In the Swahili language, the word umoja translates as unity. So Umoja: No Men Allowed is a fitting title for a documentary short about a village in northern Kenya founded exclusively by and for women.
But Australian director Elizabeth Tadic could just as easily have borrowed from Annie Lennox and called it Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves, given the origins of the settlement.
In the late 1980s and mid-1990s, hundreds of tribal Samburu women found themselves banished from their villages after complaining of being raped by British soldiers. (Long after Kenya’s independence from England, the British army still has a presence there, mainly as “support” troops and in training facilities.)
The Samburu, a seminomadic people who depend on raising cattle, goats, and other animals, customarily allow men, especially elders, to have several wives and to exercise complete power over them. Typically, the women perform most of the work involved in this subsistence life, and are even relegated to eating the less desirable cuts of meat.
The banished women, beaten and blamed by the men as responsible for the crimes committed against them, eked out a precarious, hazardous existence outside their former communities, shunned even by their families.
In the mid-1990s, though, a Kenyan women’s-rights campaigner, Rebecca Lolosoli, came onto the scene, organized the women, and encouraged them to build their own village, Umoja, and help each other. The first rule of Umoja: no men allowed.
The community was, and is, a success. The now older rape victims have been joined by refugees from the traditional Samburu genital-mutilation practice and domestic violence. (According to one tribesman interviewed in the film, he enjoys seeing a man batter a woman because it means “he is knocking some sense into her”.) Lolosoli claims in the film that women's murders are sometimes not even investigated by local authorities.
Lolosoli is now the village’s revered matriarch, and she has helped the women build a primary school for its inhabitants’ daughters (education for girls is not a priority in the outside settlements), raise their own animals, and create crafts and jewellery to sell to the tourists who come to nearby game preserves and resorts for safari tours.
The men were caught by surprise. At first seemingly confounded, they ended up building their own village nearby to keep tabs on the women. Domestic work piled up for some of them, and child-rearing chores devolved upon them. They then tried to siphon off the women’s tourist trade, with little or no success, as they couldn’t speak English, had no craft-making skills, and a local businesswomen, a resort owner, is supportive of the renegade village’s efforts and drives in her clients.
Humorous and touching scenes abound in the film, from women slaughtering their own goats and revelling in eating parts formerly forbidden them to singing about freedom and bathing in the river to a comical “beating” and banishment of a tribesman foolish enough to enter the village with a mind to teach the women a lesson.
The women’s lives are still a hard slog day to day, but there is an infectious joy in their labour that one suspects may have been in short supply previously. None of them seem anxious to return to their past lives, and although Lolosoli says that most of them aren’t really interested in sex for sex’s sake (she speculates that clitoral circumcisions, which she herself was subject to, might be the reason), women who want children will visit men for the sake of procreation.
Male children are allowed in Umoja, which raises intriguing questions about a possible future shift in Samburu tribal traditions when these children, schooled in a progressive, egalitarian feminist environment, mature and interact with their neighbours.
The final scenes in the film document a failed attempt by a regional chief, recruited by the still bitter men, to try to talk the women into returning to their families. The women let him know exactly how they feel, and it’s doubtful that he will be returning soon.
Umoja: No Men Allowed (32 minutes) screens on Sunday, November 4, 7:15 p.m., at the Pacific Cinematheque