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Family ties: . . . and mothers

By Kristin Helmore / December 18, 1985

Birthrates go down, specialists note, when the overall conditions of women improve, as a result of education and a widening sense of their ability to contribute to the family in ways other than bearing and rearing many children. ROSEMARY walks down a rutted dirt road near Kinangop, Kenya, with her children -- all nine of them.

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The youngest, barely two months old, dozes in a threadbare towel slung across his mother's back. The eldest, a long-legged girl in a blue-and-white school uniform, has just turned 14. Their mother is 30 years old.

The air is damp and chilly on this high plateau, yet mother and children are barefoot. A few wear tattered sweaters over their flimsy garments, and one boy sports a bulky wool cap. But none are adequately dressed, and the youngest children's teeth are chattering.

Rosemary, apparently aware of official efforts to reduce family size, is reluctant to admit that all the children are hers. Asked if she and her husband expect to have more, she lowers her eyes shyly, while her oldest children giggle.

Finally, in a small voice, she replies, ``I don't know. We have never discussed it.'' Population pressures

With an annual birthrate of 54 per 1,000, and an average of 8.1 children per woman, Kenya has the highest fertility rate in the world. Its annual rate of population growth, at 4.1 percent, is also the highest. By contrast, the annual birthrate in the United States is 16 per 1,000. West Germany -- whose population is actually declining -- has the lowest annual birthrate, 10 per 1,000.

According to the projections of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, Kenya's population will increase from 20.2 million to 37.3 million by the year 2000. Its population ``doubling time'' is 17 years. Even today, Kenya is not self-sufficient in food.

Rosemary wants her children to move to the capital when they grow up, since opportunities for work in their village are few. But like most country people, she is unaware of the spiraling unemployment and appalling living conditions in Mathare Valley, the Nairobi slum where most rural immigrants live. The total population of Nairobi is expected to quadruple by the year 2000. Yet Kenya has had a national family planning program since 1967 -- the oldest such program in sub-Saharan Africa.

Twice a week, a doctor visits a lumber plant near Rosemary's village. Local women can bring their children for checkups and receive contraceptives and advice on birth control. But Rosemary has never been there.

Although Rosemary knows that the authorities wish to discourage large families like hers, there are many reasons why she -- and thousands of other African women -- have not wanted to limit the number of their children.

Population experts believe that first among these reasons is the high rate of infant mortality in Africa: 82 out of 1,000 births in Kenya, as compared with 10.5 in the United States and 38 in China. In fact, Kenya has one of Africa's lowest infant mortality rates. Sierra Leone has the continent's highest: 200 per 1,000 births.

The decline of infant mortality in Kenya in recent years accounts in part for the country's population boom. The age-old expectation that many children will die has not yet adjusted to the improved health care now available in most areas. A woman will want to have many children if she expects that a number of them will not survive. Rosemary has lost one baby so far. Large families -- a rural status symbol

Traditionally, African peasants see children as an investment in the future: There will be more workers to help fetch water and firewood, till the land, and provide for their parents in old age. And a woman's status in rural communities is greatly enhanced the more children she has -- particularly sons. When a woman first marries, her surest means of gaining the acceptance and respect of her in-laws -- among whom she must now live -- is to start bearing children as quickly as possible. If she doesn't, h er husband may take a second wife.

To Westerners it may seem extraordinary that Rosemary and her husband have never discussed the size of their family, yet this too is typical of many rural African couples. Conversation between a man and a woman about such matters is considered improper. In any case, it is usually taken for granted that both partners want as many children as possible. And in remote areas, many people are unaware that the size of their family can be controlled at all.