The Matriarchy Campaign Inaugural Post: On Umoja and the Brilliance of the "Third Way"
Hello BWB fam,
A few days have passed since our last update on our pilgrimage to Africa. Though we are already on the final leg of our journey, the following is a meditation on our earlier trip to Kenya, specifically the Umoja Women’s Village in Nairobi. The two days we spent in the village have been an emotionally clarifying, as well as spiritual venture. While we cannot share all of what we saw and heard during this time, we feel it is important to document this part of our travels for you all, as the knowledges we gained there have helped us to reimagine the meaning and potentiality behind the concepts of reparation and reconciliation. We are honored to share this as the inaugural post for the Matriarchy Campaign and we hope that as part of our family you too can learn from the wisdom of the founders of Umoja.
On February 26th Black Women’s Blueprint traveled out to the Kenyan countryside intent on communing with the women of the Umoja Women’s Village. Umoja has been operating successfully for 30 years, and continues to serve as a haven for women and girls escaping the patriarchal terror of their old villages. BWB has always been committed to pushing for complete gender and culture shift both in the U.S. and on an international level - thus, upon learning of this women’s only refuge that was not just functional, but prospering, we knew that the founders had discovered a way of executing the vision we had been imagining. And as 2020 approached we could see that the lessons these women could potentially share with us were sorely needed, as it had become increasingly clear over our years as an organization how limited we were in the Western political frameworks from which we had previously been operating. To speak within the context of “human rights” and “progress” was no longer enough. What was required of us was to come into an entirely new way of being and relating. And everything was pointing us in the direction of Umoja to find the answers we sought.
Umoja Women’s Village is a small compound founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli in order to escape the rape and spousal abuse she was subjected to as a young woman. The village gradually expanded to include 48 women as well as their children. Umoja is relatively isolated from surrounding villages, yet is entirely self-sustaining. The women support themselves through a combination of business endeavors with tourism being their main source of income. They have a village restaurant from which they earn additional income, and of course the jewelry and other works of art made by the women that goes a long way in terms of supporting the community. Keeping everyone fed is no issue for them as they manage several greenhouses through which they grow their own produce, and have access to clean water through a filtration system built for them by a German company they partnered with to provide additional support. And this abundance is not confined to the village alone either - our guide and translator Lucy taught us that even though the threat of violence from the men of their former homes was still a concern post-escape, the women made a concerted effort to reach out to those in other villages for the purposes of educating them about female genital mutilation and other harmful cultural norms. In addition to their outreach initiative they operate a school built on their land that is open to all children in the surrounding area. Ultimately all the money they make and resources they acquire are reinvested in the community at large, and knowing this it was no surprise to find out they had essentially become the economic center of the surrounding region. But while their business acumen alone was impressive, it was clear to us that simply having the capacity to generate an income was not enough to run a village like this successfully. After all, several men tried to start their own competing villages after Umoja was established in order to stop tourists from going there, and they all failed. What we were seeing was not simply an economic triumph, but the emergence of a totally new value system that had moved away from a politics of harm into a politics of sustainability via self-preservation, which, to cite Audre Lorde, doubles as an act of “political warfare.” Countless mobilizations in the U.S. have been initiated with this goal in mind, yet at Umoja this principle of radical self care was implemented on a level we had never witnessed before. We felt compelled to develop a better understanding of the internal workings of the social contract these women had formed amongst themselves, and with the outside world. How did they manage village affairs collectively? What was the process of deliberation regarding new women coming into the community? What role did male children play in the village? And assuming we were fortunate enough to receive the answers to all of these questions, what internal transformations would we be required to make of ourselves in order to make any use of this knowledge at all?
