It’s no coincidence that “My Sister’s Place” is a common name for battered women’s shelters across the United States. The feelings and imagery that such a name conjures – that of community, safety, and understanding – is essential in what’s likely to be the most traumatizing and disruptive moments of a woman’s life. Women have been seeking out the company of our “sisters” for as long as we’ve walked the Earth, both in good times and bad. In Kenya, women have taken this safety in sisterhood ideal a step further, going beyond a women’s shelter, sister-circle, collective, or book club, in the founding of Umoja Uaso, a village where they can flourish.
There are no men allowed in Umoja – which means unity in Swahili – except those who were born there. Founded by a woman named Rebecca Lolosoli, the north Kenyan village provides a safe space for women escaping rape (and the exile that often follows), abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and a myriad of other injustices. Women have been relocating to Umoja for over 20 years for safety, security, and the promise of a new life on their own terms. Without the presence of men, the women share equally in the workload, including a village-run cultural center, camping site, and a gift shop for tourists visiting the nearby Samburu National Reserve which provides financial support.
It’s pretty amazing to think of what these women have been able to accomplish considering the risks involved in fleeing their traditional lives. Whereas their children were once considered the property of their husbands only, where the women and children could not expect an education, and all women were totally dependent on the men in their lives for the most basic of needs, Umoja presented an opportunity to define their family’s future in a self-sufficient and supportive environment. Rose, an Umoja woman, shares how her family’s life has improved since coming to the village:
In a country as rich and advanced as the United States, it’s shameful that women cannot claim to be as self sufficient and confident in our future as Rose and fellow village-women. Despite great strides in degree attainment and climbing the corporate ladder, we are not yet in control of our wealth and resources. Just last week we just observed Equal Pay Day, bringing awareness to the fact that U.S. women still make less than their male counterparts for equal work. We are not safe from sexual and domestic abuse as our nation’s leaders are still debating whether to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. And what of our bodies and health? While we don’t have an established cultural practice of genital mutilation to contend with, we are constantly being thrown under the bus in the ongoing “war on women” that has placed contraception, cancer screenings, abortion, and access to affordable health care in jeopardy.
I’d hate to say that we need to go so far as to start our own villages where men are banned. Instead, I’d like to see a society in which men are allies in our quest for self-determination and basic human rights. Still, it’s very uplifting to see this little piece of the world where sisters are truly doing it for themselves in the face of great adversity, pain, and risk. While I fight to get from under the thumb of the sexism and oppressive patriarchy threaded into our American culture, I’ll continue to find my own little Umoja in everything from the empowering words and works of feminist foremothers to the occasional girls’ night out in Brooklyn.