Storytelling across the Savannah

Escape to Kenya to discover breathtaking vistas, captivating stories, and a powerful human life force where unity, connection, and little "harambee" can overcome any obstacle.

Kenya stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
envelope flap
Motor bike traffic
As the sun begins its daily ascent over the savannah, I’m struggling to keep a creeping panic attack under control while my driver struggles to keep our little car from falling into the world’s largest potholes. We’ve been bouncing along on this rutted dirt road for the past several hours, and we’re only about halfway to
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Sunrise in Kenya savannah
As the sun begins its daily ascent over the savannah, I’m struggling to keep a creeping panic attack under control while my driver struggles to keep our little car from falling into the world’s largest potholes. We’ve been bouncing along on this rutted dirt road for the past several hours, and we’re only about halfway to our destination— a remote village in northern Kenya. As I slowly become aware of my surroundings in the light of day— with nothing but wilderness as far as the eye can see— it’s starting to sink in just how far away from civilization I am.

My spontaneous detour out of Nairobi came after an acquaintance mentioned a women’s-only village that is disrupting the status quo of the Samburu patriarchs. Like a moth to a flame, the next thing I know I’m booking a driver for the eight-hour haul northward in a car whose shocks went out about 30 miles back.

Now, between my stomach turning inside out, my fillings shaking loose, and my overall vulnerability, it occurred to me that I might not have thought this plan through as well as I could have.

To calm my nerves, I ask the driver if we can pull over to stretch our legs and take a few photos.

“Too dangerous to stop, Madam. Roadside bandits will know we are tourists,” he explains nonplussed.

Fantastic. My panic attack ratchets up another few levels.

By late morning we pull up outside a small village at the edge of the earth where a hulky cement block labeled “Umoja” tells us we’ve reach our destination. From an opening in a fence of thorny brush, a few goats and chickens wander out to see what’s up.
Mother and son
“Arrived.” the driver says, abruptly putting the car in park. “I will wait here for you. No men allowed inside.”

I get the feeling he’s slightly annoyed.

Stepping out of the car, my panic attack intensifies further. This place is so remote. So deserted. I’ve never felt so far away from the modern world.

I contemplate heading back to the car, but since I ‘m paying the driver either way— and I burned up most of my shopping budget for this little excursion— I decide I might as well get my money’s worth.

I take a deep breath, walk past the thorny brush fence into the village, and pray my driver isn’t too put off by that “no men allowed” thing to wait for me.

Inside, primitive huts made from cow dung, bamboo, and twigs circle a central courtyard. Other than the sound of birds chirping and a few more goats and chickens scratching around the dusty ground, the place feels completely abandoned. I creep along slowly until the silence is suddenly broken by a group of colorfully clad women emerging from one of the huts. Wrapped in hundreds of beaded necklaces, they greet me with singing and dancing and clapping and undulating until a tall woman wearing a flowing green caftan and a broad smile walks forward.

Rebecca Lolosoli, the founding matriarch, welcomes me to Umoja village with a warm hug and a huge smile. After she agrees to an interview, I follow her to the middle of the village where we squat down on a bamboo mat under the canopy of an acacia tree while the dancing women head back into the hut to string beads.
Boby Duval
As Rebecca and I begin our chat, I suddenly feel my panic attack begin to subside. I may be in the middle of nowhere at the edge of the earth— completely cut off from the outside world— but at least I’m in a friendly place with a very chill woman.

I scribble along in my notebook while Rebecca chronicles her story of founding Umoja village until our interview is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a ringtone coming from underneath her caftan.

They have cell service out here? Wha?

Rebecca fishes out her phone and snaps it open. “Hello?” she asks, followed by a few “mmhmm, mmhmm, mmhmm’s.”

Her face lights up as she covers the mouthpiece and leans in. “It’s Oprah’s people. They're hiring us to do a line of bracelets to support the village. Mind if I take the call?”

“Oprah?” I gasped. “OPRAH-Oprah?”

Rebecca nods.

While Rebecca takes the call, I hunker in on the bamboo mat and gaze up at limbs and leaves of the acacia tree above and relax. Maybe it’s a small world after all.

(Rebecca's Umoja community featured on Oprah Magazine: https://www.oprah.com/omagazine/project-o-bracelet)
Samburu National Reserve in Kenya
Samburu National Reserve
Massai tribesman
Cool Massai dude
River in Kenya
River at sunset
Animal tracks
Curious animal tracks
Wildlife in the Kenyan Savannah
Into the wild
Massai village
Massai village
Hut made out of animal droppings
Dung hut
Kenyan women
Tribe of women
Women from Umoja
Umoja welcoming committee
Umoja housing structures
Umoja campgrounds
Kenyan man fishing
Fishing at the river
Animals grazing
Grazing under the acacia tree
Smartphone
Women at the Umoja village
Umoja Village— a Samburu MeToo Fairytale
Kenyan girl smiling
Once upon a time, in a small Samburu village in northern Kenya, there was a little girl named Rebecca who dreamed of being a successful businesswoman when she grew up. She also dreamed that one day women would have the same rights that men did in order to pull this dream off.... continue reading
Rebecca
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.
Kenyan women of Umoja
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.
Rebecca at Vital Voices conference
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:
1. Buy Umoja jewerly

2. Give a shout out to Rebecca

3. Follow Umoja on Instagram

‍4. Forward the video below:
Kenyan girls singing
Call and Response- a Musical Conversation
Perhaps the most engaging genre of traditional African music is call and response— a succession of two distinct phrases, where the second phrase is a direct reply to the first. More dynamic than a Row, Row, Row Your Boat round, it’s a musical conversation that can never be sung alone. And just one more way to bring people together.
Map of Kenya
Satellite map of Kenya
"YOU STRIKE THE WOMEN, YOU STRIKE THE ROCK."
-AFRICAN PROVERB
World map
Haitian drink
Story, Story
African cave painting
Long before the written word, the printing press, or Snapchat redefined communication, the rich tradition of storytelling was the main mode of transmitting information across the African continent. More than mere entertainment, oral literature helped distinguish different ethnic groups and cultures from one another, and taught children the manners, customs, and attitudes central to their societies... continue reading
Much like fables and fairy tales in other parts of the world, Kenyan stories contained morals that passed on the ethics and values of the people. Their spiritual sustenance also helped Kenyans maintain perseverance during the country’s struggle for independence.

