The world we live in is changing rapidly; lots of things that were unheard of 40 years ago are becoming not only normal but people appear bent on pushing boundaries and normalizing social aberrations using technological advancement and mass media. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace that are relied on by young Africans who are neither completely rural nor urban, neither traditional nor modern, are making them get caught up in the transitional crisis that poses problems for them to revert completely to the traditional patterns of behaviour.
The number of girls who get pregnant out of wedlock in Kenya and elsewhere is on the increase. This growing phenomenon has left many questioning whether it is society’s relaxation of moral standards that’s making it easier for young people to indulge in inappropriate sexual behaviour. If society were to employ tougher measures, would this create a difference? As a tribute to teacher, counselor, lecturer and youth worker, Prof Emmy Mwenesi Gichinga (1950-2010) who was buried in February 2010, we review her book, Answers for Unmarried Mothers: A Counselling Guide.
It is common for the new breed of men who impregnate unmarried girls to go free without any sense of responsibility. Answers For Unmarried Mothers highlights and enlightens all societies at the beginning of the 21st century to face up to the needs of single mothers and their children. The insightful book, running 136 pages, addresses the challenges young people face and gives some guidance on how to cope with the challenges of single motherhood WHEN-not IF-it occurs.
Prof Gichinga notes that many “modern” people consider traditional African standards of behaviour outmoded and are replacing them with relative morality that results in free and indiscriminate sexual relationships. She writes that all societies at the beginning of the 21st century, have to face up to the needs of increasing numbers of single mothers and their children who need help in maintaining their self respect and that of others. Giving practical advice about the problem of single parenthood, Gichinga suggests how girls and their families can organize their lives so as to reduce the risk of getting into this situation.
The book, first published by Uzima Press of Nairobi in 1996 and revised in 2002, tackles subjects such as abortion, adoption, dating, family life education, sexual purity, mass media, peer pressure, sugar daddies, fertility, maternal instinct, sexual desire, rape, incest, and provides a bibliography and a list of organisations and programmes that work with unmarried mothers.
Pregnancy before marriage was the exception rather than the norm in traditional Africa; sexual offenders were dealt with severely. The payment of fines was clearly spelled out for both men and women who contravened these norms. Sexual promiscuity and extra-marital pregnancy were regarded as very serious offences and those found to be involved in such behaviour were severely punished to serve as a warning to any future offenders.
Among the Agikuyu of Kenya it was an expensive affair to make a girl pregnant. Punishment for both sexual offenders was social ostracism. Thus when a man who dared to suggest sexual intercourse to a girl was reported to his age mates he was punished. But if a young man impregnated a girl he would pay a fine of nine sheep or goats and three big sheep to the girl’s parents unless he agreed to marry her. Besides this, he paid a fine to the tribal council and was isolated by his age mates. On the other hand a girl who indulged in illicit sex that resulted in her getting pregnant had to provide a feast for her age-mates, both men and women with the assistance of her already humiliated parents. More so she had to put up with nasty comments and remarks aimed at publicly ridiculing her.
Among the 17 Luyia communities of Kenya, a man and woman engaged to marry would normally not be allowed to meet on their own until they were married. It was considered shameful for a girl to have children before marriage. Girls who got pregnant out of wedlock could be thrown out of the family and perhaps be sent away from home with their children to stay with some distant relatives. The man responsible would be required to pay heavy compensation to the girl’s parents according to tribal law.
Sexual promiscuity, pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relationships were punishable by death through stoning among other communities. Non-virgins were returned to their parents’ homes and, in the presence of the community, were stoned to death for the disgrace they had brought to the family and the community. While girls who were promiscuous were referred to as playing the harlot in their parents’ homes, engaged women were required to report any attempts at/or actual events that threatened and violated their chastity.
Women who were raped were expected to report the matter immediately to their parents and relatives and the men who had so abused them if caught were stoned to death. If the men escaped the stoning they paid a fine and were forced to marry the woman as it would be very difficult for another man to marry a woman so abused.
Men who made girls pregnant bore their full share of responsibility unlike now when they simply walk away from the woman. “Modern” women, too, are not afraid of the consequences of their behaviour as a result of the breakdown in traditional values.
The death of compassionate and empathetic professionals like Prof Gichinga has robbed eastern African countries “whose youth are engaging in reckless sex” of an institution, i.e. one of the few modern people who were serving the role of guiding the youth once played by elders and the extended family but that, unfortunately, is being rendered irrelevant by socio-economic changes.
Born in Vihiga of the then vast Kakamega District of Western Kenya in 1950, Emmy Mwenesi attended Ingidi Primary School, Alliance Girls High School and the University of Nairobi where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Education option) degree in 1974. She also obtained a Master of Arts degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton Graduate School in 1992.
Mrs Gichinga taught at Allaince Girls High School, Mary Leakey Girls High School and Mutuine High School before she resigned in 1983 in order to support her husband, the Rev John Gichinga who was then the senior pastor at Nairobi Baptist Church.
In 1988 Dr Emmy Gichinga was appointed counseling director and then executive director of Crisis Pregnancy Ministries, a newly started programme to take care of pregnant girls.
Besides being instrumental in the establishment of the Kenya Counselling Association and serving as a senior lecturer at Tangaza College, Emmy Mwenesi Gichinga was also executive director and primary therapist/counselor of her own agency, GEM Counsellin Services.
Mrs Gichinga, an assistant professor at the time of her death, held a Ph.D in counseling psychology from American World University and a second master’s degree in African Studies from Maryknoll Institute of African Studies of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, USA. She had published four books, written numerous counseling manuals and her vast knowledge and experience on issues related to counselling, psychology, emotional health, stress management and parenting made her a much sought after source by the mass media.
Though Dr Emmy Mwenesi Gichinga has passed on, she will always be remembered through her writings, especially Answers for Unmarried Mothers: A Counselling Guide.