A Kenyan man with his two wives and fifteen children. AFP Photo / Alexander Joe.

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The fertility rate in Kenya is falling extremely fast.

In 1967 when I was first in Kenya the fertility rate was 8.125 children per woman of child-bearing age. At that time it was considered the highest fertility rate in the world. It seemed like almost every woman was either pregnant or carrying a baby on her back.

For example, Mativo, the sub-chief of the area where I live in 1968 to 1970, had four wives; each of the first three wives had eleven children while the last wife had eight. This totals 41 children. I knew Blanche, one of the two women responsible for family planning in Machakos District which then was much larger than today and had almost a million people. She told me that they were overwhelmed by the family planning needs of women and could only handle as much as they could. I remember one woman who had three sets of twins, went to Machakos town for birth control pills, ran into her husband, and ended up with her fourth set of twins. When we go to funerals of people from the generation older than we are, they frequently had ten or more children. Infant, child, and maternal mortality were also high.

Even at that time people in Kenya were beginning to become alarmed at this amazingly high fertility rate. Anyone with the least understanding of geometric progression could easily calculate that this rate was unstainable. As a result by the 1990s the fertility rate decreased to 4.9 to 4.6 children per woman – still quite high. The six sisters in Gladys’ family averaged 4.5, only slightly less than the national average during their reproductive years.

The time is now – mothers waiting for family planning services at a health center. Photo courtesy: DFID

Unfortunately the fertility rate stagnated until about 2005. Then it started declining at an extremely fast rate of over .13 children per woman per year. By 2016 the rate was 3.14 children per woman – all data is from the CIA’s World Factbook. The estimate for 2017 is 2.98 or a decrease of .16 children per woman. Since the infant mortality rate of 38.3 deaths per 1000 births (US is 5.8) and maternal mortality rate of 510 per 100,000 women who give birth (US is 14) is still quite high, the replacement fertility level is 2.33 children per woman (US is 2.1). If the decline continues at this rate, in about four years Kenya will be at replacement. If this happens, I would expect the fertility rate to continue to decline.

This decrease is obvious to me. Our nieces and other younger female acquaintances rarely even have three children. Some have none, one, or two. How different than 50 years ago!

In 1970 when I was in Kenya 1960s the population was 11 million. It is now 46 million or almost 4 times as large. I realize this when I walk the streets of Nairobi or other big towns. Since those female children and women who were born during the time of rapid population increase will have children and since people are also living longer, the population will continue to increase in 50 years to about 75 million or 1.63 times what it is now.

This is all very good news for Kenya. If it is an example of the trends for the rest of Africa, it will be even better news. Unfortunately this may not be the case, at least yet. Look at the 2016 fertility rate and rankings for the other countries of East Africa (plus the US for comparison) (out of 224 countries).

Country Fertility Rate Rank in World
Burundi 6.04 2
Uganda 5.80 5
Tanzania 4.83 17
Rwanda 4.46 25
Kenya 3.14 53
United States 1.87 142

Gisèle Misago, Kamenge clinic’s nurse, facilitating a discussion group for teenagers on sexual and reproductive health. In addition, their program, Improving Women Reproductive Health, last year conducted a total of 12 training sessions on birth control for 300 people including 180 women and 120 men.

Burundi has the second highest fertility rate in the world. This is partly explained by the poverty of the country, the recurrent conflicts, the prominence of the Catholic Church which opposes artificial birth control, and a tradition of having large families. The Kamenge Clinic in Bujumbura provides family planning and runs seminars to inform people on family planning and allay their fears and misinformation. Most women who come to the clinic for family planning ask for injectables because they don’t have to worry about doing something every day and can also hide the birth control method from their husbands or boyfriends. While my observations in Burundi are that the birth rate is declining somewhat it still has a long way to go and faces many obstacles.

More surprising is Uganda which has the fifth highest fertility rate in the world. Uganda defies the conventional wisdom that increased affluence and education of women will lead to a decline in the birth rate. This has not happened in Uganda to any great extent. One of the reasons is that President Museveni does not support family planning and encourages Ugandans to have more children as he thinks there is land for many more people. He is of the opinion that a larger population gives Uganda more prestige and weight in world affairs.

Tanzania is next and, since 1995 was the last time I visited Tanzania, I have no information to add.

The government of Rwanda, on the other hand, realizes that it already has a large population for such a small country. There I have seen billboards encouraging families to have three children. Since their fertility rate is below Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania, this campaign seems to be having some effect.

Conclusion: The demographic transition in Kenya from a moderately high fertility rate in 1990 to replacement level will occur in the next few years. On the other hand, the other countries in East Africa – Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda – are still at a considerably higher rate than Kenya and, perhaps except for Rwanda, do not seem to be lowering their fertility rate very quickly. Therefore it is unclear if Kenya is setting a good example for East Africa or it is an anomaly. If Kenya is a trend setting-country for the region and Africa, this is cause for optimism in controlling population increase. If it is not, then there are going to be a lot more people in Africa.

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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)

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