For some reason, we only ever seemed to climb up to the waving bay at the airport at night. Crowding around the large windows, a gaggle of bundled up pre-teens up way past their bedtime. We’d stare at the rows of shiny metal birds; miracles of science, about to leap into the inky blue skies. We imagined our kinfolk nestled within one of those bellies. The grownups were scattered around us chatting among themselves; recalling a similar journey, as prayerful escort or terrified traveller.
The parents were a picture of sadness and pride. Soon, they’d choose a plane for us to wave at. Pressed together with strangers we’d mark its confident ascension, high and bright and pulled by an invisible chariot of fire until it became a tiny speck. It didn’t matter that it likely wasn’t the right aircraft we cheerfully sent off. Going down the dark stairwell afterwards, we were all countrymen saluting folks who would likely not return.
We didn’t know it then, but it had all begun years before. In 1980, Kenya took its first Structural Adjustment loan from the World Bank. After nearly two solid decades of independence and relative economic stability, Kenya replaced the import-substitution policies it had pursued since independence with an open, liberalized trading regime. It was intended to “stabilize” the economy, which was under the pressure of debt repayments.
Did it work? The short answer is: no.
We took a second loan in 1982, same year as the attempted coup. The latter had an especially profound effect on how we were governed from then on, intensifying paranoia and tribalism in governance. But even ambitious economic plan, which looked good on paper, was designed to hurt the most vulnerable. SAPs required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and infrastructure, while debt repayment and privatisation were made the priority. In effect, the IMF and World Bank demanded that poor nations lower the standard of living of their people.
Around that same time, Kenyans also suffered through the 1992 elections—where the government borrowed heavily from local banks and caused inflation—and the 1993 Goldenberg scandal, in which 10% of the country’s GDP was squirreled away. To where? We didn’t know. But we knew it was bad.
No wonder my late father worked it out so that my eldest sister got on a plane to Germany to work as an au pair for a year. It was 1999 and at least one of us in the family would enter the new millennium with hope. To raise money for her departure, we circulated pledge cards, secured the family’s most generous friend as guest of honour and held a harambee. These fundraisers were a common practice among the middle class for travels abroad. We still hold them today but largely for funerals and medical reasons. (One day we need to unpack why churches somehow manage to remain bankrolled through whatever hardships. The same goes for wedding committees).
But back then harambees were festive occasions. The soon-to-be voyager stood coyly at the front, maybe draped in shiny tinsel, perhaps holding out a kiondo into which their donations were danced forward and dropped into. Folks were so generous; they didn’t just support academic trips. Sometimes it was to aid a lucky Green Card lottery winner. Only 50,000 US immigrant visas are available through that national lottery. It seemed that Kenyans snatched up quite a number. I was always either a raffle ticket seller (where the grand prize was something like a large towel) or I sold handkerchiefs at inflated prices. All to send so-and-so majuu.
However, it was harder to be generous as the economy sank lower and lower. The cold eyes from the portrait that bore down at us from the walls of our offices and schools and at the start of news bulletins were unrelenting. That is, until the opposition parties created a rainbow and pressed Moi into retirement in 2002. Nonetheless, my family—now a battered middle class—was still plotting how to send more people out there. Within a year we scrimped and saved and shipped off a cousin to America.
She was the last of us to go this way.
Yoked here by the fallout of economic distress of yesteryears, my family, like many other Kenyan households found studying abroad a luxury. It was still possible but even the brightest amongst us could not summon the harambee spirit. By the mid-2000s folks had to secure full or partial scholarships, and still finesse church, work and society trips to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That is, if they could jump through the many hoops needed to even secure a visa, and the irony of sitting for an English proficiency exam in a former British colony.
When it was my time to enrol in university, Uganda and Tanzania were my best options for an alternative higher learning experience. By then I had just become an orphan and that’s what literally pulled on the purse strings and got me into a journalism class.
