When delegates from around the world gather in Nairobi this month for the United Nations Women's Decade Conference, Dora Ayonga will be hoeing weeds for six hours in a cornfield. With her day's pay, 48 cents, she will walk to the village market here and buy the beans and corn that keep her husband and children alive.
As the United Nations' Decade for Women, launched 10 years ago in Mexico City to foster equality, peace and development, draws to a close, Ayonga is looking for a way not to have another baby. The 23-year-old woman has been pregnant five times during the past five years. Her four children (one baby died) are malnourished, with skinny legs and bloated bellies. Her husband, Silas, who is out of work, wants another child.
The cost of not getting pregnant -- the price of a round-trip bus ticket to a family-planning clinic in Kakamega, 25 miles away, where contraceptives are handed out for free -- is $2.50, the equivalent of more than five days of hoeing weeds, a week's food for Ayonga's family, an impossible amount to spend on paraphernalia that makes her husband suspicious.
After thousands of women from around the world have come to Nairobi for the July 15 conference opening, assessed the progress of womankind and gone home, Ayonga will, in all likelihood, get pregnant again. And the growing family she wishes would stop growing will be hers to support for another decade or two of 15-hour days. Such is the status of the rural African woman, of whom Dora Ayonga is quite typical, at the end of the Decade for Women.
To come to Africa to assess the progress of the world's women is akin to going to Beirut to assess the progress of world peace. For African women, to an extent greater than anywhere else in the world, are yoked to a traditional culture that keeps them pregnant and powerless and uses them and their children as draft animals to power the continent's faltering leading occupation -- subsistence farming.
African women lead the world in producing babies. According to U.N. population figures, the birthrate on the continent is three times higher than in Europe, 2.8 times higher than in North America. Africa's population growth rate of 3 percent, which will double its population of 500 million in only 23 years, is about 50 percent higher than that of the rest of the Third World.
The African women having all these babies also do between 60 and 80 percent of the continent's farm work -- a greater proportion than women anywhere else in the world, according to a 1985 "State of the World's Women" report released recently in Nairobi. In Malawi, the report says, women do twice as much work as men in cornfields and the same amount in cotton fields. In Rwanda, women in one village were estimated to work three times as many hours as men.
In Kenya, a country typical of sub-Saharan Africa in its overwhelming reliance on subsistence farming, a government study says women do three-quarters of the nation's farm work while men either supervise or go off to cities in search of salaried jobs. A World Bank report concluded that as Kenya modernizes, "there is no doubt" that the burden of farm labor borne by women has increased and will continue to do so.
Behind the exploding birthrate and the expanding female workload in modern Africa, there is a patchwork of traditional beliefs and practices that combine to deny many African women the right to own property, to obtain education, to prevent unwanted pregnancy and even to enjoy sexual intercourse.
According to a recent survey of anthropological research across Africa, women are brought up to believe that bearing children -- and continuing to bear children as long as they are able -- should be the justification of their existence. Infertile or childless women are pitied. Many are thought to have an "evil eye" and are blamed for illness and death in their villages, according to the survey, compiled by the Australian demographer John C. Caldwell.
Polygamy is practiced on a much larger scale in tropical Africa than anywhere else in the world. About half the women in western Africa are in polygamous marriages, while in eastern Africa the proportion is somewhat lower (30 percent in Kenya).
Female circumcision, an operation that ranges from a small cutting of the hood of the clitoris to its complete excision and stitching up the sides of the vulva, remains common in more than 20 countries across central Africa, affecting millions of women. The operation often limits women's physical capacity to enjoy sex and frequently causes chronic infections.
It is no accident, of course, that the U.N. Women's Conference is being held in Africa. The conference hopes to draw attention to pervasive sexual inequality on the continent. During a meeting of nongovernmental organizations before the U.N. conference, scores of seminars and workshops are scheduled to explain and discuss the problems of African women. But in a world gathering expected to be dominated by polemics over global political issues, such as the so-called New International Economic Order, apartheid in South Africa, the independence of Namibia and the creation of a Palestinian state, the subjugation of rural African women is likely to be upstaged.
The imperious reign of African men, the workload of their women and the astonishing African birthrate can best be understood not in Nairobi's high-rise Kenyatta Conference Center but in small farm villages such as Ebulakayi, Dora Ayonga's village, 250 miles northwest of Nairobi in the rolling hill country of west Kenya, 10 miles from a paved road.
On a Thursday afternoon near the village market, in a meadow shaded by gum trees, the elders of the village -- all men -- lounge in the tall grass, arguing about land boundaries. Men don't have much else to do in Ebulakayi. Studies cited in a World Bank report on Kenya's population problem found that in Kakamega district, where the village is located, only 15 percent of husbands did any farm work. So these long, leisurely meetings occur every Thursday, taking up most of the afternoon, and the subject is nearly always the same -- land.
There is not enough land to go around in Ebulakayi. It is situated amid the most crowded farm country in Africa. The size of the average farm is two-fifths of an acre, according to William K. arap Siele, a program officer of the Family Planning Association of Kenya, and the average family in the village has 12 children. The elders under the gum trees, who adjudicate hundreds of disputes a year between brothers forced to split up farms into parcels far too small to feed their families, acknowledge that the village is headed for increasing trouble.
"There are always four brothers and only one piece of shamba," (Swahili for farm) says Justice Amuykhoye, an elder. "There is robbery, domestic disputes, too many children. We are having a big problem."
Kenya is famous for its population problem. The country's growth rate is 4 percent; its fertility rate (average number of children born to a woman) is 8.0. Both figures are the highest in recorded history. Half the country's 19 million people are under 14 years of age. If the fertility rate does not decline, in 45 years Kenya's population will exceed 130 million.
