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A long time back I had heard about a utopian novel Herland(1915) authored by a feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It was a riveting account of an isolated place inhabited by only women. No male was permitted to enter into their society. Reproduction was by parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). As such there was an ideal social order viz. no war, fights, male domination or domestic violence. I had wondered can there be such a place…
Recently, I came across an article about an all female village called Umoja Uaso, I was stumped and amazed! Again I wondered could there really be a village populated by only women! How could they live, what about their life, livelihood, security etc, etc a number of questions crossed my mind. So I googled and came out with astounding facts. I do know of homes which provide shelter to battered and harassed women but a whole village for the distressed was incredible.
Umoja Uaso is coining of two words – Umoja meaning unity in Swahili and Uaso Nyiro is a river nearby. This matriarch place is located in Samburu County about 380 km from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Rebecca Lolosoli is a fiery feminist. Once she was brutally beaten up for speaking about women’s problem and rights. It was while she was recovering that the bright idea of creating a village for women dawned. Soon a group of fifteen women got together and founded the Umoja Uaso in 1990. It is made up of numerous manyata huts which are built from a combination earth and cow dung on an abandoned site. The houses are well protected and surrounded by wire barbs and thorns.
Initially there were great uproar and dissent from the men folks. They tried to frighten and threaten them. But the women remained stoic. Some men tried to form a rival village nearby but were unsuccessful. The township was open to women who sought refuge from the ill-treatment by their men folk. The women now own the land of their village!
In the beginning the members sold vegetables bought from neighbourhood. But this was not lucrative and so they switched to traditional craft, beads work and non-alcoholic beer, which they sell to tourists. They also have tourists camps for which they make nominal charges.
The Kenya Wildlife Services, Kenya’s Heritage and Social Services and the Ministry of Culture all help them in the promotion of their business. The goods are sold online too. The men put hurdles in the sales of the handicraft goods. They set up rival craft shops and even dissuaded the tourist from purchasing from Umoja women.
All women in Umoja have to wear Samburu traditional dress of attractive skirts and brightly coloured shirts. A vibrant wrap called kanga is tied on their shoulders. Their ornaments comprise of necklaces made of gaudy beads which figure circular pattern around their necks! Such cheerful clothing and jewellery are in contrast to the harsh and dry weather.
Education is mandatory for all children. In their traditional society, they were compelled to care for livestock. Primary and Nursery schools have been opened. The horrifying custom of Female genital mutilation (FGM) is forbidden! In fact, the residents visit villages to educate women against FGM and women’s rights.
The women understand and sympathise with each others’ problems. They have all endured intense painful and unimaginable atrocities. For example, Jane recounts how she was raped by three men in Gurkha uniform. She was tending to her husband’s cattle when these men pounced on her, threw her on the ground and raped her. In such dastardly act, she was injured both physically and mentally. Battered and injured she had narrated this to her husband. Instead of sympathy, he beat her harshly with a stick. She fled with her children and sought asylum at Umoja. Every woman has harrowing experiences to narrate.
The village is a haven for all destitute, orphans, abandoned girls, runaway women, victims of child marriage, rape, HIV and all kinds of suffering women and children. A raped girl or woman is considered defiled and unfit for marriage. A married woman, if raped, is disowned. They are shamed and thrown out of the house. For these women Umoja provides shelter, livelihood and dignity.
The main objective of this community is to counter poverty and raise the standard of living of all its members. All have to donate one-tenth of their income as tax to maintain the schools and other needs.
The women of the community assemble under the “tree of speech” to discuss and make decisions of their village. All members enjoy equal rights and rank. However, Lolosoli is the chairperson of the village.
This is a single –sex society and as such Men are banned to stay here. But those who were raised here as children, are permitted to stay overnight. The women of Umoja despise the atrocities and cruelty of the men. But they feel their life is incomplete without children. Then how do they conceive babies? Of course, not by parthenogenesis, but by the natural process. “Ah,” laughs a young woman, “we still like men. They are not allowed here, but we want babies and women have to have children, even if you are unmarried.” They either meet men in the towns or men come to their huts at night. This is done stealthily!
All in all the women of Umoja are happy. They have ample freedom and economical independence. Their earnings maybe humble but that is sufficient to provide the basic needs of life-food, shelter and clothing. Above all, they are leading a dignified life free from male domination! They are safe and secure. Their abode is filled with smiles and laughter!
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