Today, my 20-year-old nephew’s best bet at a good education is turning to the Internet. It has become the salvation of the jaded millennial, myself included. Sure, folks can attend local colleges and polytechnics but the World Wide Web is the best university they can attend, it holds all the books they cannot buy and has become the employer, the platform and marketplace they seek.
Maybe flying out isn’t such a big deal when information is pouring out of your phone and laptop. The ability to viably contribute to the web has turned everyday people into celebrities and birthed new occupations. Not forgetting the hundreds of dollars made monthly from vaguely suspect pursuits (online writing) to the definitely illegal (selling of pirated DVDs). Young people are somehow finding a way to make it in these harsh economic times.
If nothing else, the Internet has made the strongest assault against the almighty lawyer-engineer-doctor trifecta, but it can’t save everyone. An impossible wage gap, brutal unemployment and perilous short-term kibarua jobs still persist. To quote poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
For those who still try and make their way out, Middle Eastern nations offer the lowest barrier of entry but at a terrible price. What are advertised as opportunities for domestic workers too often are a mask for modern-day slavery. Many, like Happiness Chweya, Mwanakombo Athman and Melsa Adhiambo Makhokha, return home in coffins. Those who narrowly escape recount tales of physical abuse and sexual depravity.
Yet hundreds still flock the fraudulent job agencies, thousands more have their passports seized and cannot return home. Their desperate pleas secretly recorded circulate on Facebook and Twitter as horrific vox pops.
Equally stuck are the waving bay generation, those who left. No doubt they have it much better – at least financially (?) – than their counterparts across the seas but what does it mean to long for home for 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years? To be torn between renewing an expired student visa and risking deportation, and sending home payments received under the table, miserly as they are. It means watching your father’s funeral through the small window of a smartphone thousands of kilometres away and sobbing and sobbing because home is still the mouth of a shark.
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So What is an African Immigrant Today?
Anti-migration policies against Africans and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America are sending African migrants to new destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and even South America.
I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.
Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.
“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.
I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?
After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.
A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.
People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.
Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.
From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.
Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.
In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.
I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.
“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”
And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
The Scourge of the Disposable Diaper in Rural Kenya
By incentivizing manufacturers of disposable diapers, the government has sacrificed the gains made with the banning of plastic carrier bags in 2017 and worsened the problem of plastic pollution throughout the country.
With a million babies born each year, Kenya’s annual diaper consumption is estimated at 800 million pieces. The government considers them “essential items” and has lately been encouraging manufacturing firms to set up shop in the country to supply the East African region. As of June 2021, the country had a total of seven diaper firms which were allowed to import manufacturing materials, largely plastics, duty-free.
However, there has been much less attention paid to where the diapers end up. One group of researchers found that in Kenya, as in many developing countries, “it appears that little information is available regarding handling and the proper disposal of disposable diapers despite a significant rise in usage of such during the last decade by women of child bearing age”.
As a result, diapers are contributing to a dramatic increase in plastic pollution, one that has raised concerns in government and in Kenya’s mainstream media. By 2013, the Department of Public Health was warning that poor disposal of diapers was a leading cause of disease as well as blocked drainage in major urban areas. And the problem is intensifying as diapers become cheaper and mothers in rural Kenya gravitate to them for their convenience. In fact, around the world, disposable diapers represent about 4 per cent of all solid waste and are the third largest contributor to single-use consumer items in landfills.
When my neighbour Esther was expecting her fourth child a few years ago, she took a ride with me into Nakuru town to buy supplies in anticipation of the happy event. On her shopping list were washable nappies. I have since learned that among her peers, Esther is the exception; the vast majority of mothers here have adopted the disposable diaper.
