WEST POKOT, KENYA – In Ng’ing’in village, 273 miles (440km) west of Nairobi, Loyesereng’ Lokosoywan arrives home with a packet of sugar he had gone out to buy for his family’s next round of tea.
A few years earlier, he would never have gone to the shops while his wife was home and the children were around. It was not the way of a Pokot man to run an errand if he could send someone else to do it instead. But, Lokosoywan says, things have changed.
As an example, he points to the issue of family planning, or child spacing. The 52-year-old and his wife, Monica Loyesereng’, are parents to six children, having lost one 12 years ago. But their family might have been much larger if it weren’t for a local faith leader who visited them to champion family planning.
“I and my wife would never have thought of controlling the number of children we would have because, in most cases, it would be the pride of every Pokot man to sire as many children as he could. But when I heard of the benefits of spacing children from a catechist who visited our home, I was interested,” Lokosoywan says.
The catechist – a religious teacher with the Catholic Church – is Isaiah Silikelion. He met Lokosoywan and his wife through the local hospital, where Monica Lokosoywan had gone for a post-natal checkup after the birth of her youngest daughter. Working closely with hospitals and health clinics, as well as local congregations, Silikelion has devoted himself to spreading the word about modern contraceptive use and the benefits of smaller families
“The message is not to stop having children, but to space them so that mothers are able to raise them well and give birth to healthy children also,” says Silikelion, who has four children of his own. “It is about encouraging the residents here to give birth to a number of children they can raise.”
By encouraging parents to use a variety of methods to space out their children, Silikelion knows he is going against the teachings of his faith, which encourages only the use of natural family planning methods. But as the second of eight siblings, he also knows firsthand the pressures and the lost potential that a large family can suffer.
Silikelion, 38, says it was not easy for his parents to raise so many children. As the two eldest, he and his sister, who became a nun, were expected to help their mother look after their siblings when their father died. At the age of 15, Silikelion dropped out of school.
After he became a lay preacher of the church – a job he does alongside farming maize and raising goats and cattle – Silikelion says he could not sit by and watch as members of his community fell into the same struggles his own family had faced. He recruited other catechists and community members to his cause, and now they work with the local hospital to educate their congregations and neighbors about family planning.
Silikelion says at first he came up against some resistance, especially from men in the community. But with the help of hospital staff and his fellow catechists, “I have been able to win hearts.”
According to estimates by the National Council for Population and Development, a woman living in West Pokot will give birth to an average of seven children in her lifetime, compared with the national average of four, earning the county one of the highest fertility rates in the country. Nurses at Chepareria Sub-District Hospital say they have a mother attending the antenatal clinic who is on her 13th pregnancy and they have seen women with up to 15 children.
Silikelion’s mission to convince people of the benefits of family planning is backed by a nationwide shift toward women taking more control over when and if they have children, and how many they have. A 2015 report by UNFPA found the use of modern contraceptive methods – including injectables, implants and the pill – among married women in Kenya has increased from 32 percent in 2003 to 53 percent in 2014.
Despite the rise in contraceptive prevalence across the country, Angela Tanga, head of family planning at Chepareria Sub-District Hospital, says there is still a lot to be done to convince people in the community, especially men, to embrace family planning. Contraception is still a controversial topic in Pokot and the use of birth control is often seen by men as an act of betrayal.
“In many cases, women are battered by their husbands when the men find out they are using contraceptives,” Tanga says. The hospital has had to move all of its maternal and family planning services into one room so that no one can tell what service a mother is there to use. “We found that women were telling [other women’s] husbands about them using contraceptives,” leading to the husbands beating their wives, Tanga explains.
But Loyesereng’ Lokosoywan says he couldn’t be happier that a man of faith introduced him to the idea of family planning. Now that they have stopped having children, Monica engages in small-scale farming for the family’s consumption and when the rains fail, she sells firewood by the roadside. The extra income has allowed them to buy two acres of land, and now the couple have more time to raise and educate their children together.
Silikelion says since he started talking about the benefits of smaller families, life for the whole community has changed for the better.
“Since we started preaching the message of family planning, child and maternal mortality [rates] have reduced, and cases of infidelity among men have reduced as they now have time with their wives,” he says.
“The community at large has been economically empowered, since women have joined in economic activities rather than just child bearing.”