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7 Dec 2019 4:06
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  •   Home > News > International

    Inside Unity Village, Kenya's sisterhood of empowerment where men aren't allowed

    Unity Village offers a refuge for those wanting to create an independent life, free from oppression, abuse and inequality. But there's just one caveat: no men allowed.

    Listen closely for the sounds of sisterhood — that's when you will know you made it to Unity.

    The village, formed by a group of women outside the dry, desolate town of Archer's Post in Kenya, offers a refuge for those wanting to create an independent life, free from oppression, abuse and inequality.

    There's just one caveat: no men allowed.

    After travelling more than 250 kilometres on the overcrowded "matatu" bus from Nairobi to Isiolo, we made our way into Archer's Post, where we were instructed to wait for a woman named Gladys, who would guide us on the final leg of our journey.

    As we drove into town, the taxi driver lamented its remoteness. Why would two foreign women would ever want to visit here?

    We explained our interest in meeting the women at Unity. He was dumbfounded.

    "Who protects the women? Without men they are easy targets for theft," he remarked, without needing an answer.

    But as we would discover, this is no ordinary community.

    The women here all come from similar circumstances — many were abused by their husbands, raped, or had become widows.

    The small but strong community is made up of about 16 women and 34 children, many of whom were once members of the neighbouring matriarchal village, "Umoja", but separated due to differing opinions.

    Inspiring the next generation of women

    As mothers, they all share a common goal: to create a safe place to raise their families, and for every child to be educated.

    But in Maasai and Samburu culture, gender inequality is rife, explained village matriarch Leah Lekerimui.

    "If my husband was still alive, he would not pay for my girls to go to school past a certain age. Only the boys," she said.

    "But we, as a community of women, want every child to have the opportunity to go to school. Since we formed this community, we have the resources to send children to high school."

    The importance of education is not lost on their daughters.

    While discussing the ways the community has shaped their lives, eight girls — aged 9 to 14 — elaborated on their dreams for the future.

    They are aspiring doctors, fashion designers, teachers, broadcast journalists, pilots, and nurses.

    These girls know the value of an education, and they are inspired by the women at Unity to focus on their studies in order to reach their dreams.

    "We see how the women interact and support each other," explained one of the young girls in the group.

    "If one Mama does not have money to buy food for her family, then the other Mamas share their food or cook together. They all work together."

    When the women decided to start their own village, elders from surrounding communities did not understand how they could survive without men to protect them.

    "The men in the area would come by Unity when I was gone caring for my goats and would try to scare or convince the women that we could not do this," Leah says.

    "But I told them that if they have a problem, they come to me.

    "Over the years they see how we handle ourselves, and they do not bother us with nonsense anymore."

    The village continues to evolve as a sisterhood

    The way the women have incorporated their village into Kenya's burgeoning tourism industry is a testament to their willingness to break the mould.

    One of several female-only settlements in Kenya, they have learnt from previous communities' mistakes, and continue to evolve as a sisterhood.

    They have developed a profitable business selling beadwork jewellery to foreigners passing through and operate a homestay for women who want to visit Unity.

    They also work alongside the Samburu Youth Education Fund to provide scholarships to students who pass the exams required to study at a high school level.

    But it is not without its challenges — communities in Archer's Post are gripped with drought.

    "I have lost five goats to the drought. I now have 14 goats," explained Mama Nkamasiyoi, one of the eldest "Mamas" of the village.

    While the health of their livestock is critical to the village's survival, the water shortage — and an inability to always access clean water — has wider implications.

    "We know that when we collect buckets of water from the river that we have to boil it before we drink or cook with the water," explained one of the older girls.

    "That has helped to keep our families from getting sick or ill."

    About 250 metres from the village, the Ewaso Ng'iro River acts as water for bathing, swimming, cleaning dishes and cooking.

    Walking down to the river with three 20 litre yellow containers to fill, the older girls enjoyed sharing stories from their daily lives.

    "We usually bring back 40 litres of water in a trip. Most days it is once in the morning and once in the evening," explained one of the girls.

    Moments later laughter ensued behind us. We were greeted by a rush of 20 children, some from Unity and others from neighbouring villages, running towards the river.

    In a split second the group had stripped down to swim in the shallow water. Sounds of splashing and a chorus of little voices echoed in the air.

    Their playful nature stood in stark contrast to the reality of the situation: murky brown water, two dead goats laying in arm's reach of the shore, and containers of this same water being collected for use.

    Trying to observe the moment without a Western-based judgement or ideology of how one should live became harder.

    Later that evening the matriarch, commonly referred to as "Mama Josephat", explained there had been plans for drilling a water well in close proximity for the women and surrounding villages.

    'We are not the property of men'

    While Mama Josephat is the matriarch of the village, she is adamant that there is no "boss or leader" that tells the women what to do.

    The money the women make from selling jewellery is used to financially support their own families as well as the wider community, and Gladys — who was elected as treasurer — works alongside Mama Josephat to make purchases for the village.

    "When people buy from one woman, she keeps that money for herself and her family, but a small percentage goes in the village pot," explained Mama Josephat.

    "The village money is divided into funds for education, refilling the water tank, food, and other community costs."

    Mama Josephat's role is to protect and guide the women through any issues that arise, and her fierce, protective nature of the community was apparent during our visit.

    The love and care possessed for Unity was showcased once again as the youngest child, baby Latrice, was passed from Mama Nkamasiyoi to Mama Josephat's arms.

    A sisterhood of mothers, daughters, and friends.

    But while the young boys played underneath the shade of an acacia tree, a question arose: "What happens when the boys become men?"

    Mama Josephat smiled and explained the village simply wants the best for their children, with an aim to ensure every girl and boy attends secondary school.

    "So maybe they will live in Nairobi or in the cities, but if the boys decide to work or live close by, then they can always visit Unity," she said.

    Men are welcome to visit Unity, Gladys noted, adding that "many friends, brothers and sons come by the community often".

    "And some of the women have boyfriends or men in their life.... but we make the rules," she said.

    "We are not the property of men. Men no longer control us."

    Mama Josephat looked over at Gladys and smiled.

    "At Unity, we are free."

    Brooke Bierhaus is a video journalist. Her documentary The Connected Cup follows the heart of coffee and tea around the world as universal means of connection.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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