We live on the edge of a small township in Nyandarua County that boasts a health centre complete with a maternity wing. Our local minimarket, a family-run business, stocks most of the diaper brands available in Kenya, from those targeting the young mum living in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs, to those made specifically for the mother who earns a KSh250 daily wage selling her labour to neighbouring farms or ekes out a living selling vegetables or second-hand clothes at our local market. Competition among manufacturers and importers of baby diapers has drastically reduced prices. Local producers have also adapted to the kadogo economy, selling individually wrapped baby diapers for as little as KSh20 apiece.
The Clinical Officer at our health centre informs me that, on average, the maternity wing delivers 250 babies a year. Alice, who runs the minimarket and who is herself a mother of twins, told me that before they were toilet-trained at just over two years old, her bundles of joy were using up to six diapers each per day. The math is very worrying; it will take about 20 generations of Alice’s descendants for the diapers used by her children to decompose. Early 21st-century disposable diapers will finish biodegrading in 2500.
Washable nappies are not a choice for Alice, however. Not unless she is willing to finish a 14-hour day with her hands deep in a bucket of soiled nappies. Alice tells me that, unlike in the past, women employed by families to take care of babies and young children have become accustomed to the convenience of diapers and are no longer willing to take on the additional task of washing soiled cloth nappies.
Our little township borders the Aberdare Forest, which has become a dumping ground for soiled diapers. I became aware of the dumping after I found mounds of used diapers on a piece of fallow land adjacent to my property. Worried that I would soon find myself living next to a growing garbage dump, I determined to find out the source of the dumping. Ours is a small community and my enquiries led me straight to the offending mother who, challenged, complained that her children had not done as they had been told; she normally dumps her used diapers in the forest when she goes to gather firewood, so she told me. A stroll into the forest confirmed that, indeed, our forest was being used as a dumping ground for diapers. One pile had been left so perilously close to the river that come the rains, it would soon add to the growing menace that is river pollution by diapers.
But why was this happening?
A Department of Health official attached to our local health centre told me that the problem was directly linked to inadequate resources and personnel. Solid waste management falls under the Department of Health Services of the Nyandarua County Government. For the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the approved budget allocation “to ensure the controlled disposal of solid waste and human remains” within the entire county of 638,289 people was KSh7,603,000, projected to rise to KSh8 million for the 2021/2022 fiscal year. Nyandarua has four sub-counties: Kinangop, Kipipiri, Ol Joro Orok and Ndaragwa.
Ndaragwa Sub-County covers a total surface area of 653 km² and has four wards: Leshau, Kiriita, Central and Shamata with a total population of approximately 92,626 people. The sub-county is served by one of only three garbage trucks owned by the county government. The truck collects waste from our township once a week and takes it 60 kilometres away to the municipal dump at Ol Kalou, the county capital. However, frequent breakdowns and lack of fuel mean that we can go weeks without having our garbage collected. And since the county government’s budget has not stretched to refuse bins, residents resort to digging pits into which they throw their household waste, consisting mostly of plastic wrapping, plastic bottles, torn shopping bags, and the now ubiquitous disposable face masks. The single-use plastic bags that were banned by the government in 2017 are also sneaking their way back into the environment, used by unscrupulous butchers as packaging. A visit to our local slaughterhouse is enough to put you off your meat; bits of plastic show up in the guts of the carcasses of goats and cows that have been grazing in our public spaces.
The accumulating mounds of rubbish are set alight, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Used diapers, however, are notoriously difficult to burn; you need a lot of kerosene. So where do they end up? In our surrounding environment, of course. Soiled diapers are rolled up and dumped in ditches and on open ground under cover of darkness, to be torn open by stray dogs and picked over by fowl let loose. More fastidious mothers pay people to dispose of them in the bush or, like my neighbour, take them there themselves.
When I asked about the options open to those living in areas without waste collection services, on farms and villages deep in the countryside, the Department of Health official told me that they are encouraged to bury soiled diapers on their land, thus introducing the concept of landfill to individual households. As for the mounds now festering in our forest, the official told me that it would be up to the forestry department to clear up the waste since it had been dumped within their jurisdiction.
