Samuel Siringi, 36, is one of 27 siblings. “My father put together three wives who had 27 children between them. My family ran out of names for the children so we have the same names for all the boys born in the same year to different mothers. We have three Moses, Up, Middle and Bottom, depending on the part of the hill their mother lived on. There’re a Henry Up and a Henry Bottom, and a Tom Middle and Tom Bottom. The ones missing are the girls, who don’t count. They don’t inherit any land.
They just get married and leave home,” says Siringi, who has one wife, two children and a Master’s degree in population studies from the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
Having more than one wife is not unusual in Kenya, with most tribes — there are 42 tribes in Kenya, the Maasai, Luo, Kikuyu, Kuria, Kisii, being just some of them — being polygamous in both ideology and practice. Thirteen of every 100 married Kenyan women are married to men who have at least one or more other wives, shows Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2009, the last year for which countrywide data is available. Though the numbers are down from 16 of every 100 married women in 2003, they are not falling fast enough.
“Men could marry as many wives as they can afford, all they have to do is pay a bride price to the girl’s father and build each wife a house and give them land to support themselves and their children. The more wives a man had, the larger was his group of family and friends, and the higher his prestige in the community,” says Siringi. President Barack Obama’s grandpa, for example, paid 12 cows as dowry to his half-grandma Sarah Obama, 90, who still lives in the traditional
homestead in a village called Kogelo in western Kenya.
Like in India, Kenya is among 40 countries in the world that have worryingly high population growth. Africa and Asia together will account for 86% of growth in the world’s urban population over the next four decades, adding new challenges in terms of jobs, housing and infrastructure.
Too many, too soon
While Africa’s urban population will increase from 414 million to over 1.2 billion by 2050, Asia’s will grow from 1.9 billion to 3.3 billion, shows data from the 2011 Revision of the World Urbanisation Prospects, produced by the UN Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
“Polygamy perpetuates large families, with women competing to have more children, which frustrates campaigns to control the population,” says Siringi. Kenya has a population of 41 million, which is growing at an estimated rate of 2.3% per year.
But now pockets of resistance against patriarchal traditions across Kenya, even in rural communities, are helping women take charge of their lives. One such woman is Winfred Wamucii, 21, who is doing her Bachelors in Computer Science at Laikipia University College just north of Nairobi. “I lived with my stepdad and seven siblings and got married at the age of 14 just to get out of poverty. Within a week, I realised marriage was a mistake and this was not the life I wanted. I wanted to go to school, so I wrote to the principal of Tigithi Secondary School and he came and rescued me,” she says.
Backed by a scholarship from Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the, Wamucii quickly put her one week of marriage behind her. “The scholarship got me through school and I now have an academic loan from the government, but my brother has had to drop out of school because we have no money,” she says. She’s not planning marriage but wants to have two children some day. “School changed my life, I will have children only when I can pay for their education,” says Wamucii.
Small is beautiful
Unlike Wamucii, Mary Wangari, 39, has eight children and did not go to school. She did not want a large family and used contraception after three children without telling her husband, but stopped because it made her sick. “I don’t want more children and am now using the rhythm method to avoid
pregnancies,” she says.
Injectable contraception is the most popular among women here because it prevents pregnancy for up to three months. Mary Wanjiru, 25, uses it — again without telling her husband — and plans to limit her family to three. She is among the handful of women who land up at Marura Village Dispensary at Nanyuki in the Laikipia district. “When women come here to get their babies vaccinated, we also use the opportunity to address issues related to women’s health, such as
family planning and the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM), also referred to as female circumcision. Unlike male circumcision that
protects men against HIV and sexually-transmitted infections, FGM has no health benefits for girls and women. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, severe bleeding, tetanus or sepsis (acute bacterial infection), open sores and injury to genital tissue. Long-term effects are scar tissue, cysts, infections, infertility and childbirth complications, including increased risk of mother and newborn deaths, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe it has religious support. Currently, about 140 million girls and women are living the consequences of circumcision, shows WHO data. In Africa, about 92 million girls have undergone FGM. Countries with bans include Benin, Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.
“Kenya banned FGM in September last year, making it illegal to practice, seek it or take someone abroad to get it done,” says Kerry Kyaa, an east Africa research fellow with the British Institute in East Africa, who has extensively researched the practice. The law also bans derogatory remarks about women who do not undergo FGM. “The practice is going down, but not fast enough,” says Kyaa.