How a Kenyan woman is changing the fortunes of teenage mums and their babies

As she was drying up her tears after about twenty minutes of crying, Masha Mapenzi looked me in the eyes and said, “Please don’t ever get married. Please stay alone.”

That would have been strange advice from a petite, nineteen-year-old girl who could pass for a 14-year-old. The advice was out of a bad experience, including two failed marriages before she attained adulthood.

Masha is among ten residents of the Single Mums Association of Kenya (SMAK) rescued by a benevolent pastor of the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya.

Masha got pregnant when she was in class five and decided to live with her lovebird, also a teen, as man and wife. Things did not go as expected, though, because the boy was still in school and hardly in a position to take care of a family. His own family was wallowing in poverty as well which compounded the situation. When life became unbearable, Masha decided to go back to her home.

Life back home was not any better there. Her father, the sole breadwinner, was bedridden. The thought of her father lying on that bed without any medical help far from the nearest hospital starts torrents of tears running down her face again.

Masha Mapenzi during the interview

Getting three square meals a day was so difficult for the young mother and her siblings while getting clothes and shawls to wrap her firstborn, Mercyline, was next to impossible.

The already difficult time in the young girl’s life was going to get harder. Her father organised a quick marriage to a 65-year-old man to save the family from shame, and also to rid himself of the burden of the young girl and her baby.

Maisha had two more children with the old man, who was insecure, and who beat and scolded her on a daily basis, accusing her of unfaithfulness. Her husband was poor, which meant getting food was very difficult.

When life became unbearable again, she ran away with her two children, Kelvin and Margaret from the marriage. Later, she returned Mercyline and Kelvin to their fathers, as feeding and clothing them became a Herculean task for her. She still visited the children periodically.

“I will go and get them back when I get back on my feet, as I am sure they are mistreated and lack motherly love,” said Masha, who stays with Margaret as allowed by SMAK home to allow the young one gets attention as the mother learns an economic skill.

Masha’s story is not a new one as many girls have dropped out of school because of early pregnancies. And with lack of income, the situation spells untold suffering for them and their new babies. Apart from being unable to cater for their basic needs, they are also unable to give them the required attention in life.

According to Phyllis Thiongo, the Project Officer (PO) with the SMAK Teenage Mothers program and a counseling psychologist, child development is very important especially up to five years. It is a crucial stage and the babies need to grow with their mums for a better relationship in future, love, and discipline.

A baby playing at the SMAK home

Teenage pregnancy in Kenya

According to WHO 2015, Babies born to adolescent mothers face a substantially 50% higher risk of being stillborn or dying in the first few weeks than those born to older mothers. Nearly all teen pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted with young girls more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth compared to mature women (UNFPA 2013)

In the above case, if the baby had been left at home, the kids would never be close to their mums, resulting in dysfunctional families.

In 2016, there were 77 reported cases of teenage pregnancy, 44 cases of child marriage, 153 cases of defilement and 14 sodomy cases in Kilifi County, to which Malindi town belongs.

Tuma Kesi (Left) Masha Mapenzi (Right) at the SMAK home

Parents in the county are not particularly keen on education or what happens to their children at home or in school. They also do very little to address cases of abuse and when they do, the solution is almost always marriage to the boy or an old man.

According to Ms. Phyllis, the arms of government in this area are also passive when it comes to addressing the above issues.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014) indicates that one in every five girls between 15-19 years has begun childbearing with about 13,000 teenage girls dropping out of school every year due to pregnancy. Narok County has the most cases recording 40.4%, followed by Homabay with (33.3%), Tana River with (28.2%), West Pokot (28.6%), Tana River (28.2%) and Nyamira (27.8pc). Nairobi stands at about (17.8%) KDHS 2014.

With 24% of Kenya’s population under the age of 19, fighting teenage pregnancy is one sure way of fighting poverty since staying in school longer ensures that teenagers acquire productive skills that would enable them to contribute to the economic development of the country.

Despite good intentions sometimes things do go wrong and facilities such as the SMAK home are needed to address the cases of the girls with babies.

Kesi Tuma, who also resides in the home comes from the dusty village of Kazandani in Malindi. The village is remote, and the residents lack most basic amenities.  The levels of poverty are very high. Most people are unemployed, depending on peasant farming.

