Nation with the fastest growing population tries to alter parent attitudes

Cecilia Njeri pauses from her laundry chores to pronounce that she is ''happy her husband is not like other men.'' What sets him apart? He has quietly agreed to his 25-year-old wife's wishes to have no more children. She is already the mother of four.

The story of the Njeris is both hopeful and worrisome. It offers one of the first glimmers that efforts to bring under control Kenya's exploding population, now growing at the fastest recorded rate in the world, are making headway.

This tentative sign of success is being supported by a new government family planning initiative that is considered by experts the most ambitious in the country's history.

Yet the fact that this young couple's acceptance of family planning stands out from the attitudes of most of their neighbors in this poor community on the outskirts of Nairobi is a matter of grave concern. It demonstrates that while population control efforts have done well in some developing countries, they continue to face an uphill slog in changing attitudes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenya was one of the first states in sub-Saharan Africa to formulate a population policy in 1967. But as in other African states, the political sensitivity of the issue of family planning made the Kenyan government extremely wary of putting into practice what was spelled out in official policy statements.

Government policy clearly recognizes that Kenya's 4 percent annual population growth is potentially disastrous. That high growth rate stems from extremely high fertility and success in reducing the country's mortality rate.

A 4 percent annual rate of growth means Kenya's current population of 18 million will more than double by the year 2000. Food requirements will be roughly double those of today, but the annual rate of increase in agricultural production is already falling. It means a near doubling of primary school enrollments, where capacity is already stretched and one-third of the teachers are unqualified. It means, in short, social demands the government cannot possibly meet.

Particularly worrisome is the already high dependency ratio. About 51 percent of Kenya's population is under the age of 15, meaning for every 100 adults, there are an equal number of children who need to be supported and educated.

Demographic experts point out that slowing Kenya's population expansion requires not only making contraceptives and family planning information available to a populace that is 80 percent rural, but also changing attitudes, which is perhaps more difficult.

''People here take having many children as a source of security,'' says Damaris Kinyua, a nurse at the family planning clinic here.

This community is full of migrants from rural areas who hope to find work in Nairobi. Most lead a hand-to-mouth existence and figure a large family increases the chances that at least one of their children will be successful enough to provide them some security in their old age.

In the rural areas the view that children are a means of wealth is even stronger, population experts say. They are seen as ''labor units'' to work the land. In one sense they are easier to care for than their urban counterparts, since most farmers are able to subsist on their small plots of land.

Other prevailing views that encourage large families (the average woman in Kenya has eight children) are that big families are a sign of high status and that contraceptives are bad for a woman's health and tend to encourage promiscuity.

At the Kabiro family planning clinic in Kawangware, nurse Kinyua says local people view family size as such a personal matter that she encourages family planning only as a means of ''having children when you want them.''

This clinic was started in 1980 by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a nonprofit rural development organization. The men in the community are most resistant, Kinyua says. Many women come to the clinic surreptitiously, claiming health problems, so their husbands and men friends will not know the nature of their visit.

But nurse Kinyua says she can see attitudes changing and ''slowly it is getting easier'' to encourage family planning. The hard economic times in Kenya and the widespread unemployment in Kawangware are helping. ''Right now they know there are no jobs and they can see how difficult it is to feed, clothe, and educate a large family.''

The government's new push in family planning comes in the form of the National Council on Population and Development, which convened last November. Population experts look on the council as Kenya's the most serious and ambitious effort yet toward population control.

''The council's main function is to change people's attitudes towards having smaller families,'' says a council official who prefers not to be identified. ''We are optimistic so long as we handle it properly. It is a very sensitive issue.''

The council's program should take shape in the next few months. Generally it will coordinate efforts by a half dozen volunteer organizations as well as 12 government ministries. International donors have already pledged some $11.5 million for the program over the next three years.

The aim will be to promote family planning, primarily in the rural areas, with a particular effort made in converting men to the idea.

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