A call to the local office of the forest service made it clear that the answer was not that clear-cut; the official I spoke to informed me that the matter had been raised with the local administration through the chief’s office and a solution was awaited. He did not sound hopeful.
Manufacturers of disposable diapers give very clear instructions about how to use them and warn parents to keep the packaging out of the reach of children because of the danger of suffocation. I found only one that specifically urged users not to throw soiled diapers into the toilet but to put them out with the trash instead. Bizarrely, this manufacturer also encouraged the user to return the plastic packaging to the company’s offices in Nairobi. None advised against throwing them out into the environment where they add to the growing volume of human faecal matter and the attendant pathogens. And nor were users encouraged to empty the waste into the toilet before disposing of diapers.
This lack of information means that there is a lack of awareness among the population as to the true cost of opting for disposable diapers; many mothers only see the advantages of using them, complaining only that they are difficult to burn. None that I spoke to knew that their used diapers would take centuries to biodegrade, and that they are polluting our sources of water.
This story is not unique to Nyandarua County, however. Residents in the urban areas of Kisumu County have also taken to disposing soiled diapers in the environment in the dead of night. The situation is no better in Kilifi County where in June 2019 the Chief Officer for Environment and Natural Resources, Mariam Jenneby, called for a total ban on single-use plastics and disposable diapers, saying that they were a major cause of ocean pollution.
Kilifi County’s solid waste management budget for the 2020/2021 fiscal year stood at KSh14,100,000 of which KSh5.1 million was for the purchase of a double-cabin vehicle for “environmental conservation and management extension services”. The rest would go to “fencing and rehabilitating” the Mariakani dumpsite, installing refuse bins in Mariakani municipality and purchasing assorted tools and equipment; no mention is made of recycling. The county has a population of 1,109,735 people (2019) and covers an area of 12,610km² — 2.17 per cent of Kenya’s total surface area.
On the other side of the country, in Kisumu County, whose population stands at 1,155,574 people spread out over an area of 2,086km², the budget allocation for solid waste management for the 2020/2021 financial year was KSh3,190,998, all of it earmarked for the purchase of goods and services; no mention is made of recycling. It is however observed in the document that the objective to “strengthen solid waste management in Kisumu County” has been met, and that effective planning, management and execution of service delivery outcomes are at 100 per cent. The residents of Kisumu tell a somewhat different story, however.
There is no objective reason to believe that the situation of solid waste management in the other 44 counties of Kenya is any different. On the contrary, it would appear that the 2015 National Solid Waste Management Strategy developed by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), and whose main guiding principle is “Zero Waste”, remains a dead letter. The short-term goal of the strategy is to “achieve approximately 80% waste recovery (recycling, composting and waste energy) and 20% landfilling in a Sanitary landfill (inert material) by 2030” but as observed above, the budget allocations for Nyandarua, Kisumu and Kilifi do not cater for the cost of recycling.
And while it is a fact that most solid waste is generated in urban areas, disposable diapers have made their way into the rural areas where, as observed, they are playing havoc with the environment.
At its unveiling, the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was hailed as among the most progressive world-wide for addressing issues that are seldom addressed by national law. Indeed, Article 42 of the constitution recognises the right of every person to a clean and healthy environment while Article 69 provides the obligations of the state in this regard that include the obligation to “eliminate processes and activities that are likely to endanger the environment”.
Diaper manufacturers were among the beneficiaries of the decision announced by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani in his June 2020 budget to remove import duty on inputs in order to boost local manufacturing and create jobs. But even as the government incentivises manufacturers and encourages investment in the production of a highly polluting product, there is no policy in place on how to manage the growing waste resulting from the increased use of disposable diapers.
Barely two decades ago, single-use diapers were alien to the majority of Kenyan mothers; they should have remained so. By incentivising the production and imports of disposable diapers under the guise of creating employment and using the argument that “Baby diapers are essential products and there is a need to supply them at affordable prices,” the government has not only failed in its constitutional obligation to deter activities that are a menace to the environment, but has also needlessly compounded the challenges of solid waste management in the country.
