Recently, I came across a social media campaign using ‘#KAM2021’. The idea behind the hashtag? Getting rid of all men would make the world a better place. Personally, I believe men are potential comrades for the feminist cause, and I don’t think getting rid of men is the answer to gender inequality and violence against women. But I wonder what it’d be like, would women suddenly (finally) sprout wings and become true earth angels? In all seriousness, it’s hard to even conceptualize a society without men- especially in a country founded on white male dominance. In some corners of the world though, matriarchal societies do flourish. Let’s talk about the women behind the political, economic, and social structure of their community in Umoja, Kenya.
In the desert under Mt. Kenya, the matriarchal community, Umoja, thrives in the absence of men. Named after the Swahili word for ‘unity’, Umoja is home to as many as 60 women at a time, but is open to all women seeking refuge from violence. Many of the village women are survivors of rape, genital mutilation, child marriage, and abuse. While men are not allowed in the village, the women are still having children. It’s said that some women will meet men outside the village to fulfill their sexual needs, on their own terms. There are around 200 children there at a time, including boys, who are expected to leave by the time they reach the age of 18. The village is secluded but not isolated. Women travel to markets to buy some basic food items as well as other goods, while also learning practical skills within the community like farming and harvesting livestock. The women also make jewelry to sell to visiting tourists as a side hustle. The women that come and live in the village are able to earn a regular income within the village as well as provided with clothes, food and shelter.
Kenyan societies, like many of today’s societies, are male dominated. Men are considered to be the head of the household as well as authority figures in society. This social structure, like our own, enforcing violence against women. According to the 2014 Demographic and Health survey issued by the Kenyan government, 45% of Kenyan women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence. It is common for women to be abused or raped by their husband which often leads to tension and sometimes the women end up being shunned from their communities completely.
For decades in the 20th century, it was common for British soldiers to conduct military operations in Kenyan villages. In one of many instances, soldiers were placed in a village and raped 14 village women as they passed through. These women were ostracized for their traumatic experience, and because they were seen as unworthy wives, they were banned from the community. A Samburu woman by the name of Rebecca Lolosoli, took it upon herself to educate these women on their rights and their worth. For this, she was brutally attacked by some of the men in her village. This event prompted Lolosoli to flee her village, leaving her husband and taking the 14 women with her to start anew. With this, Umoja was born. Umoja has served for decades as a safe place for Kenyan women to lead fulfilling lives and create meaningful relationships, and for decades, it’s worked.