But growing up in a deeply patriarchal society, where women were not allowed to own land or livestock, were considered property of their husbands, and had to deal with archaic cultural practices such as child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), and rape-victim-shaming, Rebecca had more than a few obstacles in her path.
After she got married (with a dowry of 17 cows), Rebecca Lolosoli decided to push the envelope by setting up her own small business in the village. When she began spending her own money, she pushed it a little further. But when she spoke out on behalf of a group of women who were raped by British soldiers— and who were subsequently kicked out of their homes for tarnishing their family reputations— she pushed it too far. While her husband was away, four men from the community robbed her, beat her, and gave her the message that women in her village do not have rights. When her husband’s only act of comfort was a mere shrug, Rebecca decided to roll with the punches and declare “time’s up.” She packed her things, banded together with a dozen other female survivors of assault and founded Umoja Village.
Umoja— which means “unity” in the Swahili language— is more than a metaphorical MeToo movement. It’s a sanctuary for Samburu women who are fed up with suffering at the hands of men and are ready to call their own shots as mothers, as businesswomen, and as human beings. Since 1990, Umoja village has developed into an economically self-sufficient community where the women earn income by making and selling traditional Samburu crafts to tourists in the community, as well as via their own website
. They also run a camping site on their land along the nearby Samburu National Reserve, and ten percent of their earnings are contributed to the village as a tax to support a fully operational primary school, a clinic, and even a cultural center.
More than a group of man-hating feminazis
, Umoja is a she-village utopia where women are taking charge of their own lives, relationships, economy, and education. All are of equal status and gather under the “tree of speech” to make decisions and feel heard— proving they can do more than run businesses. They can govern, educate, and create future generations who respect one another as human beings, too.
They are also changing the way families and communities outside Umoja treat women by going to other villages promoting women’s rights, and campaigning against early marriage and FGM.
While plenty of men are frothing over Rebecca’s success (including her husband
), others are getting on board. More and more villages learning about Umoja are beginning to reject traditional systems, deciding for themselves which traditions to keep and which to scrap. In a culture where men have been the sole providers and decision makers, families are now beginning to share the labor, property, and duties equally.
In the past decade, Rebecca was invited to attend a UN conference on gender issues, and was awarded the Global Leadership Award from Vital Voices
— because gender-based violence is far from just an African problem. While women in the US are still waiting for the government to pass the Equal Rights Amendment of the constitution (that’s right, it’s 2019 and women STILL don’t have equal protection under the law
) Umoja is an example of how a big dream, a little envelope pushing, and a tribe of women can change the world, and live happily ever after.
Four ways to support the Umoja sisterhood:
2. Give a shout out
Umoja on Instagram
the video below: