Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, has historically inspired cultural nationalism, political protest, and local women organizing for social change. Contemporary Umoja is an all-women-run village in Samburu, a remote area in northern Kenya that was established in 1990 by fifteen women chased away by their husbands. These men claimed that their wives' rape by British soldiers stationed in nearby Archer's Post had dishonored them, their families, and their communities.
Led by the assertive Rebecca Lolosoli, the women settled on an abandoned plot of dry grassland where they built dung-and-mud plaster huts in a circle, symbolizing solidarity and empowerment. They declared their community a Violence-Against-Women-Free Zone and engaged in income-generating projects, including a traditional bead-work business, a cultural center, and a camping site for tourists visiting the adjacent Samburu National Reserve. Umoja village gradually expanded, as more women escaping patriarchal abuses found refuge there, took control of their lives, and sent their children to school. Their leader proudly notes, "We've seen so many changes in these women. They're healthier and happier. They dress well. They used to have to beg. Now, they're the ones giving out food to others" (Lacey 2004).
Since Umoja women only admit into their safe haven the select men who will follow their rules, local elders established a men-only village nearby to spy on the women and monitor their activities. The men also started a tourist center that was unsuccessful. Disgruntled, they have resorted to physical attacks and violent attempts to steal the women's cows, filed a court case seeking to shut down Umoja village, and even sent death threats to the female leader. The male village chief charged: "She's questioning our very culture…. The man is the head; the lady is the neck. A man cannot take let's call it advice, from his neck" (Wax 2005).
The Umoja story highlights the persistent and pervasive violence against women, from local cultural patriarchy to global militarism. Faced with an inaccessible state legal system, the multiply abused women mobilized to reclaim their right to a life free of poverty, discrimination, and violence. They have relentlessly fought back for their dignity and integrity, bringing a case against the British military for raping more than 1,400 Samburu women during the 1980s and 1990s. Umoja leaders offer human rights education to combat HIV/AIDS; female circumcision; forced marriage; and sexual, domestic, and other forms of violence. The Umoja Uaso Women's Group, a member of the Indigenous Information Network in Kenya, is part of a national movement working towards women's human rights. Draft legislation introduced in Parliament would grant women the right to refuse forced marriage proposals, to fight sexual harassment, to reject genital cuttings, and to prosecute rape. The Umoja women's innovative model is being replicated in other communities and has resonated beyond the continent.
The Umoja institution is rooted in traditions of indigenous African women organizing for collective action, such as woman-woman marriage (Njambi and O'Brien 2005), women's secret societies (Steady 2006), the Igbo Inyom Nnobi (the collective of all adult Nnobi women and also the name for the women's council)(Amadiume 1987), and the Basaa Yum (indigenous women mobilizing and organizing rooted in ancestral cultures of solidarity) (Ngo-Ngijol Banoum 2005). Women-centered grassroots organizations that fought local patriarchy became vehicles for nationalist struggles against colonial powers, as illustrated by the Igbo Women's War in 1929, the Kom women's rebellion of 1958–1961 (Van Allen 1976), the Basaa women's uprising in 1958, and others.
Umoja women have transformed female consciousness through their survival spirit, resourcefulness, and networking, thereby creating new avenues for public expression, political participation, and feminist leadership. They reclaim indigenous feminist cultures and global feminist practice grounded in the specificities of rural and other localized women. Umoja offers a feminist model that connects local knowledge bases, grassroots-global networking, national and international laws, to effectively protect women's human rights.
Amadiume, Ifi. 1987. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Books.
Lacey, Marc. 2004. "Umoja Journal; From Broken Lives, Kenyan Women Build Place of Unity." New York Times, December 7.
Ngo-Ngijol Banoum, Bertrade. 2005. "The Yum: An Indigenous Model for Sustainable Development." In African Gender Studies: Theoretical Questions and Conceptual Issues, ed. Oyeronke Oyewumi. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Njambi, Wairimu Ngaruiya, and William O'Brien. 2005. "Revisiting 'Woman-Woman Marriage': Notes on Gikuyu Women." In African Gender Studies: Theoretical Questions and Conceptual Issues, ed. Oyeronke Oyewumi. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Steady, Filomena Chioma. 2006. Women and Collective Action in Africa. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Van Allen, Judith. 1976. "'Aba Riots' or 'Igbo Women's War'? Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of Women." In Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Wax, Emily. 2005. "A Place Where Women Rule." Washington Post, July 9.
Bertrade Ngo-Ngijol Banoum