Kenya Shows Dramatic Drop in Fertility Rate

HOLDING her one-year-old son, Humphrey, in her clean, one-room home in a slum here, Rose Majanga explains why she has become part of what may be an accelerating trend toward smaller families in Kenya.

``I saw life ahead was hard,'' she says, as her three-year-old daughter, Maureen, peeks shyly out from behind a sheet hung to hide the bed from the tiny cooking and sitting area. ``Food and clothing is hard [expensive]. When you are sick, it's too expensive. Life has become tight.''

The rent on their room in the crowded outskirts of Nairobi was raised 30 percent in the past year. So was the price of corn flour, a staple in Kenya. School fees and medicine costs are also rising rapidly. Her husband's salary as a domestic cook is small. Wages in Kenya are meager - the annual per capita income is about $340.

So she began using a contraceptive pill in December. And Mrs. Majanga is not alone. Final results of a nationwide survey by the Kenyan government, to be released soon, are expected to confirm preliminary results showing a 20 percent decline in fertility rates between 1988 and 1993, according to Kenyan and United States officials here. Such a decline means there has been a drop in the average lifetime births of a Kenyan woman from 6.7 to 5.4.

``Should this trend continue, it would mean about 70 million fewer people in Kenya by the year 2025, to feed, educate, and employ,'' says Gary Newton, chief of the Office of Population and Health of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the major donor to family planning in Kenya over the past 20 years.

``This decline is probably one of the most rapid declines in fertility ever recorded,'' says Mr. Newton. He says the findings are accurate.

``The message is, if it can happen in Kenya, it can happen anywhere,'' says Ayo Ajai, director of the Kenya office of the New York-based Population Council, a private organization.

The message is not that poor people should have fewer children, but that people have the option to limit the number of children they have even if they are poor, he adds.

US, Kenyan, and other population specialists interviewed say that with similar efforts to promote family planning, declines in birth rates similar to what is happening in Kenya can be achieved elsewhere in Africa, provided there is government support.

Not everyone is convinced by the study. Prof. John Oucho, director of the Population Studies Research Institute at the University of Nairobi, says the 1993 government survey may have overestimated the decline in births. Women may have lied to hide a higher number of children they are having, he contends. He says the government will use the lower birth figures as ``window dressing'' to get more donor funds for family planning.

But Dr. Ajai and other experts cite a combination of forces that likely are having an effect: the worsening economy, increasing education of women, long-term donor and government support of family planning, and an increase in contraceptives, services, and information to the public.

A few doors from Mrs. Majanga's home, Elizabeth Wanjiku mentions another factor contributing to greater acceptance of family planning in Kenya: fading resistance to contraception among men, especially in the urban areas.

When Mrs. Wanjiku had her first baby, in 1989, her husband balked at the idea of birth control. ``Then I continued talking to him about family planning. In 1991, my husband took me to the clinic [to get contraceptives].''

Since then, she stopped taking birth control pills long enough to have a second child. But the couple wants no more than their two children, she says.

In the same Kawangware neighborhood, Wycliffe Ayodi says, ``The older generation still have the belief that children are from God. You cannot advise them [on family planning].'' But he adds, ``People in my generation have changed. The economic situation is very hard.''

Kenya's population growth rate was about 4 percent as late as the mid-1980s, among the highest in the world, according to USAID officials.

Based on USAID's preliminary analysis of the 1993 demographic survey, the rate may have fallen to as low as 2.7 percent a year.

But Kenyan government demographer John Kekovole, who organized the latest and several previous family surveys, says the growth rate is probably still in the range of 3.3 to 3.5 percent.

He disagrees with US estimates of deaths, not births. Population growth rates measure both.

Africa still has the highest population growth rate - 2.9 percent a year - of any continent, enough to double the population in 24 years, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

Using the lower birth rate estimates, the government and USAID estimate the population of Kenya is now at about 25 million.

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