The Satya Interview with Rebecca Lolosoli
Rebecca Lolosoli with women of the village.
Photo courtesy of Madre.org
“Men are forbidden to live in the village, but may visit as long
as they behave and abide by the women’s rules,” says Rebecca
an indigenous Samburu women’s rights activist and matriarch of the
all-women village Umoja in Kenya.
It has been Lolosoli’s bravery and guidance that has led the Samburu women
to transform their lives. Leaving behind a world of discrimination, domestic
violence, poverty, child marriage and forced female genital mutilation (FGM),
they are now offered a “Violence Against Women-Free Zone” to live.
Working together, the women have created programs to promote economic independence,
education and health care.
But it hasn’t been easy. Lolosoli has had to deal with beatings, death
threats and attempts of economic sabotage from the men. She also has the challenging
task of healing the broken spirits of her community. Kymberlie Adams
Matthews had a chance to ask Rebecca Lolosoli about
standing her ground: no men allowed!
Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you became involved with women’s
I was born of Ditan and Naisaba Lasangurikuri in 1962 in a village at Wamba,
Samburu District in Kenya. I am number four in a family of six, three brothers
and three sisters. My late father was polygamous, with three wives. I attended
Wamba girls’ primary school in 1971. I then joined the Catholic nursing
training center in Wamba but dropped out only six months to completion due to
lack of fees. I have been very aware of the problems for women for a long time.
Can you talk about what happened with the British soldiers?
For more than 50 years, British soldiers trained in our area at Archer’s
Post in Samburu. Wearing green uniforms they blended with the trees and when
women collected firewood, the soldiers would jump out and rape them, laughing
like it was a game. Women, fearing their husbands would find out and beat or
try to kill them, were afraid to talk about it. The men made their wives leave,
taking the children with them. Then they had nothing and many would resort to
brewing changaa to earn money, but it is illegal to sell this, and the women
were jailed, leaving their children without caregivers and some were eaten by
I started going to local government meetings to speak for these women. We formed
a village so we could protect one another. The problem is Samburu women have
no rights—no right to own livestock or land, to go to school, even to choose
a husband. If a Samburu man kills his wife, no one cares—he paid the dowry,
so he owns her.
And what is your story?
My own husband was not bad. We married when I was 18, and he paid a dowry of
17 cows. But four men in the village didn’t like me because I started selling
goods, and they beat me and took my money. Then I started talking about helping
rape victims and the next time my husband left on business, the men beat me severely.
I left the hospital and my parents said I should rejoin my husband. He said nothing
about what the men had done, and so I realized I could be killed, so I left.
So, aside from you, no one cared that these women were being raped? The husbands
actually blamed the wives?
The only reason anyone listened is because people started complaining about other
things. The soldiers were leaving used condoms on the ground that children were
blowing up like balloons. We didn’t know what they were. I thought they
were used for treating wounds. Also, many of our children and livestock were
killed by explosives. We are actually bringing a case against the British military
for the rapes of over 1,400 Samburu women.
So you started your own village...
Twelve years ago, with several others, we established the village of Umoja, which
means unity in Swahili, on an unwanted field of dry grasslands. Our objectives,
to name just a few, were to improve the livelihoods of the women due to rampant
poverty and counter the problem of women being abandoned by their families. We
also rescue and rehabilitate girls who run away from or were thrown out by their
parents due to early pregnancies or marriages.
How do you support the community?
Initially, we started with mobile—manyatta dukas—shops where they
sell their wares, particularly, maize meal and sugar. But it did not succeed.
Two years later, we changed to selling traditional artifacts to tourists. Our
efforts did not escape the eyes of the Kenya Wildlife Services who took us for
an educational tour to Maasai Mara to sample tourist products there. Immediately
on return, we embarked on an ambitious project of cultural manyatta and campsite,
a project that has to date seen only success and which we depend on. We decided
to sell our beadwork to tourists and market our village as a tourist attraction.
We have been able to establish a school for the children of Umoja and surrounding
How did the men react to the women starting their own village?
Some men set up a village nearby to block the road and stop tourists from coming
here. Once, 30 warriors beat us in front of tourists to make it look like this
place was corrupt. We decided to buy the land so men could not drive us away.
We saved for months for the down payment, it cost 200,000 shillings ($2,700).
After we applied for the land, men came and beat us saying women should not own
land. They said this was because of me and that they had to shoot me to get their
women to be women again.
And now, have things changed? What is your relationship with the men today?
The men are jealous of our achievements. The Samburu are a patriarchal society
where women are bunched together with children. They do not have the right to
make decisions or own property. Even men who went to school and some political
leaders are fighting us on this but we are soldiering to reverse this. Our area
Member of Parliament could not believe we have a website and was really infuriated
how advanced we are!
And you are now the matriarch?
I have remained the Umoja group’s chairperson to date. With the confidence
I built in the group, they have continued electing me to the chair consecutively.
In 1995, I was again recognized and honored by the district women when they elected
me unanimously to chair the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a post
I retained for 10 years—till my retirement! The MYWO is a national organization
for the enhancement of women, in terms of development and gender. It undertakes
fighting female genital mutilation, child marriages and pregnancies, school dropouts
by girls and HIV/AIDS.
What changes do you see in the women who come to your village?
The village supports women who have been tortured, beaten and raped. They also
help to raise children who have been abandoned, orphaned or suffer from AIDS.
Women become liberated, empowered and their capacities build. They become socially
and economically independent and make decisions on matters that affect them directly.
They learn how to appreciate their womanhood and respect their bodies.
A 2005 UNAIDS report revealed that two-thirds of young women in 24 sub-Saharan
countries lack knowledge of HIV transmission. Practices like FGM increase the
risk of HIV infection even further. How does Umoja address this and other issues?
Before, we didn’t know our rights because we are not educated. That’s
why we now provide a good foundation for our children. At Umoja we teach women
to look inwardly into themselves, understand their bodies and respect them. This
helps them to avoid casual/unprotected sex. We partner with like-minded organizations
to hold seminars and workshops on retrogressive practices that may cause HIV/AIDS
such as FGM. I am a mother to many orphaned children as a result of HIV/AIDS
and those from poor backgrounds, and am involved in counseling and home-based
care for people living with AIDS.
But here we are able to send their children to school for the first time, eat
well and reject male demands for our daughters’ circumcision and marriage.
We’ve learned that we have a right to demand medicine for the women in
our community. But our best hope is to avoid HIV in the first place. For that,
we women must have the right to say no without being forced or beaten. And women
need to be able to own and inherit land so that we can feed ourselves and our
children. This is how we can stay healthy.
What are some of your greatest obstacles? And greatest celebrations?
Our greatest obstacles are our men. You aren’t able to answer men or speak
in front of them whether you are right or wrong. That has to change. Women have
to demand rights and then respect will come. But if you remain silent, no one
thinks you have anything to say. Then again, I was not popular for what I was
saying. But until they change their attitude towards women, we have much more
to fight for and this is what we stand for however long it will take.
Our celebrations are our achievements to date, our social and economic independence.
At the village we make decisions and at times even employ men to do chores that
are normally done by women.
Transforming your life and community must have been a bit overwhelming, and frightening.
You have risked so much to help other women. Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets for what I have done. In fact, I am proud that I contributed
towards betterment of other people’s lives. I have touched the lives of
many and there is no letting go. I will march on until men recognize and respect
the human being called woman and her role in society.
Learn more at www.jambosafaris.com/umojacharity.htm.
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