Written By: Ephraim Percy Kenyanito
Topics: Youth, Students, Teenage Mothers
Njeri sighs as she pulls a three-legged stool to rest after a long day in school.
“I hope by narrating the experiences I go through daily, I will be able to encourage other teen mothers in Kenya so that they know that they are not alone in this long journey,” says Njeri, who requested anonymity to protect her privacy. Her eyes intensely convey her convictions. Her deep sadness is evident.
Njeri, a strong young woman, went on to describe her typical day. Either her eight-month old baby’s loud wail or her Nokia 3310 phone awakens her at six each morning. She bathes her son and changes his ‘nappies’. She describes how every morning before picking her son up from his cradle she remembers his father Ali, whom baby Jimmy resembles distinctly. “We met in our freshman year in the university and after hanging out together for five months, we decided to take our friendship to the next level,” Njeri says.
The ‘morning after’ had been very awkward, she recounts, as it had been their first time and also because Njeri was raised as a Christian while Ali is a Muslim; both religions frown upon teenage love affairs. Sexual education is a topic that is avoided by parents and the community. It is only talked about after a couple has had an “accident,” the term used to describe when a teenager becomes pregnant, and they are then referred to as a bad example.
“I did not know then how to protect myself. I only thought that it is the man who should have protection,” she says, her voice cracking with remorse and tears welling up in her eyes.
“I am the lady who was expected to be submissive as my local pastor had taught in women seminars,” Njeri says. Consequently, she did not ask Ali if he had protection. Now she is wrestling with the challenges of raising a child, while she is full of teenage dreams. She is not alone.
Many Kenyan students are dealing with the dilemma and it is not getting any easier for them. This is the case because African customs make it taboo to openly discuss reproductive health. Religion, gender and age are some of the most influential factors determining whether or not parents will discuss ways of protecting oneself from unwanted pregnancies.
Teenage mother. Photo: Global Giving.
There is a tacit agreement that girls should be taught these sensitive matters by their teachers or religious leaders. The treatment of boys is based on the same concept that they should know what they are doing and therefore completely at fault. In some cases when a girl becomes pregnant, the girl’s father pays a police officer to have the boy arrested and accused of rape regardless of whether the sexual act was consensual or not.
Some 13,000 schoolgirls are kicked out of Kenyan schools every year for being pregnant. These statistics rarely change as there has been little effort to address this trend through a realistic approach. It is baffling for the pastors as well. “We have been left with a responsibility to teach them matters of reproductive health as their parents have shied away due to conservative African customs,” says Pastor Eliud Wafula of Redeemed Gospel Church Eldoret, a church with around 6,000 worshipers.
Prominent on NTV Kenya about the situation of teenage pregnancies in Kenyan schools, the girls are quick to point out that they do not receive adequate information about sex education.
Njeri says that just like all the teen mothers she knows, the father of her child bolted immediately after the pregnancy and has repeatedly denied responsibility of being the father of Jimmy. These are just some of the challenges Kenyan student mothers face.
There are other difficulties. These include: lack of information to obtain legal redress and ensure that the father provides for the child. In case of a rape , the assailant at times does not face the law due to lack of enough medical centres to provide evidence to the police that the girl was raped.
Another challenge is that teen mothers don’t know how to manage their finances. They lack places where they can learn budgeting skills. There are no programmes to teach the young girls parenting skills, nor encourage them to be independent and not overburden their families with these responsibilities.
Other members of the society ignore the Ministry of Education guidelines on readmission of teenage mothers. Some privately funded religious schools expel pregnant teens. Citizen TV Kenya brought this issue to the attention of their audience, and posted the expose on YouTube:
The shaming has further repercussions on the young mothers. Njeri describes some added challenges: “This morning, I first went to the kitchen, shook the old Jiko [charcoal burner] in order to ensure that the ashes from the previous night accumulate in the lower level of the burner. I cannot afford to buy a kerosene stove since my father reduced his monthly remittance two months ago to punish me and ensure that I do not make the same mistake again.”
Her father works in Mombasa while she lives in Eldoret with her mother and son. “I finally lit the Jiko after a long struggle while inhaling the choking smoke. I boiled the water and changed Jimmy’s nappies. All this while Jimmy was wailing and my mother had been making futile attempts to calm him down.”
Njeri’s son is not her only responsibility: she also has to prepare meals for her mother, her three other siblings and herself. However she no longer interacts with them freely because she feels embarrassed for being a bad example as a first-born in the family. Their cold behaviour towards her results in a lot of silence and few exchanges of words. Because she is the eldest daughter she walks her siblings to the nearby primary school which is an hour walk away and rushes home to be in the university lecture halls, 25 minutes away by 10:45 am. Jimmy stays with his grandmother.
Njeri would like to live on campus again but because the hostels are congested with four students sharing a 3×4 metre single room it would be difficult to include her son.
It’s not always possible to be on time. “Once, I found my Early Childhood Development 201 Lecturer just exiting the lecture hall. By then I had missed to attend the first two lectures, and just as always, I had to ask the chopi for his notes,” Njeri recounts, somewhat embarrassed. Chopi is a student who sits in front of the class and answers all the hard questions. She attends one more lecture before lunch break.
While in school, Njeri is not isolated from the choice she made. Ali texts her. He was away from campus with a hangover from partying the previous evening. In the text message, he says he loathes Njeri. He accuses her of playing around and expresses doubts that Jimmy really is his son.
Njeri finally heads home at 5.30pm, breastfeeds Jimmy, washes him, changes his clothes, helps with dinner and does the dishes.
Understandably, it is hard for her to stay awake to study after such a busy day.
Having a male journalist researching this matter is important enough for Njeri to dedicate some of her evening time to the interview, despite her obvious exhaustion. She knows that the next day will be the same as the day before, but hopes that her willingness to tell her story will help other Kenyan students avoid such situation and instead live out their dreams.
Video about teenage Pregnancies and sex education in Kenya: By Citizen TV Kenya: (Teenage Pregnancies http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3Lao7zioQc&feature=plcp )
This article was originally published on Ephraim’s professional page on European Journalism Centre Online Magazine ThinkBrigade.