Kenya – Where Women Rule

REPORTER: Elizabeth Tadic

SAMBURU WOMEN, SINGING (Translation): We are the women of Umoja, we are blessed living in Umoja, we are blessed.


This could easily be mistaken for a typical Samburu village in northern Kenya, where women do all the work while men laze around all day.

REBECCA: Samburu women, we work from morning up to 11 at night, you know, and these men, they are just sleeping under the trees from morning until evening, doing nothing. And after that they will just come and ask for food, for something else. It’s just the women who are doing everything. There is nothing they are doing.

But there’s something very different about this Samburu village. Men are forbidden to live here. Women rule in the village of Umoja.

REBECCA: We don’t allow men in this village. They just walk around looking at what we are doing but we don’t care. We just look at them, we let them walk, provided they have not beaten us, just let them go but we don’t let them come and rule us again. We rule our village.

A couple of kilometres up the road the men have set up their own village, so they can keep a close eye on the rebellious women. But their village is not very inviting.

The roofs of their huts are made out of plastic rubbish instead of the cow dung used in the women’s huts. This could have something to do with the fact they have no cows. They’re also struggling to cope with doing all the women’s work.

MAN (Translation): We collect water and firewood and we go herding. It’s a big problem for men. All that is supposed to be done by women.

So what lies behind this great gender divide? At the heart of this unusual story is the reported behaviour of British soldiers. About 200 Samburu women from this district say that in the 1980s and ’90s they were raped by personnel from a nearby army base. A class action is now being taken against the British army on behalf the alleged victims.

LEAPORA (Translation): It was the lay’s fault she was raped. It’s her fault because the woman knew there had been a rape, the British soldiers were training in the area, yet she still went into the bush.

In Samburu culture a woman who is raped becomes taboo and is ostracised by the entire community. She’s often whipped and thrown out with nothing, not even her children.

LEAPORA (Translation): When we met her we had to send her away from the village, we didn’t want her to come in because she brought shame.

In 1990, a small group of homeless Samburu women decided to band together after their husbands threw them out.

REBECCA: These women, have been raped by the British army.

Rebecca Lolosoli is the matriarch of the village they created.

REBECCA: The majority have been separated with their husbands because these men, they say, “You must be sick now.” Some say, “You’ll not get baby,” so there’s every time conflicts, conflicts because of that rape.

Rebecca had not been raped but in the eyes of her husband’s family she was guilty of another crime – she was too outspoken.

REBECCA: This is my son, yes.

She left home after her in-laws tried convincing her husband to whip her, and founded Umoja as a new home for herself and the rape victims.

REBECCA: So these men. they don’t want us to be having a good life, they don’t women to be empowered, these men, they just want women to be under them. They don’t want women to have any rights.

Over the years the original founders of Umoja have been joined by others. There are now 50 women living in the village and they make their decisions by consensus. Many of the women have fled domestic violence.

In this patriarchal part of the world it seems it’s alright to beat up your wife if she steps out of line.

LEAPORA (Translation): If we see a man who is beating a woman, we like it. It’s knocking some sense into her.

OTHER MAN (Translation): We’ll beat them up because we dislike them. It’s our culture and we don’t give up our culture.

Now the women are determined to make the most of their new-found freedom. Samburu men traditionally get the choicest cuts while women are only allowed to eat the neck and intestines.

REBECCA (Translation): This meat is very sweet and tender.

But these emancipated women feast on the forbidden meat with pleasure.

REBECCA (Translation): The blood is very nice.

Turning Samburu patriarchy on its head has angered the men so much that they’ve recently started to mount daytime raids on the women’s village, often demanding money. At one point they even tried to steal Umoja’s cows. Today one of the men has come to threaten one of the women for being fat. He’s clearly outnumbered and the women throw him out.

WOMAN (Translation): They threw us out so why is he here? We’ll beat them up”¦.and dress them in women’s clothes.

The next day I visit the men’s village to ask the man why he resorted to violence.

LEAPORA (Translation): I was upset and I decided to go to the women’s village and beat them because they just sit there and eat.

REPORTER: But do you think that attacking the women is the way to go?

LEAPORA (Translation): Yes, it is better to beat them up.

The Samburu people once relied on herding livestock to survive, but long periods of drought have caused heavy livestock losses and food shortages. Now their primary income comes from passing tourists from the nearby Samburu Game Reserve. Today the women are making a firm platform for a new camp site. Carrying heavy stones would normally be done by men.

REBECCA: Because we found that we didn’t have any good income in the camp and we decided to put up a village for the tourists to come and see our lifestyle.

It takes three days to make the traditionally beaded necklaces the women wear and sell in the village trinket shop. Tourists pay a small village entry fee and are welcomed with a traditional song. But the men are jealous of Umoja’s success and try to compete with the women. They have a hard time getting tourists to stop at their village, so resort to hailing tour buses and pleading with them not to stop at Umoja. But they fail miserably.

REBECCA: This one is a donation from the MADRE, the MADRE group from New York.

While the women have managed to deal with the extreme poverty that plagues the region, donations of any kind are still very much needed.

REPORTER: What do the women do for sex?

REBECCA: For sex? I don’t know about sex, because we don’t have any men in here. Everybody here is, like, we have forgotten something like sex. We just sometimes sit down and we talk, it is just like fun.

I later discover that the women only have sex when they want to have children. There are now more than 50 children living in Umoja, being educated in a school built from foreign donations and income from tourism.

