So we made it to Umoja. This is a women’s town–one of the only ones here in Kenya, started by women of the Samburu tribe. So they established this town almost thirty years ago after experiencing abuse and being fed up of a lifestyle that they disagreed with.
“This village is now a shelter where women can run during their problems. Violence, early pregnancy, early marriages…they all run here. A girl in the Samburu community has no rights. We started Umoja in 1990. We have been having women dying, children dying. These women also have been kicked out of their homes, and they are jobless, and their parents, their relatives, don’t want them back. I told the government that we need help, but nothing has been done. And then after, the women decided to come to me and ask me “What do you think we can do? Help us if you know.” I said because the government is not replying, can we start coming together as women, then we can see what we can do for ourselves. Can we try and make our jewelry? When the tourists see, they stop and they want to buy, so people started selling on the way.
“It was not easy because the men, they came and beat the women and they made the tourists run away. They beat and they take away the money, so it was a big problem. So we decided okay, what can we do now? Because if they are coming and raping you when you are alone, and they come and beat you, we better come again and we make our village, so that if somebody comes, then we can protect each other. Then we said, oh okay, that’s also a good idea, and we said where can we put the village? We were looking at this tree here. We better take this place here. That time our houses were here. They were small houses, you can’t even go in. And we didn’t have food, we weren’t strong enough to go and cut materials. We were only 15 women, because it was an unusual village, so women were afraid, they were scared to join us.
When you came to start the village, had anybody done that before? Where women had just said, you know what? We want to protect ourselves, we want our independence.
“No. This village is not only for Samburu women, we are saying it’s for all women. Black and white, if somebody wants to kill anybody here, we are all women and these are our children, we will protect you until you go back to your place. We have never been weak, we are always getting stronger. We try to empower them to do small businesses, we train here and we make them train people in the area where they live, so that this thing can grow very fast. Before we didn’t have money, but nowadays when we get our money, from our jewelry or for entry, we use it for our school, our children, our women.”
And this is giving a lot of empowerment to women even outside of Samburu culture, even for us, when we hear about it. Women in the Middle East, they struggle with the same fights for the same rights that you guys fight for. So when did you learn to speak English?
“Just from that time, the way I am taking people around. After I started going to attend the many conferences of women’s rights, then some women also started coming to join us. Until we became a big number like 48 women. When we are here, I think that’s what we are doing, fighting for our rights, and we have refused to go out of this place.
“That’s our school there.”
“Yeah. We are saying education for all, girls and boys, because if we don’t educate the boys, then we can’t win our rights. So let us educate both of them, so that they can understand the rights of the women.”
Can men ever live in Umoja?
“Here is where women rule. They cannot come and rule us here. If they want to go to be married, they can go because we can’t stop them from having their life. We don’t have men living in Umoja, but we have our sons. When they get a job, they can leave, live in town. The sons come and visit their mothers and go. We love them because they protect us. We raised them up well, with that knowledge of respecting the rights of the women.
It’s beautiful that you’re doing this. 30 years later, it’s so strong now. The sons protect you now?
They live with your values.
“Yes. We don’t have a good fence, but still we feel safe.”