A village for women

About 30 tribal women of Kenya, fed up with their abusive husbands, have built an
entire village only for women near Nairobi. Everything that is the reverse of
patriarchy is the norm here, writes
Mehru Jaffer

Nadia Ferroukhi (38), a Paris-based photographer, is mad about matriarchy, and spends much of her time travelling around the globe in search of dying societies where women are still in charge.

 photograph of Tumai female residents taken by Nadia Ferroukhi, on display in Vienna, as part of the recent exhibition, Fragrances of Light
A photograph of Tumai female residents taken by Nadia Ferroukhi, on display in Vienna, as part of the recent exhibition, Fragrances of Light. Photo: WFS

Most recently she spent time at Tumai, a village 300 km north of Nairobi, Kenya, and returned to Europe with stunning stills of women like Chile, Naliapu, Consalata, Namjal and others, who decided to clear away acacia bushes with their own bare hands to build an entire village only for women.

About 30 women from the indigenous tribes of Samburu and Turkana led by Chile (35) decided one day to leave their abusive husbands and begin life on their own. The village was registered under the name Tumai, which in Swahili means hope.

Chile already had experience of living in a woman-only community from the days she had spent at Umoja, Kenya’s first female village founded in 1990 by 15 Samburu women. The founding residents of Umoja, which in Swahili means unity, were women who had been rendered homeless after their husbands had rejected them because they had been gangraped. Today, both Tumai and Umoja have been declared as violence-against-women-free zones.

The rules at Tumai are very simple. To live here, women have to be divorced. The women can live with their children, regardless of whether they are boys or girls. However, sons, once they are 16, will have to leave the village either to find jobs for themselves or migrate for higher studies. Even the daughters leave Tumai once they marry.

The 150 residents of Tumai hunt together for roots that they use as food, build mud homes, rear chickens and cows and train dogs to guard the village from both jealous men and wild animals like hyenas.

Most of the money earned by the women is from tourism. Tours to Tumai are common. Women stage song and dance performances for tourists and also sell traditional artifacts, wood carvings and jewellery. Best-selling handicrafts include gourds, small carved stools propped under the neck while sleeping, shields, spears, wrist-knives and traditional swords called simis. Some women make clothing from local fabrics, including the typical blanket in red — blended with black and blue colours — that is used to keep warm during an early morning African safari.

Each woman gets to keep 90 per cent of her total earnings for the day, while 10 per cent of it goes into the village treasury. The decision to buy more chickens, or to repair a home is taken unanimously. Even when an idea is vetoed, there is little dissent and never any violence.

But despite liberating themselves from men, these women do not wish to be labelled as man haters. Clarifies Ferroukhi: "These women are not against men. They are against cruelty and often violent attempts by the husband to dominate them."

When she was about seven, Chile underwent genital mutilation. The memory of the fear that she was drowning in her own blood, and the excruciating pain she experienced at that point still remains fresh in her mind. Although she is a mother of three, Chile does not remember ever having enjoyed sex. What she did long for sometimes when she was younger —- as she revealed to Ferroukhi —- was physical intimacy based on love and affection.

One day Ferroukhi asked Chile to take a ride with her to the nearest town. "We went to the local market and bought vegetables and other food items for all of us and spent a night in a hotel. Throughout that trip to the city, Chile looked like a faded flower. She walked with her head down and did not speak much. The minute we were back, she cheered up and was back in harmony with the environment she had created with her hands," recalls Ferroukhi.

In Tumai, Ferroukhi found residents actually practising the principle of sharing. Whatever little there is in the village is distributed equally between everyone. Everything that is the reverse of patriarchy is the norm. The women are gentle with their male children who, even after leaving the village, return for visits. The girls are encouraged to study and don’t have to undergo genital mutilation.

Stills from Ferroukhi’s visit were recently displayed in Vienna at an exhibition entitled Fragrances of Light. It was sponsored by the OPEC Fund For International Development (OFID) at its headquarters in the city.

It is Ferroukhi’s sensitivity to the ideas of social justice that inspires her to study matriarchy. What really helped her was the fact that she happened to have stumbled upon some important literature about societies where neither men nor women dominate. She read about pre-historic societies before the practice of monotheistic religions which tended to be more egalitarian simply because women were in charge. "I am most interested in social issues like injustice," she says.

This adventurous lens-woman has also visited the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya in north-eastern India, where property is passed down from the mother to the youngest daughter. When marriages do not work out among the Khasis, couples are allowed to separate and marry other people. Revealing, indeed, is the lens of the fearless Nadia. —WFS