The late William ole Ntimama, who for much of his adult life was the undisputed “king of the Maasai”, once caused a huge controversy when he told his Maasai community to disregard the government’s “family planning” programmes.
He argued that the best thing any Maasai woman could do was to bear as many children as possible. And hopefully this would in time lead to the Maasai counting as one of Kenya’s “big tribes”. For in his lifelong crusade to defend Maasai interests, he had found his influence on the national stage was severely limited. Basically, he did not have enough Maasai parliamentary seats or presidential votes to bargain with. Hence his argument Maasai interests were best served by a steep increase in their numbers.
You would think Kenya’s “biggest tribe”, the Kikuyu, would be exempt from demographic anxieties of this kind. But that is not so. There has been a quiet desperation in Central Kenya for some time, over the low birth rate in that region.
Most recent to let the cat out of the bag in this regard was Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga who last week expressed his despair over the low enrolment of children in Early Childhood Development Education centres.
As he begged the residents to have more children, he pointed out that while in years past Nyeri had about 30,000 children joining these ECDE centres annually, the number had dropped precipitously: In 2018, only 17,000 children had been enrolled.
What this means is the Kikuyu are paying a political price for their economic and academic prowess. The demographic pattern already firmly established in “the global South” is this: That once there is a clear decline in infant mortality, accompanied by improved access to education for girls, the population growth rate falls dramatically by itself, and there is no need for any government intervention.
The women in Central Kenya may not all have advanced degrees. But they largely have enough education to make the decision to opt for two or three children whom they can give a decent life, rather than have seven or eight kids each and be condemned to lifelong penury. The Nyeri governor (and other political leaders from that region) may feel dismay at the abrupt drop in their population growth rate, and nervously consider the political implications. But there is also cause for congratulations here.
This pattern reflects how effective an earlier generation of Kikuyu political leaders were. These pioneer leaders built enough schools and encouraged families to send their daughters to school. And they simultaneously created an effective public health infrastructure which ended the previous incredibly high infant mortality rates.
This allowed mothers to believe that even if they only had two children, there was every chance that both of them would survive to adulthood.
The pre-colonial African preference for very large families was linked to the horrific infant mortality rate of those times. In general, any woman who had “only” two children might as well have been barren. There was every chance both kids would die young. African women basically gave birth continuously, right from puberty and all the way to menopause. The modern medicines which arrived with colonisation changed all that.
But back to the present, we can project that in a decade or two, Kenya’s current second-largest ethnic community may well overtake the Kikuyu. This is something of a political tragedy for the likes of ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi, and Ford Kenya leader Senator Moses Wetang’ula.
They are present-day leaders facing all manner of circumscribing factors. And yet in another 20 years, any comparable Luhya leader will be able to more or less dictate the terms on which he will form a political alliance with leaders from other regions. They will do this, as those admittedly possessing “the largest vote basket”, as Kenyans love to say.
By the same token, the Kikuyu political leadership of some 20 years hence will need to be extraordinarily resourceful, if they are to continue to play a dominant role in Kenyan politics.
They will no longer be able to boast of their “overwhelming numbers at the ballot.”