Moreover, Kenya has squandered the reputational capital earned with the 2017 ban on plastic carrier bags. By resisting the introduction of disposable diapers — one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally — Kenya could have taken the lead in halting the progression of a disposable diaper pandemic that began in the United States over 70 years ago. Every minute, 300,000 more diapers are released into the environment that could be replaced with compostable nappies, for example. However, the adoption of an alternative to the disposable diaper would require the full commitment of governments and manufacturers.
The second part of Article 69 of the constitution states that “every person has a duty to cooperate with State organs and other persons to protect and conserve the environment. . .” However, both the national government and the county governments have failed to take the lead and it has been left to youthful civil society organizations such as the Kenya Environmental Action Network (KEAN) to raise awareness regarding the polluting effects of the disposable diaper. In September 2021 KEAN partnered with Kisumu Environmental Champions — who describe themselves as “a group of kids, teenagers and youths from Kisumu County working on Environmental education and Climate Action” — to organize a “climate strike” where they called for a ban on plastic diapers and plastics in general.
The recently concluded United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) issued a resolution calling on UN member states to “continue and step up activities and adopt voluntary measures to combat plastic pollution, including measures related to sustainable consumption and production, which may include circular economy approaches.”
In the absence of such measures, youthful Kenyans are stepping into the breach, too keenly aware of the environmental future that awaits them if no action is taken. LeafyLife is a Kenyan start-up that is using Green Chemistry to recycle waste diapers and sanitary pads sustainably. Using a circular economy approach, the social enterprise has developed a chemical process that recycles the waste into a fuel gel that lasts 10 per cent longer than kerosene, emits 76 per cent less carbon dioxide, and no carbon monoxide, smoke or soot.
LeafyLife was founded by a trio of graduates from the Department of Chemistry of the University of Nairobi who were moved to act in 2019 when they became aware of the threat posed by discarded disposable diapers. Peter Gachanja, Denis Muguta and Melvin Kizito received recognition for their innovation on the occasion of the Global Sustainable Chemistry Week organized by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in November 2021.
But can initiatives such as LeafyLife become successful without the development and implementation of a robust framework that actively encourages local innovation in the field of solid waste management? The global baby disposable diaper industry was valued at US$43 billion in 2020 and continues to grow. Without decisive government action, and if the UNEA call for an end to plastic pollution remains another dead letter, the industry will continue to thrive and a product designed to lessen the burden of caring for a toddler will continue to generate waste that will become that child’s legacy. And the legacy of that child’s descendants for many generations to come.
The Abortion Debate: A Personal and Anthropological Perspective
In the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe Vs Wade, Martin Owino gives a personal account of his experience of abortion as a husband, a father and a Christian.
Is abortion murder? When does life begin? And what of the overturning of Roe vs Wade?
But first, let me share my story.
We didn’t mind welcoming our firstborn. Of course, we would have preferred a slightly delayed arrival. But, heck, we had conducted a Christian wedding, and we were terrifyingly excited about our child’s arrival about a year later. Children, the Bible says, are a heritage of the Lord.
Then, three quick years later, the second born arrived. Again, unplanned. But, well, economically sustainable. Or so we reasoned. While the second delivery had also been smooth, we wanted this to be the last child we would have. However, both of us were a bit reluctant about taking hormonal contraceptives. We had heard stories of close friends who had struggled to conceive after using hormonal contraceptives. We were also aware that medical research pointed to a possible link between synthetic hormones and the development of certain types of cancers, which made us wary of making that choice. We considered the coil because it is non-hormonal but the way it worked seemed like abortion, which to us at the time was a most abominable sin.
