A ray of hope in Kenya

Last updated 13:20 27/05/2013

SHELTERED: Umoja women do beadwork under a tree.

Rob McFarland
WHERE WOMEN RULE: Judy the guide at Umoja village.

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Judy has the willowy grace of a catwalk model, with high cheekbones, unblemished skin and a practised insouciance.

When I ask her why she ran away from home, she slowly folds her slender brown arms and answers through half-closed eyes, "Because my father tried to make me marry a man 10 years older than me."

And what about the father of her nine-month-old daughter? "He says she isn't his."

Judy is one of 20 women living in Umoja Uaso, a women-only refuge in the Samburu district of northern Kenya.

It was started by a group led by Rebecca Lolosoli in 1990 as a shelter for rape and domestic abuse victims. They saved 200,000 Kenyan shillings ($2939) to buy a strip of parched land on the banks of the Uaso River and built a scattering of wooden huts with cow-dung roofs.

Until they were recognised as a co-operative by the Kenyan government, men from the local Samburu tribe would often come and beat them. According to Samburu custom, women should not own land.

Today, the village survives on donations, the sale of crafts and organised tours.

When we arrive, a dozen women dressed in colourful kanga wraps and elaborate beaded jewellery welcome us with a song. I ask Judy to translate the lyrics and a rare smile flashes across her face. "It means my cow is better than your cow."

Then, in groups of two, the women approach each of us in turn and bow before leading us by the hand to join a communal dance. Except me. I'm the only man in our party and I feel conspicuous by definition.

We take a brief tour of the compound, ducking into one of the dark, low-ceiling wooden huts. There are no beds, just animal skins scattered over a thin layer of dry twigs.

We also visit the school, a one-room shed where 30 children from surrounding villages come each day for basic lessons and two hot meals. When we arrive, they break into a spirited rendition of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands".

A pair of gregarious youngsters come up to the front and start dancing, causing shrieks of delight from their classmates.

At one stage there were 60 women in Umoja but two exoduses reduced that to 20.

In 1995 and 2011, groups left to form their own villages nearby. As the group's website notes, "The issues of leadership and infrastructure continue to be a challenge to Umoja."

On our way out we pass through a shop and I'm drawn into negotiation over the price of a drink coaster.

After starting at 3000 shillings we settle on 700, but not before my counterpart has repeatedly walked away in mock outrage. As I get back into the van, I turn over the business card I was handed when we arrived.

On the back is written three words: "Where Women Rule".

Rob McFarland was a guest of Air Mauritius and Kenya Tourism.



Visiting there Tours of Umoja Village can be organised through Elephant Bedroom Camp, a nearby luxury tented safari lodge in the Samburu National Reserve. See atua-enkop.com.

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More information umojawomen.net; magicalkenya.com

- Sydney Morning Herald

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