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Umoja Means "Unity"

Updated: Mar 9, 2019

- By Nikki Wertz, Staff Writer -

I’d rather be telling you of the wonderful all-female village of Umoja from the Umoja itself. Instead I’m writing about it from my dorm room. With the many things (both good and bad) that have been happening in our country in the recent year, I yearn to take a pilgrimage in search of life and knowledge in their rawest form. No commentator, no propaganda. On this pilgrimage, I need to stop in the village of Umoja, an all-female village, located in the Samburu district of northern Kenya.

Umoja was established by a group of Samburu women, including its chief and matriarch, Rebecca Lolosoli, in 1990 in response to local British soldiers raping more than a thousand women in the area. Under the patriarchal Samburu tribe, women who are victims of rape are often beaten by their husbands for “dishonoring” the family and, along with their children, were often thrown out of their homes. More than two decades later, the Samburu tribe has changed little in regards to the culture’s treatment of its women. The patriarchy is known for its practice of female genital mutilation for centuries. Once a girl has undergone circumcision, she is seen as marriageable. As a result, girls as young as twelve are being married off to men more than twice their age. Because Samburu men pay a dowry to his potential wife’s family, a wife is seen as property of her husband. Samburu wives are sometimes abused and/or sold by her husband. In fact, it likely a Samburu man will not be punished for the killing of one or more of his wives if he has paid the dowry of livestock.

Umoja has understandably become a refuge for abused women seeking to escape the Samburu patriarchy for a better life for them and their children. Google Umoja now and you’d likely see beautiful dark-skinned women in brightly colored clothes and beads or a collection of huts surrounded by grassland. Some of you may even question the idea of a refuge in Africa. According to its residents, life is good in Umoja. The women are allowed to work and care for their families in peace. A regular day involves tending to livestock, caring for children, and making jewelry that will be sold to tourists travelling to and from the Samburu National Park. Children also attend the small school, which was funded with ten percent of each woman’s earnings.

What I admire most is the extent at which these women go in protecting one another. They live by the no-men rule, attacking a majority of men with sticks with the exception of lovers, male workers, and a few unconventionally accepting husbands. Experience has taught them to expect one or more men to potentially enact some punishment on a single member or the entire community. As a result, the women are constantly on alert. All the women often gather beneath the “Tree of Speech” for important decisions to be made and opinions to be heard.

It is this admiration for Umoja that has made me reevaluate Meredith. Don’t misunderstand me–I love attending Meredith College and I support its mission to empower women via education, but I notice that unity is only made important when Corn is on the horizon and people are needed to fill teams. Meredith College has a number of services and traditions that can encourage unity among its students on a daily basis. I don’t understand how a series of competitions, in which classes compete against one another, inspires unity.

I’m not saying life in Umoja is perfect. No place is perfect. Due to the Samburu district being so distant from major cities, the village is incapable of accessing educational, health, and business institutions that could better their livelihood. In addition to lack of access to major institutions, there is also no access to water during the lengthy drought period of the district. The lack water has a tremendous effect on the village’s livestock, which is used as currency, as well as the villagers’ health.

Why do I want Umoja to be one of my stops on my pilgrimage? I’ve always thought a matriarchy was a more civilized system in my opinion. I hope that Umoja will serve as a confirmation of the system’s positive results. I desperately want to see these women survive and thrive. I want people to come out to Umoja and help these women continue the mission, the dream of togetherness and unification.

Umoja–similar to Meredith College–uses unity and strong to educate women on female empowerment. These women have inspired other matriarchal villages to spring up nearby. These women are basking themselves in that unity, even the village’s name–Umoja–means unity. Is Meredith truly embodying that unity or is it just a promotional word?


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