It takes a village: some say they were raped by soldiers training nearby; others were abused by their own menfolk. Outraged, the Samburu women of Kenya decided to create their own safe haven.
By Rebecca Lolosoli, as told to Lisa Armstrong
Essence, October 2006
Rebecca Lolosoli is the chief of Umoja, a rural village in the Samburu region of Central Kenya made up almost entirely of women and children. Many of the women say they were raped by British soldiers, who have trained in the region for more than 50 years. In a class-action suit filed three years ago against the British military, the women alleged that the soldiers raped as many as 1,400 Samburu women over a 20-year period. With the case pending, Kenya renewed the British army’s lease earlier this year.
In being violated, the Samburu women were seen as having shamed their husbands, who beat and banished them. The women built makeshift huts nearby, one here, one there, only to be uprooted by men who found sport in tormenting them. The women struggled to support themselves and their children until 1990, when Lolosoli, who had fled her home after almost being killed by some of the men in her village, realized that if they came together they stood more of a chance than they did living alone.
The women named their village Umoja Uaso–Umoja, meaning unity in Swahili, and Uaso, for the Uaso Nyiro River that swirls through Samburu land. They earn money selling beaded jewelry and running a campsite for tourists. Last year, Lolosoli, who is in her early forties, told the women’s stories at a United Nations conference on gender empowerment in New York, and this month, she will speak at universities across the States. She says it’s easy to ignore a group of uneducated women crying out from distant African dust lands, but she’s determined to make the world look.
The British soldiers wore green uniforms, so they blended with the trees. As the women went to get firewood, the soldiers would jump out and rape them, sometimes sodomize them. Many men would rape one woman and laugh like it was a game.
Samburu women were afraid to talk about these things. They feared it would get back to their husbands. Those who found out beat or tried to kill their wives. They told the women, “Go away and take your kids–I don’t want the children of a whore!” When your husband kicks you out, you leave with nothing–not a goat, not a cow. So the women started selling firewood and brewing changaa to earn money. But it is illegal to sell this local liquor, and the women were jailed, many leaving young children without caregivers. Some of the children were eaten by hyenas.
I started going to local government meetings to speak on behalf of these women. I told the women that we should start a small business. So in 1990, we started selling vegetables, which we had to buy from others as we didn’t know how to farm. We decided instead to sell our beadwork to tourists. We formed a village so that we could protect one another and market our village as a tourist attraction. We charge tourists a 300-shilling ($4) fee, which covers lectures and a tour.
Some men set up their own village nearby to block the road and stop tourists from coming here. Once, 30 warriors came to beat us in front of the tourists so that they would think this place is corrupt. We decided we had to buy this land so that the men could not drive us away. The land was 200,000 shillings ($2,700), and we saved for four months for the down payment. One tourist came and bought 20,000 shillings ($270) worth of trinkets. Another time, five busloads of tourists came, and when they heard our story, they purchased many things from us.
After we applied for the land, the men came here and beat us because they said that women should not own land. At the council meeting they said, “Have you heard of a woman owning land? It’s because of this Rebecca. We have to shoot her if we want our women to come back It’s the only way we will get these women to be women again.” I was just outside listening. When one of the men came out, he told me, “You know, we want to shoot you.” I just laughed and said, “Okay, you’ll find me in the village.” I was not afraid. What could I do? I have nowhere else to go. This is our land. If God has written that I should die here, then why should I be afraid?
My own husband was not bad to me. 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. When I started talking about helping these rape victims, they said, “She’s talking about women’s rights like she knows more than everyone.” The next time my husband left on business, the four men beat me severely. After I left the hospital, my parents said I should rejoin my husband. He said nothing about what the men had done, and I realized that they could kill me, so I left.
The problem is that 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.
Nobody cared that these women were being raped. The only mason that anyone listened is because people started complaining about other things. The soldiers were leaving used condoms on the ground, and the children were blowing them up like balloons. We didn’t know what they were–I thought they were something for treating wounds–but it was unsanitary, so we complained to the county council. Also, many of our children and livestock were killed by explosives. My husband, the counselor for our area, alerted the Kenyan and British governments. That’s how the British lawyer, Martyn Day, became involved. He learned of the rapes and asked if we wanted to file a complaint.
The British military police came to investigate. They wanted to interview the women without a translator. I told one of the bosses, “You are not going to take these women, and you have to employ Samburu girls who speak English to translate.” He said that he would report that no rapes had occurred, and I said, “Fine. You just go. You’ll be back.” He left for a while, but the British military sent him back and hired eight girls to translate. He paid them about 30,000 shillings ($411) per month. Still, nothing has been done.
Before, we didn’t know our rights because we are not educated. That’s why we built a nursery school here two years ago, to provide a good foundation for our children. On Sundays, we also gather the women in the classroom to teach them some English. They should at least know how to write their names and count their money.
We employed men to build our school and to work at our campsite. Other men ask them, “How can you work for women?” One of our workers replied, “I am trying to feed my children. If these women have money to pay, why shouldn’t I?” Each woman gives 10 percent of her earnings to the village. At the end of the month, we decide how to allocate money. We pay our teachers and our workers, and if some women need extra money, it is given.
Life in Umoja is good. Some of us looked very old when we came here, but now that we are eating well and are no longer stressed, we are young again. Some of the men in a nearby village harass us, but we are trying to get some doors for our huts so that we can lock them out. Mostly, we ignore them. We are too busy living.