Nanjala Mary* (not her real name) is a 17-year-old mother of a one-month-old baby in Busia county.
Last year, she was a standard eight candidate when she realised she was pregnant. This was after a night out at a nearby disco matanga where her love affair with one young boy, a neighbour who was in Form One, began.
She did not imagine what seemed to be innocent infatuation would make her a mother at such an early age.
The young man, still in school, comes from a very poor background and cannot take care of the newborn child or the young mother.
Speaking to The Standard, Nanjala narrated her ordeal in the hands of her family; her mother rejected her, asking her to leave to get help from the teen dad. Her elder sisters could not host her, and only her grandmother took her in.
“I do not even have clothes to cover my child, no food to eat. My grandmother is so old and poor and is struggling to feed us. My uncles have also stopped supporting my grandmother, saying they cannot continue feeding my child and me, and now I have nowhere else to go,” she cried.
She explained how she had plans for her life that she could no longer achieve since her family could not take her back to school and still take care of the child.
“In my old age I cannot take care of my great-grandchild for her to go back to school. Again, where will I get the money for her school fees if I cannot even afford to feed us?” Nanjala’s grandmother said.
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A few metres from Nanjala’s homestead is Bridgit Wafula*, a 14-year-old Standard Seven pupil, four months pregnant, with an almost similar story to Nanjala’s.
The boy that is responsible for her pregnancy is also a neighbour whom she used to study with and go to disco matangas with, alongside other girls her age. But after one discomatanga experience, they planned to meet, and that was when she got pregnant.
She said she could not continue schooling because other girls in school were laughing at her.
Her family is living in abject poverty, her parents struggling to fend for her needs and her siblings, and when The Standard visited her home, she hid behind her house.
According to her mother, getting pregnant at such an early age has taken a toll on the girl and the entire family.
Her father Wafula, a man in his late thirties, was recently laid off from the menial job he was doing after a leg injury.
He is at the mercy of his wife who is now the sole provider; she has been washing clothes for her neighbours to get food for the family and says it is proving difficult with the increased needs for the new baby.
Poverty has been cited as one of the main contributing factors to teenage pregnancies in Busia.
“Some of the girls told us their mothers needed sugar or unga, tutafutie chakula (get us food). This is one way of encouraging the girls to sleep with men to get money for food and they end up getting pregnant trying to sort out poverty levels at home,” said Joy Shammah, the Director of Footprints of Hope Programmes based in the Nambale area of Busia.
The programme has been helping teen mothers from poor backgrounds by providing basic needs such as diapers, clothes and food.
The team also visits schools, public barazas and churches to raise awareness on teenage pregnancies. “Getting a meal is hard, so they go to disco matangas to get quick money. They will dance during the disco matangas with the hope that men will notice them and get interested in them.
“Many are depressed due to the early pregnancies, with some opting for an abortion, while others have either attempted or have committed suicide,” said Roselyn Wandaki, the Director of Fight Depression and Stress, an organisation that addresses mental health issues related to suicide, early marriage and teen pregnancy.
She said others had fallen prey to boda boda riders who exchange rides for sex, especially where they have to travel for many kilometres to get to school.
“If the parents cannot afford to give her that Sh50 for the ride, she will trade her own body to get to school.”
Boniface Okumu, one of the boda boda crew leaders in Busia town, said they have witnessed such cases and have been working with local leaders, including the police, to report and end such cases.
“Some of the boda boda riders will argue that they did not rape the girls without understanding that having any sexual intimacy with a minor is illegal. We have been educating them and putting measures in place to stop this vice because we don’t want people to taint our name.”
He said most schools expose the girls to some of these issues when they are released late from school, adding that protecting girls from early pregnancies should be a collective responsibility. “Parents, teachers and the entire society should be involved because for example, if a parent allows the girls to attend the disco matangas, they won’t be coming there in uniform for us to know they are students,.
“The boda boda riders may confuse the girls for adult women and end up getting into relationships with them that lead to pregnancies,” he said.
“Anybody who engages in sexual behaviour with a child below the age of 18 is committing an offence and should be charged in court,” says Esther Wasige, the Director of Children Services in Busia county.
According to her, the county ranks among the top three in the country with the highest cases of teen pregnancy, at 21 per cent against the national rate of 18 per cent.
She says her office has been offering social support for the girls and partnering with civil society and other organisations such as Unicef, World Vision, and the Centre for Study of Adolescents who sustain child rights clubs in schools.
They have been instrumental in reproductive health among young people. She says although most of the cases are not reported since the families have been settling them out of court, the children’s office has been working with the judiciary, the office of the Public Prosecutor and the police to ensure the girls get justice.
“We cannot keep on blaming poverty and other factors for teen pregnancy because some of those factors may not change soon, but we have to find mitigation.
“That is why the children’s cases in our courts are being extradited to ensure they are completed for the children to continue with their lives. We encourage parents to make sure they report any of these cases for action.”
As a result of the escalating numbers of teen pregnancies, legislators in Busia county assembly have sought a solution, especially for the disco matangas which have been cited as the leading cause of teenage pregnancy.
Mercy Wanyonyi, a nominated MCA, is preparing a bill to limit the age of people that can attend disco matangas.
“I am not saying disco matangas are bad because this is our culture and part of our tradition where we mourn and raise funds to support the bereaved family, but why can’t we come up with a policy to bar young girls from attending them?” she said.
Wanyonyi added that just like in bars, girls under 18 years should not be allowed to attend disco matangas.
She says there are a lot of immoral activities that go on during disco matangas.
The nominated MCA said only the children from the bereaved family should be allowed to attend, and even then, the family should take full responsibility over the people that are allowed in their compound during the mourning period.
Additionally, Wanyonyi said there is a need for implementation of the social protection policy which is already in place, to work towards giving girls a safe space during and after pregnancy.
“These girls should be taken back to school, or taken to TVET for short courses at the same time empowering the schools’ counselling department because there is a need for sex education.”