On our second day in the village, we were finally able to seek council with the founders of Umoja directly. We had many questions on our minds but inevitably our inquiries returned to the central subject of reparations and reconciliation. What did these words mean to them? We knew coming in the founders had been raped by British soldiers and were abused and abandoned by their husbands as a result, forcing them to find sanctuary for one another. What we could not see at the time however, were the specific configurations around forgiveness that were key to their theory of resistance, that differed significantly from any strategy we had encountered before. To briefly return to the soldiers: the women expressed they not only had no desire to forgive them, but questioned the viability of forgiveness given that their abusers in this case had “run away,” presumably back to the U.K. The reality of abusers simply disappearing is something victims across the diaspora often experience but many of us lack the language to describe healing processes in which a sense of closure or resolution being reached with the actual perpetrator isn’t possible. This problem is due in part to a cultural assumption woven into the fabric of many of our communities, that insists on forgiveness as a moral imperative and one that women specifically need embrace so as not to damage the reputation or livelihoods of the men in their communities. The plausibility of the forgiveness-as-a-virture strategy is never called into question, and the possibility that the victim may not want to forgive goes unthought under this toxic mandate. The logic of such arguments are applied both on a micro level, in the context of individual relationships as well as on the macro level, to excuse and paper over global disasters such as the current environmental crisis, in which those colonized subjects with the least control over levels of carbon emissions in the world are prodded to over-identify with those most responsible, and behave as if the burden of rectifying the damage is theirs alone. To put healing and reconciliation in conversation with one another requires that we understand the limitations of the latter. Based on our convening with the Umoja founders, their awareness of said limitations is heightened. There seems to be no desire or even any real interest in forming any type of lasting relationships with men, even if it were to be purely transactional. And should any man attempt to disturb their peace all the women in the village are prepared to defend themselves with their weapon of choice: a machete. The only men allowed in are their children and even they aren’t permitted to live there full time past the age of 18. However, even within this reality they managed to make room for a rehabilitation process for their male offspring. On the topic of raising sons, one founder remarked that she makes sure to remind hers that harming a woman could result in jail time, as a means of pushing him to understand that his actions have consequences. They also encourage them to talk to one another about how to form healthy relationships with women. There are of course no guarantees that every child can be sheltered completely from misogynoirist propaganda, but the founders were certain of the fact that for now, the boys can practice the act of peacemaking so that they don’t end up walking down the same path as their fathers. Teaching the boys early on to look beyond their own self-interests and encouraging self critique & non violent solutions to conflict is their way of ensuring the tragedies of the past do not repeat themselves in the future. It is something we struggle to do in the U.S. and to see it work successfully here was galvanizing.
And what of the women? For women and girls coming into the village, the founders’ requests were simple: honor our rules and accept us for who we are, and we will accept you. The reality of the situation for girl runways is such that the women are quick to act when taking someone in. Perhaps surprisingly given their stance regarding the men, the founders expressed a willingness to offer their patience and hospitality to the wives of the British soldiers as well. Unlike their men, should one of the wives come to Umoja in order to apologize, the women claimed they would be willing to hear and understand her, and perhaps even go so far as allowing her to stay in the village if she expressed a need for it. We could understand based on what they told us that they were deeply committed to community with and empathy for all women, and that the women’s tribal affinities and differences in racial backgrounds were not as much a concern as their ability to convene with one another and run the village on their own terms. The type of social contracts they have formed with other women is especially interesting considering the U.S. has its own history with women’s communes, run by self-proclaimed separatists who believed the only viable path towards liberation was to totally divorce themselves from men and society altogether. To many Umoja may seem to have much in common these pastoral fantasies, yet over the course of our stay we found that the women’s village was unique to anything we had seen before in the history of the women’s movement as we knew it. As co-director of BWB Farah Tanis pointed out this is neither full incorporation nor separatism but a “third way” of fighting back. Clearly there was much more to learn about the internal mechanics of such a cleverly designed community. But in the mean-time we still needed to ask ourselves, what was our responsibility as black women in the international community who wanted to continue to see our sisters across the Atlantic thrive? As co-director Sevonna Brown asked, what could we offer them, tangible or intangible? After raising this question, the women responded with a very interesting story of a previous attempt by a visitor to support them. In this story, a visitor learned of a raid that had taken place on the village, in which men from a neighboring village came and stole their cows. The visitor, without consulting the women first, drove to another village and bought a cow there - she then told her driver to deliver said cow back to the village. In the end two things happened: a strange man ended up entering the women’s village without their prior consent, and a cow was delivered to them that they could not do anything with, due to the fact that it was male and there was only one of it. The message behind this story was clear: any and all supporters must consult the women first, who have the final say in who and what enters their homes.
I include this story not as a condemnation of the international community of supporters, of which we are a part, but as a reminder of one thing: the bridge that connects us to the women of Umoja is not that between a savior and a victim, but rather one between those who have had to remake themselves through loss, and are all striving towards a future in which black women can be safe, honored, respected, and recognized. Umoja Women’s Village is a sanctum in which each woman learns to live together, take up arms together, break bread and deliberate together for the sake of bringing that future closer to our present. And if we want to live by their example, or even go so far as to form our own women’s villages, then, we must eschew Westernized and patriarchal notions of status and worth in favor of acknowledging our collective yearning for a black feminist alternative - and in doing so, we may finally achieve a unity in our riotous desires.