I woke up one morning and realized that my neighbors had used up all the water in the house and had not called the Mai Ruwa to refill the containers. I usually don’t go out myself to call him but since I was the only one preparing to go out at that time, I put on my slip and went out in search of him.
The Mai Ruwa lived just opposite my house, so I didn’t have to walk far to find him. Because it was quite early, there were few people on the street, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing my messy hair (which is almost always messy) or my oversized slip. As I crossed the street, I saw that the gate to the Mai Ruwa‘s house was open. When I reached the gate, I raised my hand to knock when this little Fulani boy – who bore a striking resemblance to the Mai Ruwa – came to the gate.
‘Ina Mai Ruwa?‘ I asked in Hausa. The boy just looked at me and pointed to the security guard’s corner of the house. I didn’t know that the Mai Ruwa doubled up as the security guard of the house; though, I should have known a Mai Ruwa couldn’t own such a prime piece of property. I walked towards the small apartment and saw the Mai Ruwa emerge from the room. As he approached me, I couldn’t help but notice that there were kids lying on the floor, almost like the arrangement of fish in sardine packages, with the youngest closest to the mother. From my count, there were four children in that tiny room. Add that to the little boy I just saw outside, and it meant that the Mai Ruwa had five children. Maybe the Mai Ruwa saw my prying eyes, because he quickly pulled his curtains down. I straighten and asked that he brings water to our house. He told me he would be there as soon as he could.
As I returned to my house, I wondered how a man who doubled up as a Mai Ruwa and a security guard could have five children and have all of them living in one tiny room. This was a shock to me because I had done an in depth radio show on family planning in Adamawa, with resource persons from the Society for Family Health who explained the necessity for planning. I thought the issue was more rural but here I was, right at my door steps, in a very urban area, faced with an unplanned family. I consoled myself with the thought that the Mai Ruwa already had his children before my program so, maybe he wouldn’t have a sixth child.
I went there a couple more times and realized that the spacing of the Mai Ruwa‘s children couldn’t have been more than one year between each child. They were literally just following themselves.
In Northern Nigeria, many families are like the Mai Ruwa‘s; poor, not gainfully employed and surprisingly large. The issue of family planning – or the absence of it – is a big problem in this region. The problem is eating deep into the fabric of society. In the Northern part of the country, there are particular reasons why people have an aversion to planned families.
Nothing is a bigger determining factor than religion on the issue of family. Many people are of the belief that God is the one who gives children and as such, are totally against ‘planning’ a family. This phenomenon cuts across the two major religions in Nigeria.
The Bible’s stance on family planning is almost non-existent; I used the term ‘almost’ because many people use the story of Onan and Tamar as a point to ‘prove’ God is against family planning. In Genesis 38:6-10 (better understanding will come if one starts from verse one), Onan kept pulling out of Tamar (that is, the withdrawal method) just so he wouldn’t perform his legal duties to his late brother Er as stipulated in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. While this Bible passage may seem to be against family planning, I don’t think it is. If you take a holistic view of the story, you will see that God was angry at Onan not necessarily for withdrawing during sex, but because he did that with the evil intention of not wanting to share his inheritance with any child Tamar bore; a child who would have been the true heir of their father Judah’s estates. In essence, the Bible’s view on family planning is relatively mute. So why are many Christians against planning their families? I believe it is because many of them are uneducated or not properly educated on the tenets of the Bible, which makes them accept any and every thing their leaders tell them. So when a preacher is against family planning, all he has to do is rally against it from his pulpit and his followers will accept it. And for those who take out the time to study, many do not understand the nuances that are in each scripture and that each scripture is inherently connected to others and thus, the whole Bible. They just latch onto one verse and solidify their opinions rather than take each verse as a small part of a whole. So anyone reading about Onan and Tamar would say, God is against planned families.