SAMMY GRIFFITHS, SAFARI CAMP MANAGER: The ladies, they actually live here?

REBECCA: They live here.

SAMMY GRIFFITHS: They’re permanent, and their husbands?

REBECCA: There’s no husbands here.

SAMMY GRIFFITHS: I quite like this. Husbands are like big children. Where’s my beautiful box? Has someone got it?

Sammy Griffiths runs a safari camp next to the nature reserve. She’d like the wives of her workers to emulate the success of Umoja.

SAMMY GRIFFITHS: We’re starting our shop but the ladies where we are as yet haven’t had anything to do with tourism, so they need to learn a lot from Rebecca and her girls as to how to make their produce suitable for people who would like to come and buy it and to support the community.

Sammy Griffiths wants Rebecca to help set up a similar venture near her safari camp. To get to the site of the new women’s village Rebecca has to cross the Samburu Game Reserve, with it’s wealth of animal attractions.

This is it, the new women’s village, but this time the men have agreed to its construction. But they won’t help with the building.

REBECCA: You can see the men are just sitting there looking at them working. In our culture men will never touch this work. This is work for women.

OTHER WOMAN (Translation): We want the community to get together and get Sammy to help us to bring in the tourists to but our craftwork.

While Rebecca freely gives advice on tourism, she takes this opportunity to convince the women of the importance of educating their children.

REBECCA: I’m telling her that child should go to school because you are denying her, her rights. That’s what I’m trying to train these women to know the rights of these children because they’re still very much behind, these women.

Female genital mutilation is another thorny issue that Rebecca is fighting to have outlawed, but again, the women are not keen on the idea.

REBECCA: They do the circumcision, female circumcision, very much here, cutting very badly. I told them that I have experienced because me, that’s what they have done to me, and after just a few minutes I fainted because of bleeding and was about to die.

On our way back to Rebecca’s village of Umoja we stop at a traditional settlement where Rebecca plans to discuss women’s rights, but before she manages to even speak, the men step in.

MAN (Translation): Where does this woman come from?

REBECCA (Translation): From Australia.

MAN (Translation): What is she doing here?

REBECCA (Translation): She wants to talk to the women.

MAN (Translation): This is a mixed village, you can’t film here. The men have the power here.

But the men don’t have the power in Umoja, and they’re afraid of what it represents.

REBECCA: So good to have a place or something which makes these men to be scared. “Oh, don’t let your wife stay there for more than a week.” “Please don’t let her drink the water of Umoja, she will be influenced by Umoja, you will not get her back again.”

Getting the women back to the men is the sole concern of Sebastian Lesinik, the chief of all the villages in this region. Today he’s paying a visit to the men’s village next to Umoja. He wants to set up a reconciliation meeting with the women.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK (Translation): You have already divorced the women. We elders want to talk to each one of you. I know you’re still upset, so we’ll try and get all of you together. That is what brought us here.

MAN (Translation): We’re still very angry. As for me I don’t want that wife. We don’t want women who are like that. We don’t know what diseases they carry. Those white men created the problem.

MAN 2 (Translation): So we should listen to what we’ll be told to do by the chief. Let’s agree to bless the women, let’s try and talk to them.

The chief is satisfied that some of the men are willing to have a reconciliation meeting, so the next day he sets out to convince the women.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK (Translation): I have come to visit you.

MARGRET (Translation): What brought you here?

SEBASTIAN LESINIK (Translation): Why did you refuse your man?

MARGRET (Translation): Why did we? The men refused us.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK (Translation): You must go back to them.

MARGRET (Translation): We’re not going back.

But they have no respect for his authority.

MARGRET: We have our own chief – Rebecca Lolosoli. That’s our chief, we listen her, we can’t listen the man.

Rebecca arrives and the women reluctantly gather to hear what the Chief has to say.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK: Don’t be harsh to me, anyway, I’m not your husband. I’m just a peacemaker person and I would like to come and talk to you, when we arrange one day that we make you together with your men.

MARGRET: But when we go back we get the same problems and you will not be there!

SEBASTIAN LESINIK: But we will be there because absolutely we are going to… ..I am assuring you that we will take care of you.

WOMAN (Translation): We don’t want that problem ever again! We don’t want it. We don’t want problems, we don’t want it! Get out of here, go back home, we don’t want you telling us to go back to our husbands, we don’t want that so get out. We’re not going back to the men, we’re not.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK: Separating the children is very bad.

REBECCA: The children belong to both of us – men and women, no problem. We take care of the children even always they don’t take care of the children, we do take care of the children. If they get problems with the crocodile bite there, we just assist them but they don’t assist us. Just tell them, leave these women, give them peace and don’t disturb them.

WOMEN (Translation): If you weren’t the chief we’d have beaten you up. Go away, don’t waste our time.

SEBASTIAN LESINIK: Cool down, cool down, ladies. I’ll try to solve it. I’ll see you…I’ll come again, huh?

The women of Umoja are determined to hold onto their independence. They know that they’d be forced to give up simple pleasures like this if they returned to their husbands. These women have tasted the freedom of an afternoon swim after a hard day’s work and for them, there’s no going back.

GEORGE NEGUS: And Liz tells Dateline that British Military Police investigating a whopping 2,000 allegations of rape made by Kenyan tribal women against British recruits, are due to report any day. Until they do the Kenyan Government has said British troops are not welcome in the country.