We thought we could manage with natural methods, using condoms during the fertile window of the menstrual cycle, usually between the 7th and the 16th day. For a while, we thought we were acing it. However, and unknown to us, we were treading on dangerous ground.
When my wife conceived two years later, she was traumatized. In desperation, she suggested abortion. I, however, brushed the suggestion aside; I thought it was unethical and unbiblical. We kept the pregnancy. Those were some of the longest nine months of my life. The truth is my wife did not want the baby. She kept it at my insistence. Well, the baby finally arrived—tolerated more than celebrated, a low-key birth that even our parents learnt about much later.
After three accident-babies, we had to make a decision on some form of contraceptive—preferably a permanent one. The natural method had failed spectacularly. We had two alternatives: either my wife underwent tubal ligation or I had a vasectomy. From our reading, we saw that having a vasectomy was a simpler procedure, taking less than twenty minutes. I therefore decided to go under the knife and spare my wife a more complicated operation. It even sounded heroic.
I called the facility in advance and booked a date when I would have the vasectomy. It was a reputable hospital and the doctor was an experienced urologist who had carried out vasectomies for three decades without encountering any complications. It was time to bite the bullet.
I took the afternoon off from work one chilly Friday and went to the hospital where I found a small queue, nothing to make me fret. I waited my turn and saw the urologist at 4 p.m. A female nurse in a blue apron and well-fitting trousers stood beside him. Light-hearted introductions put me at ease and there followed a question-and-answer session during which I gave my medical history. Then I was asked to climb onto the surgical bed and remove all my lower garments.
I felt very uncomfortable.
It had not occurred to me that I would be doing this in the presence of the female nurse, or even that she would be involved in the procedure, taking hold of my penis, and presenting it in the position that the urologist required. In all my married life, I had not been in such a situation other than with my wife; it felt almost like sexual abuse. It didn’t help matters that the nurse was young and not unattractive. I gritted my teeth and looked up at the blue ceiling.
Then I thought of what my wife—and other women—go through in the offices of male gynaecologists and obstetricians. I swallowed a lump in my throat and let the thought slide. As expected, the procedure went well and I was out in 15 minutes. I even took a matatu back to my house and reported to work the following Monday.
I was advised, among things, to abstain from sex for a while (I cannot remember the exact days) in order not to jeopardise the success of the operation. I followed the advice to a tee. I was thrilled that my wife and I were now putting the subject of contraception behind us. My doctor assured me that the procedure was 99 per cent effective—or something close to that—and I did not think it was useful to worry about what the snowball’s chance in hell of something going wrong.
After about a month, I resumed my normal sex life. However, about a year later, Murphy’s Law would soon spoil the party.
It was the 31st day of my wife’s menstrual cycle and her periods had still not come yet for many months her cycle had been remarkably regular: 26-28 days. She said that she had not experienced the usual pre-menstruation signs at all. I dismissed her anxiety with a wave of the hand; three days was not anything to worry about. But two days later, on her 33rd day, the “visitors”—as we still call the arrival of her menses—were still nowhere to be seen. This time she was adamant; we bought a self-test pregnancy kit the same day.
I was still quite confident, unbothered even. I couldn’t be the statistical aberration. My wife did the test that very evening and brought me the results. They were positive for pregnancy! It was like a thunderbolt. But we read somewhere that the most accurate time for the test was in the morning hours, something to do with the concentration of the hCG hormone (the human chorionic gonadotropin is a hormone that is produced by the placenta during pregnancy) so we consoled ourselves with that information.
We awaited morning with a lot of apprehension, not untinged with panic, but the following morning the test came back positive. For my wife, having another baby was completely out of the equation. This time, I shared her views. To say that my wife was devastated is an understatement.
Abortion? That’s right. We were terminating the pregnancy.
