Judi’s story: How I escaped child marriage in Kenya

Siegfried Modola is an independent photojournalist and documentary photographer based in East Africa. Find out more about him at his website.

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

Judi Lerumbe. Photo: Siegfried Modola/ONE

Judi Lerumbe fled to Umoja so that she could stay in school.

“I came here with my stepmother when I was 15 years old”, says Judi Lerumbe, now 21. “My father wanted to marry me to a much older man but I was a young girl at the time. I remember how my stepmother refused my father’s wishes. We packed our belongings overnight and left to join the other women of Umoja”.

Umoja is a community of 48 women in the arid, wind swept plains of Samburu County in northern Kenya. The word means ‘unity’ in Swahili.

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

Judi Lerumbe. Photo: Siegfried Modola/ONE

The women take care of each other and their children – and most importantly, they are in control of their own lives.  

“In Umoja I managed to go to school as a girl,” Judi says. “I learned English that I use to communicate with tourists when they visit us. I am able to teach them about the Samburu way of life. This is very important.”

She talks with confidence about her place in the community today. She works in a museum the community has set up to support themselves, attracting tourists who can stay on the campsite they have created too.

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

A woman walks livestock to drink at a river near Umoja, Kenya. Photo: Siegfried Modola/ONE

Life is incredibly hard in this part of the world, with high unemployment and widespread poverty.  If you’re a women, it’s even harder.  

Girls in this region are often taken out of school early to be married a young age. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is widely practised although it’s been illegal in Kenya since 2011.  And once married, women here have little control over their own lives.

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

Jane Lengope. Photo: Siegfried Modola/ONE

Jane Lengope is one of the 15 women who founded Umoja in 1990, after deciding she wanted a different life. “When we came together to form Umoja we had to establish a way to survive away from the dominance of men and to have a collective income,” she says.

“We started by selling beads and jewellery to tourists passing by, visiting the nearby national parks. This worked well. We started earning money that we dearly needed to buy food, medicines and send our children to school. Then we started investing in livestock for milk and meat and saving for the future.”

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

Children get ready to go to school. Photo: Siegfried Modola, ONE

Jane and the women of Umoja now try to educate girls and women in the region about their rights.  “Sometimes we travel far, to tell young girls that they can choose a different life to the one imposed by their communities. That they do not have to go through FGM to become women, or that they do not have to marry older men.”

Like thousands of other girls and women around the world, Jane, Judi and the women of Umoja are fighting the inequalities that stop them from reaching their full potential.

They are proving that access to education, the freedom to decide what happens to their bodies, and control over their lives can make a big difference to a girl’s life.  This small community is thriving.

Umoja - women only village in Samburu, Kenya -

Women walk to collect water from a river near Umoja, Kenya. Photo: Siegfried Modola, ONE

Poverty is sexist.  But we can fight back with equality. We’re calling on our leaders to deliver real action that leads to real change for girls and women this year.

Stand with Judi. Stand with girls and women everywhere.  Sign the petition now.