very successful.

But the women felt empowered with the revenue from the camping site and their cultural center, where they sell crafts. They were able to send their children to school for the first time, eat well and reject male demands for their daughters' circumcision and marriage.

They became so respected that troubled women, some beaten, some trying to get divorced, started showing up in this little village in northern Kenya. Lolosoli was even invited by the United Nations to attend a recent world conference on gender empowerment in New York.

"That's when the very ugly jealous behaviors started," Lolosoli said, adding that her life was threatened by local men right before her trip to New York. "They just said, frankly, that they wanted to kill me," Lolosoli said, laughing because she thought the idea sounded overly dramatic.

But the problems didn't end there.

In August 2009, the Vital Voices Blog reported that Rebecca Lolosoli had been threatened and beaten by her estranged husband earlier that week.

Having learned about Umoja’s income, Rebecca’s estranged husband and another family member traveled to Umoja allegedly armed with a gun and confronted her on August 18. They were demanding access to the village's land and money. Although she was assaulted by her estranged husband, she was able to prevent him from gaining access to the village funds and was ultimately able to escape and flee the region. A majority of Umoja's women residents also fled, waiting for security to improve. Not surprisingly, the local police chief in Archer's Post, Kenya refused to provide police intervention. Nor did the area police chief in the town of Maralal.

The court did finally grant Rebecca an injunction that prohibited her estranged husband from entering Umoja village. Law enforcement supposedly informed Rebecca’s husband, who had not been charged with any crimes, that he could not enter Umoja. It was also stated that officials were "planning" to visit the Umoja village to reassure residents that measures are being taken to protect the community. Not surprisingly, Rebecca remained reluctant to return.

UPDATE: See here for more information on Umoja Village as April 2012.

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