Similarly, many Muslims say that it is against Allah’s will to plan their families, seeing it as a western idea postulated to pull people away from the ethics of Islam. That been said, I tried to research what the Qur’an says about the concept, but there seemed to be no direct verses about family planning. There are however verses on killing children (Qur’an 6:151, 17:51). I read an article by Jamal Zarabozo titled ‘Is Family Planning Allowed In Islam?’ on Islam Women and he said research has been done by Islamic scholars and they have come to the conclusion that spacing children is allowed if the parents have mutually found a reason that is Islamically acceptable to space them. He went further to explain that hysterectomy and vasectomy – two methods that permanently render a person sterile – should not be considered by Muslims as it was frowned upon. Abortion was also forbidden in Islam hence the two verses above. This means that technically, Allah is not against child spacing and family planning as long as it does not involve the murder of one’s children, abortion or the permanent destruction of the ovum or the functionality of the penis in donating sperm. Why then are many Muslims still towing the path against family planning? I think it has a lot to do with the lack of education that plagues the Northern part of this country. Many are not even aware that their scholars from different schools of thought put together a postulation after having done intense research on the family planning issue. Many of them are only able to read the Arabic language with which the Qur’an is written and are not able to translate them to apply to their lives. They then have to rely on their preachers to decipher what the Qur’an says. When a preacher is not learned or privy to information like the research of the Islamic Scholars, he might give information according to his own understanding or personal ideologies. This will then go a long way in forming the ideals many Muslims have on the issue of planned families.
Muslims and Christians need to understand that both their religions do not expressly forbid family planning, so religious adherents need to embrace the concept some more.
I could talk about the traditional religion stand point on family planning but no two cultures in Nigeria have the same traditional religion and sets of beliefs, values and ideologies. Trying to talk about that would be akin to writing an encyclopedia. So let’s move on.
If religion is a big bummer to the advancement of planned families, culture is its twin brother! Almost all cultures in Nigeria greatly promote having many children. It is believed that the more children a person has, the more likely the person will be wealthy. That view might have been okay in the past, where more children meant more crop production and hence more income, but today, that view is very erroneous. The rich in the society today, heck the wealthy ones, are the ones who have fewer children while the pit-poor are the ones who have a litter of children whom they cannot feed, clothe, cater to, house, educate or even influence. If culture is not working, shouldn’t it be tossed aside, and new ones picked up?
The effects of refusing to embrace family planning is far reaching and of great importance to the growth of the nation. It is true that many people are more interested in what affects their own families than what affects the nation as a whole, but the happenings at family levels are always reflected in society, emphasizing why special care needs to be focused on how our families turn out. The prevailing poverty in the country can be minimized if more families embrace family planning. This is not to say that giving birth indiscriminately always leads to poverty, but it is a contributing factor. If families are taught to have children they can take care of on their current income, we wouldn’t have a lot of the incidences of poverty that we have now.
If the Mai Ruwa had been taught that having children is a blessing, but being unable to properly feed them, clothe and house them, educate them and generally set the tone of their lives is wrong, maybe he would have planned his family better. The best-case scenario for the Mai Ruwa is that his water business becomes really successful then he can care for his kids. Let us say that doesn’t happen. As the children grow older, they will gradually have to be pushed out of the house; the girls to go out hawking and the boys to either join the almajiri system or be forced into a trade or labor. This exposes the children to untold hardship and many other evils characterized by working the streets. The possibility of these kids ending up in a life of crime is almost always one. And if care is not taken, they will be open to being recruited by criminal syndicates or extremist terror groups and go on to be a thorn in society’s neck. The girls might be exposed to pedophiles as they hawk their wares. These pedophiles might get them pregnant or expose them to vile diseases, and completely ruin their entire existence, making them unable to live full, normal lives. This dysfunction will then repeat itself when they have their own families and so the vicious cycle continues and expands. Either way, it is a lose-lose situation.
Having planned families doesn’t ensure that all these do not happen but planning a family can help parents effectively raise the children they have with the morals and ethics they want them to grow up with. When families are able to raise good, well-mannered children, then society will be able to reflect this and will also be able to advance better societal values.
There are different methods which can be adopted to plan families and there is at least one which will suit each person. If you are not comfortable using oral contraceptives, you could use condoms (which are so cheap now that you can use them without worrying about running large costs). Most African men would not like a vasectomy but that does not mean that there are no other options more suitable for them. There are articles online where you can read more family planning options than you might be able to absorb, or you could just go to your doctor and ask that (s)he explains all the available methods to you.
We cannot continue to raise children who are undernourished, uneducated, not catered for and morally bankrupt. We all need to look for the appropriate method to help us plan our families.
This is also a call to bodies aimed at emphasizing family planning to really put more effort in what they doing so that this message gets to the grassroots, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor. Let us be more proactive!