Why childlessness by choice was unheard of
“My worth is not determined by having children,” happens to be one of the growing slogans among millennials and Generation Z’. They consider not having children the latest swag citing lack of interest in raising them.
Sharon Otieno, for example explains that having children is the last thing on her list. She says that one of the most important things in her life at the moment is ensuring she has a stable career and enough money, which will actually help her deal with any loneliness. The 34-year-old believes that some decisions are personal and therefore, society should not imposing demands on them.
“I have seen my aunts being forced to get married in their 40s and I always wonder how important it was for them to concentrate so much on getting a family while there was more to life than children and a husband,” she wonders.
She says that although she mentioned her lack of interest in children and marriage to her parents, they are constantly throwing suggestions of successful men she should be interested in from her village in Rongo.
“I don’t really care much about traditions and I believe that some things are a bit too farfetched, so what if I don’t fancy marriage and I don’t want children? That should be my business and not the clan’s concern,” she says.
Sharon’s sentiments cuts across some millennials. This worries some elders because having children showed the value one had in the community. Children provided continuity of the family lineage and the community. There was great joy when a child was born. This new life would be welcomed with ululations and celebrations by the parents, relatives and neighbours.
While a modern woman maybe childless by choice, in traditional African society, women would go an extra mile to get children.
Among the Kisii community for instance, Joshua Omae, an elder explains that in cases of infertility and childlessness, the community would always view you as a lesser being. You were deemed to lack effort and accused of not wanting to have children.
“The community never understood cases such as infertility. You would either be termed as a lazy woman with no interest of bearing a child or one who wasn’t favoured by God,” he says.
In most cases however, Omae explains that the elders would ensure that your husband got another woman while you would end up marrying a widower. This often happened because they assumed that you would be a suitable companion to a widower who already had children to take care of.
“Your only business in the widower’s life would be to ensure that he is well taken care of while raising his children from his previous marriage,” he says
He adds that it is unfortunate that the community never believed that men could also be infertile and this meant that most of the burden always fell on the woman.
In Luhyaland, the community also put a lot of importance on children. In case a couple was unable to bear children, arrangements would be made for a man to marry either the wife’s sister or look for another woman in the community.
Lawrence Shichabati a luhya elder in Shirotsa village in Khwisero says that generally not having children was considered a taboo amongst the Luhya community. In most cases, some of the consequences would emerge when it came to giving one last respects. Bachelors popularly referred to as wasumba, were men who the community believed needed to have married and sired, but died before making these perceived “achievements”.
“There was no decent send off for anyone who didn’t have children, you would either be buried at the fence or outside your parent’s compound —this showed how less of value you were to the community,” he says.
They were pricked with thorns at the backside of their legs to remove the curse. Few people attended the burial. Mourners were required not to wail or shed tears because there was little to document about the departed. No food was served.
“The essence of life is procreation. The plot by young people to remain childless is a taboo. That’s why in our community, we didn’t give them a good sendoff because they had nothing to show for living,” he says.
Women marrying women
In the Akamba community, Peter Wambua, an elder says that it was unfortunate for one not to have children. Women were allowed to marry other women in order to bear children for them, also known as Iweto.
He explains that there are several cases when iweto would be practiced; when a woman couldn’t bear children, when a married woman had no sons or if she was an intersex. “Once a woman discovered she couldn’t bear children, her husband would allow her to bring in an Iweto, to bear children for her,” says Peter.
The wife would identify a woman, visit the family and together with the girl’s family, they would agree on bride price. “She would later move in and go ahead to perform her duties as a woman to help bear children for the first wife. In cases where the older woman didn’t have a husband, she always ensured that she searched for a man to step in and have an arrangement to never be in contact with the man again,” he explains.
When a child was born; the man was not allowed to contact the family and in most cases was referred to as uncle. He says that there were cases where the new bride, was allowed to choose whom she wants to have child with.
He adds that given that the African traditions allowed women to have option of getting children meant that children were valued in the community.
“This new trend of young adults opting not to have children is something the ancestors wouldn’t be pleased with. We would be looking at a large group of outcasts in the community,” he says in ending.