Tuma got pregnant at the age of seventeen while still a class six student in primary school. She had to stay at home and become the wife of the teenage father.

This arrangement did not work. Her new husband was taken back to school, thus nullifying the marriage. In most cases of teen pregnancies, the boy goes back to school as the girl drops out. If she is lucky and if the parents can afford she will be taken back to school once she has the baby.

Tuma languished in the village with no means to feed and clothe her child until the church rescued her.

Focus on girls from the Coast

Upon their arrival in Nairobi, SMAK enrolled the girls in the teenage mothers programs. The program is run by Angeline Nandwa. It takes in teenage girls between the ages of 13-17 years old. She is now concentrating on girls from the Coast region of Kenya.

The girls at the SMAK home

“Coast is the region with the highest number of mothers between the ages of nine and 17 years, many of them impregnated by teenage boys,” said Phyllis.

The home rescues some girls from towns, including Malindi and Mtwapa, where some parents send their children to raise money for basic food through prostitution.

Nandwa said that once girls get pregnant, the parents consider them a burden and a bad influence on their younger siblings. So the parents marry the girls off as third or fourth wives, exposing them to conflict with older, established co-wives.

“The older women don’t care and treat her as a co-wife, instead of a young girl who still needs mentorship and guidance on how to treat the new bundle of joy,” said  Nandwa

The children of the young mothers are also at great risk, mostly because it is not uncommon for ten-year-old mothers to leave their babies unattended while they go out to play.

“We had to do a lot of work when they come here; we start by taking them to the clinic for vaccines,” Nandwa said.

The girls did not get such basic care because of ignorance and long distance from health centers, she explained.

One baby actually came with a burnt hand that had started to disfigure because no one had taken him for medical attention. He has since improved after a visit to People a hospital for treatment.

Nandwa says some babies were brought in all the way from Mombasa or Malindi to Nairobi wrapped only in a leso (traditional cloth). Upon arrival they would start crying because they are too cold.

The children play with a nanny at SMAK

The home gives them new clothes and napkins.

Back at their homes in Malindi, the babies and their mums slept on the floor, which causes deformities of the head and hands. Sometimes a family of five sleeps on reed beds, which cause accidents such as suffocation or the baby falling off the bed.

Due to the fact that the mothers need to work in and out of their homesteads, babies were also put on the backs of their mothers by the time they celebrate their first birthday which really affects their development as their bodies are not yet ready to be carried on the backs.

This problem has so far been addressed, thanks to the Moses Basket Initiative by Phyllis.

Little Kushuka being taught how to walk

All girls admitted to the Teenage mother’s programme at SMAK are trained in economic empowering skills such as dressmaking and design in the first term and product production where they are taught how to make things like curtains and baking gloves in the second term.

During the last term of the year, they learn catering where they are taught how to make samosas and cakes among other foods. All these are geared towards helping the young mothers get skills that will help start their own businesses after passing the government exams at the end of the year.

“We do not want them to go and look for employment, we want them to start their own businesses and even employ other girls in the same predicament,” said Nandwa

Once they are done with classes and exams, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya step in and give the graduates some capital and tenders to start their own businesses.

As the mothers sit in class to study, their babies are placed under the care of a matron who is in charge of other caregivers. They feed them, change them and play around with them until their mums come for the various breaks to feed them and play with them as well.

Masha says that this is a big relief for her as she is sure that there is someone looking after her child when she is looking for a better life for her.

The mother, who had never seen napkins, was glad that her baby was in new and beautiful clothes and is always clean with a dry nappy.

Tuma is glad that her baby was getting three square meals a day plus in-between meals that also includes milk and porridge. This was a far cry from what the two-year-old would have had back at home.

The matron also takes care of the babies as their mothers sleep. She will wake them periodically to feed and change the babies.

Mrs. Eva Shiluli a matron at the home with a baby

“We did not want the girls to be alone with the babies just in case the baby was sick as they would not know. They are basically babies with babies,” said Phyllis

The program has its own challenges as some girls run away to go back to prostitution or sell the sewing machines offered by the program.

To curb this, the young mothers are required to buy the sewing machines for themselves, using money they are paid for every project undertaken at the institution. The goal is to make the young girls financially independent and give a better life to their children.

Going by last year’s class, the home is onto something.



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