Today, storytelling remains a living tradition that continues to evolve and flourish— a respite for neighbors to gather, escape the daily grind, and travel to the outer reaches of the storyteller’s imagination.

When the storyteller asks: “Story, Story?”

The audience replies: “Stooorrryyyyy!”

And the adventure begins.
Watch Kenyan storyteller Chang'aa Mweti:
Listen to a modern-day Kenyan folktale at “Story-Story, Story Come; reimagined folktales from Africa”:
Moth Radio
Like a Moth to a Flame
Much like our African cousins, there was a time when Americans relied on storytelling as a great way to pass the time with friends. While modern America’s fast-paced-YouTube-force-feeding-social-media-attention-sucking world may be fighting for every nanosecond of our time-passing consciousness, one place still promoting the art of storytelling is the Moth.

A digital collection of recorded stories— performed live and without notes by people all over the world— the Moth blends documentary and theater, creating a unique and often enlightening experience for the audience.

Since its launch in 1997, the Moth has presented over 30,000 stories to live audiences happy to slow down and celebrate the human experience. Moth Radio Hour is heard on over 480 radio stations worldwide.

To check out a few Moth stories, go to The Moth website.
Kenyan kids
Adorable kids
Farmlands
Crops
Small store in Kenya
Beauty business
Butcher shop in Kenya
Local butcher
Women making dolls
Doll makers
Mosque in Kenya
Mosque
Grasslands in Kenya
Rural Kenya
Kenyan plants
Kenyan Flora
Women crafters
Women's Crafting Consortium founders
Man weaving rugs
Rug weaver
Kids going to school
Off to school
Smartphone
Baobab tree with elephant underneath
The Giving Tree
Kites flying
The baobab– also known as the ‘Tree of Life’ across the Savannah– are the iconic green giants that have nurtured African ecosystems for millennia. Their massive trunks– up to 150 feet in circumference and holding nearly 2,000 gallons of water– are an invaluable resource when the rains fail and the rivers dry.... continue reading
Baobab tree
Their fibrous bark is used to weave rope and cloth for industry. Their leaves are used in traditional medicines that heal the sick. Their abundant fruit nourishes hungry animals, and their structures provide shelter to species ranging from the tiniest insects to the mightiest elephants.

But for humans, the baobab is the symbol of community and a salve for the soul. Serving as the world’s oldest social networking platform, for thousands of years people have gathered under the baobab’s expansive canopy to share knowledge, exchange ideas, tell stories, and take refuge in the comfort of human connection.

With a life span of up to 2,500 years, these sturdy and loyal protectors have provided for so many creatures the South African government even created an award in their honor. The Order of the Baobab is a prestigious citation bestowed upon civilians who serve their community.
Baobab tree
But as the modern world of “digital connectedness” is creating a paradoxical epidemic of loneliness, human beings need the baobab’s spiritual sanctuary more than ever. Sadly, however, it may not have much left to give. For the past decade, over-harvesting and climate change have been killing off these ancient landmarks at an alarming rate.

The tragic and ironic fate of the Tree of Life— the giving tree.
Kenyan textile
"WISDOM IS LIKE A BAOBAB TREE; NO ONE INDIVIDUAL CAN EMBRACE IT."
-AKAN PROVERB
Smartphone
"HAPPINESS REQUIRES SOMETHING TO DO, SOMETHING TO LOVE, AND SOMETHING TO HOPE FOR.
-Swahili proverb
Mwanzia John
Hard at work
Carrots
Carrots
Market in Kenya
Market Day
Mwanzia
Mwanzia's office
Mwanzia in the market
Mwanzia's at work
Vegetables
Market offerings
Mwanzia with vegetables
Creating a sustainable future
Mwanzia standing next to garden
Mwanzia
Listen to the GSD Podcast
Coming Home: finding wholeness by working through life’s challenges until we not only help ourselves, but help others
Vietnamese textile
"YOU CANNOT TURN THE WIND, SO TURN YOUR SAIL."
-SWAHILI PROVERB
Dina with kids in Haiti
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Photo credits
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Masai girl: Francesca augustin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Masai_girl_beauty.JPG

Map of Kenya: TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kenya_in_Africa_(disputed_hatched)_(-mini_map_-rivers).svg

Kids singing: Angela Sevin [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kenyan_dancers.jpg

Kenyan women smiling: Jean Crousillac (Manta Productions) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paulina_et_Margaret.jpg

Baobab Tree: Sharonhoffman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/Baobab_Tree%2C_Messina_District_03.JPG

Baobab Tree and Elephant: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Baobab_and_elephant%2C_Tanzania.jpg

Kenyan Textile: By Kente Cloth (Flickr: Erik (HASH) Hersman) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/whiteafrican/1570855678
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