The leaders of Kenya, more so than leaders in any African country, have been sounding alarms about the population problem since the mid-1960s. President Daniel arap Moi said this spring that slowing down population growth is Kenya's "most crucial challenge" this decade.
But here in Ebulakayi, as in many parts of rural Kenya, the president's rhetoric, statistical projections of demographic disaster and even the steadily worsening land squeeze have had little, if any, effect on the birthrate.
Recent studies by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the U. N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), as well as interviews with local family planning officials and women's leaders, suggest that the high birthrate is a consequence of the low status of women and of a male preoccupation with proving virility through fathering children.
For men, as well as women, to have no children in this village is to have no identity. As anthropologists have noted across much of Africa, to continue to have children is seen as a symbol of goodness and moral rectitude. "If you haven't got children," says Chrispus Ashioya, who grew up in the village and now lives in Nairobi, "you are nothing in my village. You cannot be recognized as a responsible person. If you speak, people will not listen to you."
Women, who usually do not inherit property, create long-term security by creating children, who one day can take care of them. Deprived of job opportunities and averaging about half the formal education of men, a Kenyan woman's one major route to respectability is to be a fecund mother, according to several studies. If a woman, having had a large family, survives to menopause, she becomes an "honorary male," according to one anthropologist.
Improvements in health care in Kenya have reduced infant mortality. Widespread primary school education, to the chagrin of government planners and education officials, seems to have eroded the willingness of women to practice Africa's most effective birth-control technique -- breast-feeding. In Kakamega district, family planning officer Siele says young mothers, who traditionally had breast-fed their babies for nearly two years, thereby spacing out their pregnancies, now rarely do so for longer than two months.
In Ebulakayi over the past 20 years, the average number of children per family has nearly doubled, according to Phelesiah Epiche, 48, a schoolteacher, founder of a local women's group and the village's foremost advocate of family planning (despite her 11 children).
The catch in all this fecundity, for Kenyan women, is that they, not their husbands, end up caring for and supporting the burgeoning number of babies. Making matters worse, according to a just-published UNICEF report on Kenyan women, the creep of modernization into rural villages, with extension officers and medical personnel demanding better sanitation in food preparation and child care, has actually increased the workload of rural mothers.
UNICEF says they are hauling far more water and firewood than before and spending more hours in the preparation and hygienic storage of food. "The rising expectations of 'proper' caretaking and nurture have added to women's physical and financial burdens," the report says.
In Ebulakayi, Epiche says many young mothers are rebelling against their growing workload and do not want any more children. An AID-funded survey last year found that 40 percent of Kenyan women age 15 to 49 wanted no more children (a 10 percent increase over a similar survey in 1978.) Unfortunately, says Epiche, village men "believe that if a woman does family planning, she is going to be a prostitute."
Family planners and demographers agree that men are the major obstacle to progress in reducing Kenya's population growth.
"Women are not the problem. They are aware that family planning is the first step in taking control over their lives. The problem is the men," says Gary Merritt, a demographer with AID.
Mikola Sanda, 31, who grew up in Kakamega district and now lives in the seaport city of Mombasa, says that male attitudes about children have not changed at all in western Kenya despite the government's mandate for family planning. "They hear it as a song that the government sings, they hear it on the Voice of Kenya radio," she says. "But they still believe that to have many children, to have many wives, gives them a big name."
Rumors, spread by men, periodically rage across Kenya of plots to sneak infertility drugs into the country's food supply. Yellow corn is rumored to cause impotence and many Kenyan men refuse to eat it. The U.S. government, which donates yellow corn as food aid throughout Africa, has trouble giving the stuff away in Kenya. Another rumor about infertility drugs in brown beer bottles imported from Uganda forced Kenyan breweries to destroy thousands of cases of unsalable beer.
The top goverment official in Ebulakayi, Assistant Chief Alivayo Amukhuma, has two wives and nine children. He married his second wife after his first had an operation that made her sterile. Asked if he will have more children, the assistant chief said: "Of course. It is just a natural action . . . . We men don't like birth control. It is not our custom."
The assistant chief's second wife, Selah, who is 30 and has given her husband six children, says she does not want to be pregnant again. She has tried to get the medical technician at the local village clinic to give her an injection of Depo-Provera. It is, according to family planning program officer Siele, the birth control drug of choice among women in Kakamega district because their husbands can't tell they are using it. The village clinic, however, would not give Amukhuma an injection of the drug.
Like Dora Ayonga, she must travel 25 miles to Kakamega to get contraceptives. Amukhuma says her husband, who, as assistant chief, can afford the trip, will not take her to Kakamega.
"What you must understand about the African man is that he must continue to father children to prove that he is still on the go, that he is still potent, that he can do it," says a west Kenyan-born, American-educated professor of economics at the University of Nairobi. "Making a woman pregnant is his way of showing mastery. The African takes this very seriously. It has enormous emotional implications."
Dora Ayonga wakes up at dawn in the bed she shares with her four children in a walled-off corner of the family's grass-roofed hut. Her husband, Silas, sleeps alone most nights in another bed, separated from his wife and children by a partition.
If there is any cornmeal left over from the previous day, Dora Ayonga builds a fire in a smoke-stained corner of the hut and cooks porridge for her children and her husband. By 7 a.m., if she can find the work, she is out hoeing weeds for a neighbor.
Silas, 28, who is looking for work, waits at home (his mother taking care of the children) until about 1:30 p.m. when Dora comes home with the corn and beans that her hoeing has earned. She fetches the firewood and water needed to cook lunch, feeds him and the children and cleans up. For the rest of the afternoon, she combs the village for greens or other vegetables for dinner, which she cooks and serves before dark.
Before Ayonga goes to sleep in the bed with her children she washes the one dress she owns and hangs it to dry above the fire where at dawn she will cook more porridge.