No need to light many fires, Kenya's problem isn't economic, it's societal

More women than men are in our highest wealth quintile (the top 20 per cent). [iStockphoto] 

When we think of government, we don’t give credit where it is due, but I suspect that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is probably one of Africa’s, if not the world’s, important institutions on the big matter of data and numbers.

I have a biased view on this but one suspects that KNBS got its chops when Mwai Kibaki was President and Kisumu Governor Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o was our Planning Minister. This was the super-smart combo that revitalised Kenya through the Economic Recovery Strategy 2003-2007, and then envisaged Kenya Vision 2030 as an idea before it became a wildly expensive investment and infrastructure plan.

I like to read almost all that KNBS says, although I continue to be worried that a great part of its statistical effort is foreign-financed even as we loudly claim to be free and independent.  Statistics are important.  I once spent time in a Southern African country where the politicos fiddled the top numbers (GDP etc..) and then found that they didn’t quite work backwards to the raw data.

Government never forgets, and the latest news is that this country is in terribly serious debt distress. Fiddling is a nasty habit, and their current President inherited a debt book previously understated.

But this is not a tale about esoteric stuff like GDP or debt obligations.  It is about the statistical human reality that KNBS delivered this week through highlights on the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (DHS).

Yes, the full report will come in a few months, and expectedly, it will drill down to counties, but there is enough data in these highlights to give us cause and pause for reflection.  Let’s process a few of these data snippets.

Sunday is the day most of us go to church as a matter of faith and belief (if we delete politicos from this sentence).  Kenya’s churches are terribly procedural, although we now have PowerPoint illustrations to help us through the hymns.  I have always enjoyed the sermons (before the politicos come to the podium) because they provide excellent brain nutrition in the storytelling.

At an advanced level in the future, we might progress from storytelling to scenario building. Let’s try this with the picture that KNBS is painting for us.

Its picture is painted from a statistically representative sample of a bit more than 38,000 households which is a big ask given that Kenya has over 12 million households.

As an aside, this is where the Huduma Namba mess, implemented honestly beyond profit and political opportunity, would have gotten us to the sort of Nordic/Estonia territory where a costly, donor-funded (and largely incomplete) census becomes irrelevant. Without Big Brother pretensions or “Mark of the Devil” suggestions, we would today know the state of every Kenyan household.  And fix us inclusively.

Sorry, the data.  So, at the very top, roughly a quarter of women rate themselves as very healthy (very good rating), while more than a third of men think they are as fit for purpose.  On both sides of gender, two out of a thousand think they are in bad shape, but more women than men think they are doing OK (good to moderate) health-wise. 

On relationships, more women than men are married, “come we stay”, divorced/separated or widowed.  But more men have “never married”. 

We begin to see the “state of society” picture that I insist our self-interested, navel-gazing politicos have no non-episodic clue about. These are the background statistics that premise the report. A particularly interesting backdrop finding here is that twice as many women as men lack education. 

But, proportionately, more women than men are in our highest wealth quintile (the top 20 per cent). That’s the back-office data out of total surveyed women/men, not the actual tyranny of numbers.

With this background, let us tease out a Sunday scenario of Kenya and Kenyans today.  We begin with the frightening number that three in four Kenyans don’t have health insurance (hence harambees, politicos and a bloated public budget applied to personal/family issues). It’s up from the previous (2014) survey when four out of five Kenyans were seconds away from a hospital bill to poverty. The tragic mini-scenario picture here is endless dependence on public opulence.

Let’s continue with sermon material. The finding that we love our sex but don’t want kids creates new meaning to the concept of “making love”.  Starting at the beginning, three out of every 100 girls at age 15 have given birth or are currently pregnant.

Almost one out of three 19-year-olds are in a similar state. More than a third of the girls in the 15 to 19 age group who have been pregnant at one time or another lack education.  And the general trend suggests its more rural than urban.  I look forward to the sermon that speaks to “baby daddies” and the concept of family. But we need not light too many fires. The data tells us that eight out of every 100 women with more than six kids want another one, but almost seven out of ten want no more babies and six out of 100 in this group have taken precautions by sterilising themselves.

It might help that around six out of 10 married women use contraception, as do seven out of 10 unmarried who have sex. Yes, this is painful reading, but it epitomises the “state of nature” that is Kenya beyond politics.

Which is why we are also making progress. In 1993, 43 per cent of childbirths involved a skilled medical provider. In 2014, this number grew to 66 per cent.  Today, we are at 89 per cent.  Didn’t former President Uhuru Kenyatta deliver in a human space that really mattered for us?  I have always wondered why he wanted a legacy before he left, rather than the legacy he would leave.

This KNBS DHS highlights report is rich on details that demonstrate progress we have made on basics such as child vaccinations, care, nutrition, early learning development and infant feeding. It shows that, despite, or because of, government, we are making progress and getting better.

But there is a warning in its finding that half of our kids are doing sweet beverages, and a quarter are eating unhealthily.  Even as they (and we, their parents) fight marsh (i.e. anopheles) mosquitoes.

But let’s delve into more KNBS data on religious Kenya. One out of eight men and one out of 25 women reported a multiple sexual relationship in the year preceding the survey. A quarter of the said women and almost half of the men said they used a condom.  One out of five women and almost four out of 10 men played the game outside “home ground”. Four of the former and six of the latter used protection. Then, the headline number – men at over seven “partners”, and women just more than two. There’s economics to this survey as well.  So, one out of 20 women own their houses, and an overall one-third have an interest in their property.  One in 30 own land in their own right out of a quarter who have a joint interest. 

In case you are wondering about my gender lens, this is a progressive KNBS analysis on Kenya. It also reports that one out of 14 women own non-agricultural (i.e. commercial/industrial/residential) land.  But we also learn from this survey that more uneducated men and women (define education) own houses (define housing) than the supposedly educated.  Here’s a twist. It’s more women than men, by proportion, who actually have title deeds to their property (apparently six out of seven men are propertied without title).  Please chew that thought.

There is scary equivalent data too. In the above 30’s bracket, more than four out of 10 women have experienced domestic violence only felt by one out of 100 men.  Almost six out of 10 of these relationships are counted among divorced or separated women.  But here’s another twist. 

Almost three out of 10 cases of violence involve teachers, but the data also tells us that four out of ten are a deadly combo of former and current wives/partners. Let’s think more about this data.

To be fair, this is a simple thought sample that might inspire the non-political, but societal, sermons that we deserve to be treated to. In all of the shouting and screaming that the top hustlers are bombarding the real hustlers with, this KNBS DHS (full report forthcoming) is exactly the baseline we need before endless “yesterday bad; tomorrow good” rear-view bluster that dominates our daily headlines. 

To repeat, Kenya’s problem isn’t economic, it’s societal. That’s today sermon from the mount. A thought that takes this data to the scenarios Kenya faces.