Three children were enough. Four looked like a pandemic. We called the urologist in mid-morning hours and he gave us an appointment for a week later. That would be the 40th day. While I supported my wife’s decision to terminate the pregnancy, I was still a troubled man. I couldn’t reconcile this decision with my Christian worldview. Naturally, I turned to the Bible, to read the one verse that was constantly beeping in my mind, the verse about Jeremiah and how God had chosen him to be a prophet before he was born.
After everyone had gone to bed, I went to my study and opened the Bible, not for encouragement, but to ascertain its condemnation. I went for my favourite version, the KJV.
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Strangely, this verse did not now appear to support the thesis of life before birth; certainly not that of personhood before birth. Instead, I thought it merely supported the thesis of the omniscience of God: the all-knowing, far-seeing God. In any case, I wondered what the “Before-I-formed-thee-in-the-belly” time was. When does God start forming people in the belly? If it’s at conception—when the egg and the sperm meet—then where is the autonomous personhood of Jeremiah before this time, the individual that God says he knew before this process and ordained to be a prophet? It could well be the sperm of Hilkiah, Jeremiah’s father, or the egg of Mrs Hilkiah, Jeremiah’s mother.
I put the Bible aside. Obviously, I was justifying myself.
Then when I was still turning over this text in my mind, I remembered reading Obama’s The Audacity of Hope where he argued that positions on abortion that ignored the science of foetal development were unreasonable. Of course, I had dismissed Obama at the time. I thought his was the standard view of the “irreligious” American left. I looked up the word abortion in the Bible but I did not find one mention. I went to bed still convinced that abortion was wrong but somehow not as convinced as I had been before.
In the intervening days, I poured through the science of foetal development. I knew that the embryo inside my wife’s womb was not more than two weeks old. Later, I would discover that before two weeks, it was not even an embryo yet, but a zygote, or something of the sort. I wanted to know everything that happens to an embryo at about two weeks: how it looks like; whether it feels anything; and which organs have already formed.
According to scientists, there are some Ultrasound procedures that can detect a heartbeat about four weeks after conception, even though there’s still no heart. It was a mystery that I couldn’t fathom. Still, this provided me with significant self-defence ammunition; if the absence of a heartbeat signifies death, the presence of a heartbeat should signify life. Therefore, there’s no life in my wife’s womb since the “baby” is less than two weeks old. Hence, there should be no guilt for murder.
Of course, I did not also want the embryo/zygote inside my wife’s womb to feel the pain that is usually associated with as serious a crime as murder. The document that most assuaged my conscience was the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ (RCOG) 2010 report on fetal awareness. According to the report, pain perception depends on the development of the cortex, which in turn normally doesn’t start to functionally develop until after about 24 weeks of gestation. Even with the development of the cortex, pain awareness is not guaranteed. This is because the experience of external stimuli will still depend on consciousness, which in turn comes significantly later.
I almost grinned.
The day of the appointment arrived and we made our way to the medical facility. The first test was a pregnancy test on my wife; both a blood test and a urine test. Of course, the test came back positive—even though I still hoped it would come back negative. Then it was my turn.
Did the vasectomy procedure really fail?
My doctor invited me to go into his office alone—unaccompanied by my wife. He told me that it was possible the vasectomy did not fail and that my wife may have “stepped out”. He asked me if I was ready to handle such an outcome.
It was a no-brainer; I trusted my wife completely. I gave the doctor the go-ahead to examine me to ascertain whether the vasectomy procedure had truly failed or if there was some monkey business. But he needed my semen for this test. He gave me a small specimen bottle, called my wife to explain to her what to expect, and walked us to a well-lit room with a metallic bed that was quite high.
In these circumstances, all my sexual urges disappeared like snow before the rising sun. It was almost two hours later that we managed to get going. After another hour, I went back with the semen specimen that had been procured without any passion—without any enjoyment or sexual pleasure. After carrying out the necessary tests, visibly surprised, the doctor announced the results. The vasectomy had failed. He gave my wife two tiny tablets, to be taken at six-hour intervals and also offered to do a repeat vasectomy at no charge.
