Secondastleigh, one block Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, is a bustle of hawkers, honking cars, belching trucks, potholed sidewalks, crowded pedestrians and hordes of young people, apparently out of work. “Too many cars and too many people,” marvels Charles Mwangi, a taxi driver from another part of the sprawling city, whose total population has grown from 361,000 at independence in 1963 to Today’s about 5.3 million.
Eastleigh is an urban center for Somalis, who make up nearly 6% of Kenya’s population and are one of the fastest growing groups. According to the latest statistics, women in predominantly Somali counties in the arid north-east, many of whom have drifted to the cities, are still giving birth to more than seven children on average. That rate is common elsewhere in northern Kenya, where drought, conflict and poverty persist dangerously. It is also high in some parts of the west, near Lake Victoria, where polygamy is still common among some groups.
Kenya’s population is growing at an extremely fast rate. At the end of the 19th century, when the British colonists first took over, the population was probably only around 1 million. Kenya’s first official estimate in 1921 put it at just under 3 million. At independence in 1963, it stood at 9 million and is now closer to 55 million.At this rate, the population could reach 85 million by 2050, according to United Nationsit would be “completely unsustainable,” lamented one conservationist who promotes the coexistence of wildlife and humans, especially the desperately poor herders.
However, Kenya’s fertility rate has been falling sharply, from 6.7 children per woman in 1989 to 3.4 last year, according to the most recent Demographic and Health Survey. It also shows significant differences between urban and rural areas. On average, urban women are expected to have 2.8 children per person, one less than rural women’s 3.9 children. Among the emerging middle class, two children are becoming the norm.
The survey hints at how this was achieved and the challenges that remain. Overall, 57 percent of married women use modern contraception, with higher rates in counties surrounding Nairobi. However, Mandela County, on the border with Somalia, has a fertility rate of eight. Only 2 percent of married women there use birth control, which many Kenyan Muslims and evangelical Christians dismiss.
Former President Mwai Kibaki, who stepped down in 2013, often spoke out in support of family planning. But William Ruto, elected to the post last year, has so far been notably silent on it.