Umoja and Unity Women’s Groups


Colorful seed beads are puddled on cow hide mats, and strands of curly wire sit around the Samburu women like tumbleweeds around Kansas fences. They work quickly to get the beads on the wire, bending and smoothing it as they go and chattering all the while in Samburu. The small loop at one end of a bracelet clasp is made by wrapping the wire around a stick, any stick; the other end of the clasp they shape using their teeth to bend and cut the wire. Many of their wares are on display and on sale outside the beading hut. The beadwork contributes to the livelihood of the Umoja Women’s Group.
It is dusty here and nearly everything is brown: the dirt, the trees, the shade hut in which the women sit. Traditionally dressed, the women stand in stark contrast to their plain village. They wear bright fabric and many thick, beaded necklaces. Their wrists are wrapped tightly in metal bangles, and on their ankles are more beads. In this enclosed manyatta (village) there are no men. At Umoja it is only women and their children, and has been since 1990 when 17 women were chased away from their villages after being raped by British soldiers. They walked for a full day, some with small children, and gathered together to decide what to do. What was birthed was a village where, as they say, women rule.
Now there are 48 women who participate in the Umoja Women’s Group. Some of them live in the enclosed manyatta and others live outside of it, coming in to do beadwork to earn an income. The village is well-established: well-crafted huts with mud roofs, cows and goats with pens, a chicken house, a nursery school with a playground for the women’s young children, a small outdoor shop area for their bead work, a water tank, a cultural museum, and, a five-minute walk away, a tourist camp.
While in the Archer’s Post area we planned to stay at the Umoja Tourist Camp, visit the women, and help out in the nursery school. When we arrived at the entrance to the women’s manyatta they greeted us with Samburu song. As a group and still singing, they turned and led us into the village where they continued to sing and grabbed my hands to bring me into the dance.
Up the road a couple of kilometers, we had a similar greeting at the Unity Women’s Group. This group is much newer; they used to be part of Umoja but after some disagreements there they broke off in November 2011 and built their own manyatta. It is clear at first glance that things are different here than at Umoja. Their huts do not have solid mud roofs (something of a luxury for a Samburu hut, from what I understand), but have roofs made of various flattened cardboard boxes that are tied down. There is no nursery school here, no playground, no water tank, no cultural museum, no beading hut, no cows, no goats, no chickens, no distinguished outdoor shop area, no tourist camp. The roadside sign for this women’s group is painted on thin, chipping wood. In fact, it reads ‘Unit Women’s Group’ on one side.
Despite all these have-nots, the women are smiling and are proud of their manyatta and homes. They pull up a cow-hide mat on our first visit, we all sit down, and they give both me and Alex beads to work with. Both the Umoja women and the Unity women know other people from Colorado who have come previously. Immediately, we are welcomed like old friends, rather than visitors. Only one woman at Unity speaks English, but language is never all that matters.
For five consecutive days we gathered children from Umoja and Unity to take with us on game drives in the nearby Samburu National Reserve. Each day the kids at Umoja were waiting outside the village gate to be picked for a game drive, but we never saw any of the women at these times. Each day at Unity a few of the women brought the children out, greeted us with handshakes, and chit chatted with us for a few minutes. They did the same when we drop the children off after game drives.
I also visited the Umoja women occasionally to interview them and sometimes work on bead projects with them. I worked for a couple of hours in their nursery school, teaching eager kids their ABC’s and trying to figure out how to say ‘sit down’ in Samburu (none of the little ones speak English yet). We did not visit the Unity women formally again—they weren’t quite as accessible, as we were staying at the Umoja tourist camp—but still we felt like we saw much more of them.
The morning we were leaving Archer’s Post we visited both villages to say goodbye to the women. At Unity we were adorned with beaded gifts –I was given a traditional Samburu necklace with my name beaded into it, told to greet the other Colorado people the women know, and were given a musical send-off. At Umoja, we were unfortunately only able to say goodbye to a couple women and a lot of kids because many of the women were away at a ceremony.
The differences between these two villages are stark. One is not more right than the other. One is not better than the other. But they each definitely have their own personality. Both are genuine examples of women creating opportunities for themselves and working toward gender equality in Kenya. Both are amazing displays of community: everyone works together on everything from chores, to beading, to childcare. Both groups showed us the Kenyan fundamental of sharing; if Kenyans have they will, at least in my experience, usually give.
Next up: educating Kenyan girls at the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center!



2 responses »

  1. What a great gift that you have been able to experience these two womens’ villages and have been welcomed by them. I can’t wait to see your necklace.

  2. Your writing about the women’s villages is very warm and touching. I can tell you enjoyed being there and sharing time with them. I am excited to see your necklace.

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