Some of our family – in back, grand-niece Trinah; center left, grand-son Brian; center right, grand-daughter Faith (with shirt given to her by my grand-daughter Jayla), and front, grand-daughter, Rembo.

When I lived in Kenya in the 1960s, Kenya had a fertility rate – the number of children the average woman would have during her child-bearing years – of over 8 children per mother. At that time this was considered the highest birth rate in the world. Infant and child mortality rates were also high. This high rate was obvious as most women of child-bearing age were either pregnant, with a baby on their back, or both. I knew one of the two women in Machakos District where I then lived providing family planning for a population of a million people. With scarce resources, they were overwhelmed by the need. By the time I left Kenya in late 1970, Kenyans began to become alarmed by this abnormally high birth rate and the birth rate slowly began to decline.

This decline led to a fertility rate in the 1990s of 4.5 children per woman of childbearing age. Therefore the “mythical” average family at that time had the two grandparents, four sons, four daughter-in-laws, and eighteen grandchildren. This is a large family with a total of twenty-eight people. This meant that there was a large labor pool to cultivate the small-scale farm. With this large pool of labor it was beneficial for one or more of the family to seek outside employment to help support the family and raise capital for input into the farm.

In 2018 the Kenya fertility rate (from the CIA Facbook as the source) is 2.81 children. With a lower but still fairly high infant, child, and maternity death rate, the replacement level is 2.3 children per mother. The rate is dropping quickly so that the replacement level should be reached in 2020 or 2021.

It has been about 50 years – 1970 to 2020 – for this demographic transition to occur in Kenya. This is extremely fast and probably the fastest in Africa to date. I don’t understand why the demographers have not been noticing this trend and analyzing why it has occurred. I predict that like many countries, once the replacement level in Kenya has been reached, it will continue to go down below replacement level.

This means that the current family has the two grandparents, 2.25 sons, and 2.25 daughter-in-laws, and about 5 grandchildren for a total family unit of 11.5 people. Of course the size of the farm of these grandparents is one-fourth of that of their parents. The family is still large enough that one or more members may go off to paid employment while the rest will tend to the family farm.

If we project this into the next generation in 2050, since the replacement level will have been reached a long time previously, the average family will then have two grandparents, one son, one daughter-in-law, and two children for a total of only 6 people. While labor will now be in short supply, land will no longer be divided into smaller plots so the son will have the same size plot as his father. The family plot will now be about 40 percent of the parent’s plot and only 10 percent of the grandparent’s plot at the time of independence in 1963. This will bring tremendous change to the dynamics of small-scale farming. While I hope to be around in 2050 to see how this turns out, I’ll be 107 years old by then so I may not be able to write you an update.

While this all may seem academic, this parallels the trends in Gladys’ family. Her mother had ten children of which seven survived to adulthood. They happened to be all women and they had 7, 6, 5, 3, 2, 2, and 0 children for a total of 25 children, an average of 3.6 each. Twelve of these are females. Most of them are still in their childbearing years, but the oldest are near the end. So far none of them has more than two children, although some will give birth to more children than they have now. Nonetheless I doubt that the total will be more than the 27 children needed for replacement. Gladys and all five of her living sisters take care of one or more grandchildren, although one sister is now taking care of a great-grandchild, while the fathers and mothers are seeking their fortunes in Kakamega, Eldoret, Nairobi, or elsewhere. Some of them have found it while others are still seeking it. Some of our more successful nephews have already built or beginning to build a house in their parents’ rural homesteads or on land they have purchased nearby.

Nonetheless I don’t see that Kenyans are going to follow the American example from the twentieth century where people in rural areas abandoned their homes for life in the cities. Kenyans may continue to go to work in the cities, but they will continue to invest in their homes in the countryside. After their working days are over, who wants to stay in the slums in the cities or the small apartments in high rises? Many retired Kenyans that I know have already moved back to the countryside so I expect this trend will continue. Consequently small-scale farming will also continue, perhaps more intensively because the farms are smaller and perhaps with more mechanical efficiency as labor becomes scarcer and more costly.


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David Zarembka

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