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Cinnamon Carter

Where Women Rule and Men are Banned

Umoja Village, Samburu County, Kenya
Where Women Rule and Men are Banned

Rosalina Learpoora has always been surrounded by women. At age 18, she lives in an all-women village in northern Kenya, where she spends her evenings doing homework, fetching firewood or beading colorful jewelry. Learpoora has called Umoja home since she was 3. There, a group of 48 women live with their children in huts protected by thorny brush to keep away intruders. When a man trespasses, they notify the local police, who either issue a warning or arrest the culprit -- depending on the number of offenses.

The village was started in 1990 by 15 women who became stigmatized in their communities after they were raped by British soldiers from a base at nearby Archer's Post, a trading center bordering Samburu and Isiolo. Some of the rape survivors say their husbands accused them of bringing dishonor to their families and kicked them out. They found a piece of land, moved there and named it Umoja -- Swahili for unity.

It has since grown into a refuge, welcoming women escaping abusive marriages, female genital mutilation, rape and other forms of assault. Even some women whose husbands died have found solace and a home there.

Learpoora never met her father - she was told he died when she was 3. Terrified that her extended family would force her to undergo female genital mutilation, her mother strapped her to her back and fled to Umoja, where they've lived as part of the sisterhood for 15 years.

The women of Umoja are all of the Samburu culture, an extremely patriarchal society that practices female genital mutilation and believes in polygamy. Umoja women span generations, with the oldest resident at the village aged 98 and the youngest six months old. Women of all ages flee there, some with newborn babies in tow. When the boys who live there with their mothers reach 18, they have to move out of the village, Learpoora says.

At the village, traditional Samburu huts known as manyattas dot the landscape. The sounds of cackling chicken and giggling children fill the air. Like the other women in the village, Learpoora lives with her mother in a small manyatta made of wood, twigs and cow dung. Inside, the only light is from the glowing embers of a fire anchored by three large rocks. In the evening, the tiny, modular structures are full of life, with chattering women sitting around the fire to talk about their day as beans and corn simmer in large pots. "I grew up surrounded by so many women," Learpoora says. "It's like having different mothers all around you."

Outside the huts, women sit on mats to watch children play. Sometimes, they sing and dance to traditional Samburu songs, their brightly colored ornaments and wraps moving with the beat. Other times, they quietly make the round beaded necklaces that are a trademark among Samburu women, which they sell to make money for the community. "Once they sell the necklaces, they give the money to the village's matriarch, who then allocates the amount for food to each family based on the number of children per homestead," Learpoora says. "Some of that money is also set aside to go toward education, especially for the young girls."

In addition to selling jewelry, the women get income by operating a campsite for tourists going on safari to the nearby Samburu National Reserve. They also receive donations from well-wishers worldwide who've read about the village.

In a culture that does not believe in educating women, Learpoora is one of the village's role models. She's in the 11th grade at a nearby high school, and hopes to become a teacher. "If I had not come here, I don't know what my life would be," she says. "I probably would have undergone female genital mutilation and gotten married off as a second or third wife to an older man. These women raised me, allowed me to have an education and defied all those traditions."

Under Samburu culture, young women are forced to marry older men as second or third wives in exchange for a dowry, which is paid to their parents. "Wife inheritance and polygamy are culturally accepted practices and the society is patriarchal, hence women have no say and are less empowered," the Kenyan government's National Aids Control Council says. Under the Samburu culture, it's not unusual to see girls "as young as 9 or 10" getting pregnant, it says.

While times are changing and some of those practices are slowly dying out, Samburu remains one of Kenya's most patriarchal and traditional cultures, which makes the village more of an anomaly. Learpoora says when she grows up she wants to be a teacher and help women fight back against that mindset. I want to teach girls that education is important. I want them to know that you don't have to undergo FGM. Just because it's tradition does not mean that it is the way it should be," she says.

She says growing up at Umoja allowed her to thrive without the threat of female genital mutilation and forced marriages. And she wants to play a role in ensuring other girls get an education, giving them the power of choice. At least 73% of the Samburu community is illiterate, a majority of them girls, the NACC says.

Learpoora attends a mixed high school, where she says she's learning to interact with young men. She wants to get married in the future, she says. "But her future husband will have to meet her many mothers and promise them he will not be abusive," chimes in Jane Lengope, 45, one of the women of Umoja. Learpoora's mother was out of town and unavailable.

While the village has empowered some women in the community, it also has its critics. Some of the residents in nearby communities describe the women as too radical and capitalistic. Lawas Lemoro, 25, says he does not believe the women live in a single-sex society. "They sneak off in the middle of the night to meet men or bring them into the village," he says. "Either that or they're using the story as a way to make money."

When asked whether men come into the village, Learpoora and the women say no. The only men who try to come are husbands looking for their wives, she says, and they're promptly kicked out.

Some say a more comprehensive solution is needed. Faith Mwangi-Powell, global director of The Girl Generation in Nairobi, says while she applauds the women for becoming champions of change, their approach does not address the issue in the broader community. "I think the women are very brave and we need more brave women and that's the only way FGM will end -- so the Umoja village must be congratulated," she says. "But we need to figure out how this change can cascade to the entire community so that the girls growing up in the village remain safe when they leave the village."

Mwangi-Powell says without a comprehensive change, the village only provides a temporary relief. "What happens to them when they go back to those communities? Do they prepare those girls for the outside world? We have seen girls rescued from FGM at an early age and when they get married [in] to communities that practice FGM, they are forced to undergo FGM and this then counteracts that rescue and protection," she says.

"Change needs to be holistic where there is total abandonment across communities through social change so that everyone is safe regardless of where they are."

The As Equals reporting project is funded by the European Journalism Center via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program. 

By Faith Karimi, CNN, February 2019
Cinnamon Carter

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