My wife took the tablets as directed and the “visitors” got the cue. Over the following four days, she would experience what resembled her normal menstruation, only a tad heavier and lumpier. That was it.
I did not go back for the repeat vasectomy. I think I just gave up because of discouragement. However, I still believe my case was just an exception. Of course, the thought comes to me once or twice a year—when I wonder about what might have become of the “baby”. Still, it’s never accompanied by crushing feelings of regret or shame.
The subject of abortion has never ceased to intrigue me. I have quietly followed the abortion debate, admittedly seeking to justify my decision, even though I rarely admit this.
In the Christian world, it is a settled matter. Abortion is murder because life starts at conception when a sperm cell enters an egg cell and their genetic materials mix. Never mind that even after this meet-up and subsequent fertilization, the chromosomes do not mesh well in as many as 90 per cent of cases—and most are discharged unnoticed from the body. So, when a woman aborts, there is a high chance that she is aborting what may not have become a baby after all. Some have adroitly avoided this dilemma by arguing that life begins not at conception (since conception is chaotic and in a majority of cases is not successful), but after the chromosomes have mixed up successfully and settled into a rhythm.
Also, zygotic splitting, which leads to the formation of separate twins, usually takes place a few days after conception. This definitely upends our ideas of individual and autonomous personhood—especially at the time of conception. At this stage, the one-cell zygote is definitely biological life. But whether it’s an individual human life is another matter altogether. Still, some argue that life begins when the zygote burrows into the walls of the uterus, a process called implantation, which takes place about a week after fertilization. And while many argue that the starting point of life should be at the first occurrence of a heartbeat—which is usually after about four weeks—some insist it should be much later, when brain-wave patterns emerge. Then there are those who hold the view that life begins when it is viable outside the warm confines of the womb. The jury, as they say, has long been out.
Then there is the issue of whether the life of the unborn is equal to the life of the mother.
The Bible commands that “When there’s a fight and in the fight, a pregnant woman is hit so that she miscarries but is not otherwise hurt, the one responsible has to pay whatever the husband demands in compensation. But if there is further damage [such as the death or injury of the mother], then you must give life for life.” (Exodus 21: 22-23-MSG Version). Clearly, the life of the unborn, warranting a mere fine, is not the same as the life of the mother.
Mishna, the first major written collection of the Jewish oral tradition, has this to say:
If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and brings it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child]. But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.
This shows that the life of the baby only assumes equal significance with that of the mother at birth. A different passage addresses the situation of a pregnant woman who has been given a death sentence. Apparently, the pregnant mother is executed even though there is an innocent “human being” in the womb. However, should labour pains begin before execution, the baby is spared since it is now recognized as a human being with the right to life.
In African traditional societies, many ethnic communities allowed abortion, which goes to show that it is not just some foreign idea foisted upon us by Western agencies such as Planned Parenthood. In his book, A Study of Abortion in Primitive Societies, Georges Devereux, a Hungarian-French ethnologist, describes how 400 pre-industrial societies sometimes encouraged, or even commanded abortion. Of course, there were others where abortion was met with resignation or even deep horror. According to Devereux, Maasai women had to abort the children of sick or old fathers. The Ashanti women of Ghana were expected to abort if they had been involved in premarital or adulterous affairs. The Baganda princesses were not expected to marry as this would cause tension between patrilineal and matrilineal succession lines—leading to widespread abortion. Among the Chagga of Tanzania, women were not expected to give birth after their daughters were married. They would therefore abort.
Of course, culture says nothing about normative ethics. The Kikuyu, for instance, killed twins. But in this age, that practice would be horrifying even to the most militant crusaders of African culture.
The story of abortion is a story of life. And from where I sit, life is so mysterious. You cannot just draw a line and say that “this is the beginning thereof”. But in overturning Roe Vs Wade, I think the Supreme Court has travelled back to the future. The back and future of a fascist church and state alliance.
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