The Literal No Man’s Land

Nearly 50 million people live in the Eastern African country of Kenya, but there are dozens of ethnic groups within its borders, many of which identify more closely with their ethnicity than with their nation. Among them are the Samburu, about 333,000 people who live primarily in central Kenya. The Samburu still employ a lot of traditional behavior which could accurately be described as barbaric and illiberal — as NBC News reports, “forced early marriage [and] the practice of female genital mutilation” are both common and accepted in many Samburu communities. Women are typically seen as property, not people, and hardly ever as equals.

But the Samburu village of Umoja has different rules. In Umoja, you won’t find any men who claim to be of the superior gender. That’s because you won’t find any men living in Umoja at all.

Located in north-central Kenya (here’s a map), Umoja is about as rural as it gets. And if you visited there about thirty years ago, you would have found nothing more than abandoned grasslands. But in 1990, that began to change. A Samburu woman named Jane Noomungen Lengope was living in a village not too far east of where Umoja is now, caring for her children and the family goats. Per the above-linked NBC News report, British soldiers stationed at the village sexually assaulted Lengope, and when she told her husband about the attack, she found the opposite of support. Per NBC, her victimization was her fault — it “deeply shamed her family.” The stigma of being a victim led to her being “chased from the village [and] she wandered, with her young children, for months, working in gardens, cleaning homes, attending animals, begging to survive.”

At one point shortly thereafter, Lengope met Rebecca Lolosoli, another Samburu woman in a similar situation. Lolosoli, per the Guardian, had recently been “in the hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men when she came up with the idea of a women-only community” — she had been beaten “an attempt[ing] to teach her a lesson for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights.” Lolosoli concluded that the best way to be free from abuse from men was to be free from men entirely — by creating a village of only women.

When Lolosoli came across Lengope and others in similar situations, she had the beginnings of the community she wanted to build. Later in 1990, about fifteen women founded the village now known as Umoja (which means “unity” in Swahili), earning money though crafts and tourism while also trying their hand at farming. Despite efforts from neighboring male-dominated communities to shut Umoja down, the village still exists today.

And it’s thriving. The women of Umoja were able to buy their land from the Kenyan government, thereby protecting their land from claims by others. Per CBS News, “Umoja set up its own school where children receive a free education,” which is of particular note because education is rare in the region and often unheard of for girls. They even have a rudimentary form of social medical insurance; per CBS, the village has an emergency fund, and when one resident’s “2-year-old son fell ill with malaria, that emergency fund meant she could take him to a clinic and buy life-saving medicine.”

As of 2015, per the Guardian, 47 women and their 200 children (boys and girls alike) live in the village. Boys who grew up in the village may remain there into adulthood but men from the outside are only allowed to visit, not stay. And while Umoja’s model is likely not a long-term solution for the inequities of life among the Samburu, it works for those who live there: the women of the village tend to describe their lives as peaceful.

Bonus fact: It wasn’t until 2008 that any nation’s legislative branch had women as the majority of its membership. The first nation to get there? Rwanda.

From the Archives: Swooshed in Translation: Another story about the Samburu.