04 Jun 2014 22:00
Judy Latukoi talks about her curse with astonishing ease. “My father wanted to marry me with an old man, and I didn't. So I escaped”, she says, her sight focused on her smartphone's display. Judy was then 9 years old. Her story is not new, exclusive or even slightly original. Thousands of girls go through it in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their fathers try to marry them for a dowry. Maybe some cows, a symbol of whealth among the Samburu, in Northern Kenya, where Judy comes from.
“I was told about a place near Archers Post where they could help me. A village for women”, she adds. Thirty-five women live there currently. Umoja (Unity in Kiswahili) was founded in 1990 by fifteen women allegedly raped by British soldiers and it was born merely as a group. After trying to get funding through several activities to no avail, they found the recipe for success: to create a village in which they could live safely and promote it to touristm
“We saved for months”, says the leader, Rebecca Lolosoli. “After we applied for the land [on which Umoja stands today], men came and beat us saying women should not own land”. But their project went ahead. Now the women proudly say that unwanted men are afraid of entering their village, as they've been severly fined by the Police. Umoja is an oasis for those who flee abuse, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. But it's not only about that – its residents try to educate the surrounding communities on women rights and health too. “Mothers teach their children not to beat their wives and to be responsible for the children they have”, Judy explains.
UN Women figures show that 21 per cent of Kenyan women have been sexually abused during their lifetimes, but not even 6 per cent of those report to the police. The situation is no different in the rest of the continent.
Generating income for Umoja's residents poses another challenge. Especially since Umoja (part of the 'Half the Sky' Movement) is a drought-prone area. That's why Rebecca designed a new way of subsistence – instead of depending on the traditional cows and goats, they decided to grow chicken whose eggs they sell in a nearby market.
Several donors and NGOs also provide funds for the development of the village, composed by ten huts in a dusty fenced compound. Umoja survives basically on selling beadded jewelry to the very few tourists that hit this spot of Kenya. They recently acquired a water tank with funds from the sales of their products in the United States.
The entrance fee they charge to visitors is used to fund a pre-school for their children. But if there are no men in Umoja, how do the women breed? Judy replies: “If they want to have children, young women like me go outside the village, look for a boyfriend, get pregnant, leave him, and come back with the baby”.