Women’s Empowerment Stories From Kenya – Umoja Women
Umoja women’s group is the true definition of women empowerment. The group was formed in 1990, by 15 women belonging to the Samburu community, who were allegedly raped and assaulted by local British soldiers.
Over the years, the Umoja women group has grown welcoming other women from other tribes, who have faced numerous inequalities including female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, forced and early marriages (in some instances to men who are WAY too old and men with HIV) and women who have been out casted because they are barren. The mission of the group is to empower women through education (teaching the women their rights), and eliminating poverty.
Umoja Women’s Village
The founding members of Umoja, a Swahili name meaning ‘unity’, started to make and sell beadwork in a bid to improve their livelihood. However, the women started receiving threats from other men in their tribe who were envious of their success. This fathered the Umoja women village, a women-only village, a safe haven for the Umoja women where they reside and cooperate together.
The village is located near Samburu National Reserve on the banks of the Ewaso N’giro River, about 380km from Nairobi (a 6 hour drive from the capital city). Samburu experiences a typical hot and arid climate, and the Ewaso N’giro River serves as the Village’s lifeblood. The women run a campsite, which is near the village, where tourists’ visiting the village can stay.
The campsite is also a perfect base for visitors going to the nearby Samburu National reserve. The camp has a restaurant and a bar, and the women even put up a traditional campfire for preparing the meals. The Umoja Campsite is a great option, if you are on a budget; however there are other lodges in the area if you wish to stay in another place. There are also plenty of tour operators that provide guided safaris.
The Successes of the Umoja Women
The Umoja women started off by selling their wares, including sugar and maize meal at their ‘manyatta’ shops (made out of mud and hides). However, their businesses were not us successful as they had hoped and so the women resolved to sell traditional crafts to visitors.
The women’s admirable efforts were noticed by the Kenya Wildlife services, who took the women on an educational tour of the Maasai Mara where the Umoja women got to sample some tourist products. On returning to their village, the Umoja women embarked on a mission to build a campsite and cultural ‘manyattas’ to improve their income.
This, plus the women’s beadwork, which they sell at the village has enabled them to market their safe haven as a tourist attraction. The groups is also dedicated to educating women on their rights, their health (teaching Umoja women of the importance of receiving prenatal care), and helping the Umoja residents to start their own income generating projects.
Umoja group is also cooperating with UK Humans Rights Lawyer, Martin Day, to help with the investigation of the rape cases so they can be brought to trial.
Effect of Umoja Women on the Community
Umoja group has not only improved the lives of its members, but also that of the community in general. For instance Umoja women usually share their income with their husbands and family members. Their income stems from beadwork and crafts sold at curio shop, plus collectively owned livestock.
The group operates on a group savings system, which enables the women to collectively use their profits to cover their medical fees, pay for the campsite’s upkeep, and run a preschool which serves the Umoja residents and the community. The preschool operates on a pay-as-you-can basis, and payment doesn’t necessary have to be monetary, it can be in form of firewood to make meals for the children.
Adults who are not conversant in English or math can also attend the school. Umoja’ group tireless and ambitious efforts caught the eye of the Africa Wildlife Foundation, which has built a museum to appreciate the local heritage and boost awareness of the issues that women in the community face.
Challenges Faced By Umoja Women
While Umoja group serves as an umbrella organization for over 60 other women’s group in Samburu, the transport system is very poor. Thus it’s very difficult for the women to meet and communicate. Exacerbating their problems, tourists, who are the primary source of revenue, visit the village less when there is drought.
The Samburu district also experiences frequent water shortages, and the women are forced to walk long distances to get water. Added to all these problems, is the steadily increasing violence directed towards the Samburu community by other tribes.