A Women-Only Village Fenced Off From Kenya's Culture Of Male Violence

The women from Umoja
The women from Umoja
Simone Kosog

UMOJA - In a wooden hut in Archer’s Post, a small settlement in Kenya, three men of the Samburu tribe are drinking tea. The eldest is wrapped in a red-and-white checked cloth; the other two wear shirts and jeans. Nothing much going on, so they are happy to talk.

Question: Why should only men have rights? “Because it’s our tradition. Women are like children; they need to be trained. When they’re untrained, you have to beat them to discipline them.”

There are women who rule entire countries. Are they also children? “These women all have husbands who tell them what to do.” What if a woman beats a man? “Then you have to kill her. If I don’t have my stick, I’ll use my knife.“

Less than two kilometers from here is Umoja, a village of only women. If you want an idea of what it cost the women to build their own separate world, and why they are so happy with the hard lives they live there, you only have to sit down and listen to the kinds of things Wilson, Barasi and Douglas, in the year 2012, say as they drink tea at Archer’s Post.

Surviving in Kenya’s semi-desert is an art in itself. Every dry bush that has managed to take root shields itself with thorns. Scorpions and snakes are armed with poison. Crocodiles lurk in the brown waters of the Ewaso River. Not far from the river, surrounded by barbed wire, is the protected area where 48 women live with their children in manyata huts built of branches, mud and cow dung.

Only two buildings are made of stone-- the school, for women and children from Umoja and the surrounding area, and a small museum where tourists can learn about Samburu history. It is hot and windy in the village. The only living creature that looks as if it is in a hurry is a scrawny hen pecking busily about.

The women sit on white plastic bags in small groups, their legs stretched out in front of them, one foot over the other. They cannot do much about the sand that sticks to their skin and their brightly patterned clothes, but they can do something about stray plastic bags, which they diligently collect. Today, as every day, they are making beaded jewelry to sell to tourists. This and a small camp they run down by the river are the only ways they earn their living. The women themselves are covered with jewelry, rings, earrings, head adornments, and layer on layer of necklaces.

An idea, a chief

The only woman sitting on a stool is Rebecca Lolosoli, the village head. She has the look of a leader, perhaps inherited from her father, a much-respected Samburu tribal chief. Her cell phone rings. She reaches under her beaded jewelry for the Nokia, answers the call and takes a booking for the camp.

Lolosoli had the idea of founding a village for women 22 years ago, when she was in the hospital, recovering from a beating by a group of men. They were angry that Lolosoli was always gathering the women around her, that she stood up to her husband and father-in-law, and that at village meetings she even dared talk about women’s rights.

Originally nomads, the Samburu have traditionally been led by men, who rule their families, own the land and animals, and eat first. Most of them have more than one wife, and wife-beating is accepted practice.

The British army used to have a training camp near Archer’s Post, and the soldiers there often raped local women. Nagusi Lolemu tells of the time she was down by the river doing her laundry when three men in uniform assaulted her. Hurt, she managed to crawl back to her hut and tell her husband what happened. Instead of tending her wounds, or going after the soldiers, he took a wooden stick and beat her, yelling that she had brought shame on the family, and ordering her to leave.

Umoja means unity. In their own village, Lolosoli and Lolemu decided, women would protect one other, and show each other the respect that men were light-years away from being able to muster. They selected a location near Samburu National Reserve, where they hoped to be able to earn a living from safari tourists, and started building huts.

They recall an intoxicating sense of freedom at doing all the things that had previously been forbidden to them, like slaughtering a goat. The first time they bought an animal at Archer’s Post, some men followed them back, asking what they intended to do with the goat. “Eat it!”

The men were beside themselves, and wanted to see this spectacle of the absurd, the shamelessness and scandal of it, with their own eyes. They watched as the women held the animal down, slit its throat, skinned it and placed it in the fire at the center of the village square. In Samburu tradition, only men are allowed to eat meat. Women get innards only.

“"What are you going to do with our pieces?" the men asked. "And what pieces might those be? We bought the goat, the meat belongs to us!"" Lolosoli still laughs so hard at this she has to wipe the tears from her eyes. The women now have their own herds of livestock.

A dream man

Until a few years ago, however, men would show up, randomly beating women and stomping their beads into the mud, just to make sure the women understood their place. This has changed now that some of the boys in the village are older, like 15-year-old Benedict, who speaks articulately about equal rights for women. The world now has its eyes on places even as remote as Archer’s Post, and Hillary Clinton’s organization Vital Voices has given Rebecca Lolosoli a Global Leadership Award.

Once they started breaking taboos, the women were up for a few more, and invited experts to talk about education, AIDS, and female circumcision. What a shock it was to learn that what Samburu girls are taught is a proud rite of womanhood is thought of in other parts of Kenya and many countries of the world as genital mutilation!

The women soon took positions against forced marriage, marriage for minors, and forced sex, and in favor of women’s education and the right to own land. They saved 100,000 shillings (around 1,000 euros) to pay for the land their village stands on.

Many women have come to Umoja over the years. They are not necessarily Samburu women; everyone is welcome. Some stay; others leave to marry, although abstinence is not part of the package. Village women are visited by male friends and make no secret of it.

The women of Umoja have nothing against men per se, and have also developed an idea of their dream man who listens and respects their dignity. Such notions have of course spread to other villages, and thousands of women have formed groups. Yes, their husbands beat them for this, and yes, they show up at meetings anyway.

It could be that Wilson, Barasi and Douglas are a dying breed. The energy the women have unleashed is unlikely to be reversed. Especially among the better-educated young, like Tom, one of Lolosoli’s sons, a big man with a powerful bass voice. A computer programmer, he is visiting for the weekend. On his laptop, he shows visitors the home page he has created for Umoja. He refers to Umoja as a successful brand, and his mother’s work as "revolutionary.” Perhaps most importantly, he adds, “My wife expects me to respect her rights.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!