A Place Where Women Rule
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.
Sebastian Lesinik, the chief of the male village, also laughed, describing the clear division he saw between men and women. "The man is the head," he said. "The lady is the neck. A man cannot take, let's call it advice, from his neck."