Notes... from Henry Hamburger:

This paper has been accepted for presentation ATWS-6, a conference of the Association for Third-World Studies. It is for the session on tradition, gender and family values.
The paper begins with a personal observation about opportunities missed because of population growth. Family values, the topic of our session, are then distinguished from family size. Finally, we present a culturally sound, media-based strategy for influencing family size, one successfully deployed by Population Media Center, where Kriss Barker works and William Ryerson is founder and president. Comments can go to them or to me at
The conference takes place November 22-24, 2005 in Kakamega, Kenya. That's the capital of Western Province and is home to both Kakamega High School where I taught 1963-65 and the province's new public university, Western University College of Science and Technology, where I gave a talk and led a seminar in June, 2005. The conference will be at the university.

Schools, Nations, Values and Population
William Ryerson, Henry Hamburger and Kriss Barker

Abstract:   Is family size a family value? Must a family value be valuable? What if it is valuable to one generation but costly to the next? Can a rapidly changing viewpoint be a family value? Can a worldwide phenomenon be called an African value? By subjecting family size to such questions, we examine whether large families are an African family value. Kenya's sharp decline in family size from the 1970s to the 1990s has stalled at a level too high for the well-being of individuals, communities and the nation. We present a culture-attuned, media-based strategy for influencing family size, one successfully deployed in Africa and elsewhere.


Kakamega is a great place.  This is my fourth visit in the last three years, but before that I was away for a few decades and when I returned in 2003, it was a shock to see the changes.  I'll start from those changes and move on to corresponding ones at the national level.  Then I'll talk about both in relation to ideas about values.  Finally we present a strategy for addressing the issues in a culturally appropriate way.

Kakamega - and Kenya as a whole - is a place of wonderful people and great educational accomplishment.  I first came here in 1963, four months before Uhuru, and traveled from Kakamega to Nairobi to witness the event - the raising of the new nation's flag and Jomo Kenyatta waving his fly-whisk - and to enjoy the celebration.  For two years, I taught at Kakamega Secondary School: sixth form mathematics for the Advanced Level of the Cambridge exams.  My students were hard-working and intelligent.

And now, as we meet here 42 years later - 42 years into the life of this nation - how are things at Kakamega High School?  Well, the faculty has quadrupled - a good thing in itself - but the number of students has also quadrupled, wiping out the teacher gain on a per capita basis.

What would these teachers be doing if the student population had not quadrupled?  If they are like those hard-working, intelligent students of mine, they would be engineers, business-people, computer experts and more.  They would be out building Kenya's and the region's economy and improving the quality of life.

But that opportunity has been missed because of that population growth.  And it is not just a failure to move forward.  In other ways population growth causes outright decreases in well-being. Space, for example, is a limited resource and so both students and teachers have paid a heavy price as the school's space per person has shrunk.  For you cannot build a dormitory in the chemistry laboratory.  As space has run out, per-student living area has shrunk and faculty have been forced to live outside the compound.  Labs and other facilities have also necessarily lost ground.

A parallel story of missed opportunity and per capita loss has unfolded at the national level.  In this arena too there has been a desirable quadrupling, in this case of the economy.  This too has been wiped out, in this case by quadrupling of the entire population.  It was barely over 6 million in 1950 and is around 34 million today.1  Thus one individual share of the national income is no larger than it was 40 years ago.  And here too there is the per capita loss of space, as the shambas have been subdivided.

What would that increased income be doing besides letting people buy things?  Some of it would have been invested: in factories, transportation systems, computing capacity and telecommuni­cations.  Countries that have managed to stabilize population have leapt ahead economically.  Kenya can still do this.  I know my students were plenty smart enough to have done it.


Now let's bring this down from the national level, down from the region or community or school district, all the way to the level of the family, because that is ultimately where decisions on population get made.  That's where the ultimate unit of population increase, the new baby, gets its start.  Here we come right down to the heart of the matter and to our conference sub-theme: Culture, Gender and Family Values.

Historically, Africans had arguably better values than Europeans, more oriented to community2, for one thing, and with a more democratic approach to decision-making.  One purpose of this session, like last year's Mpambo conference that I attended in Jinja, is to draw upon that tradition and wisdom.  But we should be clear about what counts as a value and really defines a people as opposed to what just happened to happen or was based on a real or perceived economic need.

Let's take an example.  My good friend Enoch Nandokha, whom I will see on this trip, was born in the same year I was, yet he was my student 40 years ago.  Why was he still in school, while I had completed a university degree?  Was it a family value that he was assigned to herd cows before starting school and had his schooling interrupted. . . a family value or a family's economic hardship?  Something to be retained or to be overcome?

You do not need to answer.  Your parents and ancestors have answered for you.  By having large families, they have forced most of you off the land and into cities where you have no cows.  If herding cows was ever a family value, it's one that has already been abandoned.  Really though, making kids do the herding was only a solution to a practical problem, a matter of economics rather than values.

What of family size itself?  Were Kenya's large families some kind of family value or a cultural value?  This question is crucial to the issues I raised at the start of this talk, the lost opportunities in schools and in the national economy, because it was precisely large families that undermined the gains in these areas.  

To be more precise, "in the late 1970s, Kenya's fertility rate was estimated at eight children per woman."3   Clearly the family with a large number of children was common at that time.  But was it a value?  If being common makes it a value, then values have been shifting and it is has become much less of one.  Kenya's total fertility rate has now declined to under five children per woman, and the family size that people desire is under four.  It should be noted that the downward trend in fertility rate has stalled4 at around 4.8, still high enough to cause another doubling of population in less than 30 years.

Next note that even if family size were to be counted a (changeable) family value, it would hardly appear to be a specifically African one, because large families have arisen all over.  America in 1800 had an average of 7 children per family.5  In England, among married women born 1851-55, 1/3 had at least 7 live births,6 though the UK fertility rate is now roughly 1.73 and has been steadily near that for a generation.7  The Boers in 19th century South Africa had huge families, notably 4-time president Paul Kruger with 16 children, so that "subdivision among sons on Boer farms . . . reduced them to uneconomic units."8  In Asia, more recently the number of children born to the average woman was almost six in 1950, though it has now dropped to 2.6.9

Impressive as many national drops in average fertility rate are, though, in many places they have not kept pace with the dramatic decreases in infant and child mortality.10  In these places the inevitable result has been continued exponential population growth.  How can these decreases in family size be extended where they are not yet sufficient?  Light is shed on this question by a 1993 Kenya study11 of desired family size that found literacy to be a strong contributor to desire for a small family. Kenya is a relatively strong performer in literacy12 and also in getting girls into  school.13  This is an excellent thing, but it also means that education alone may fall short and indeed has fallen far short of producing stability in population. 

Literacy may be necessary but not sufficient.  Contraception has been found more likely among women who are not only educated but also empowered in various ways including participation, on their own, in key economic activities such as coops, banking and credit.14 There were traditional impediments for women in these arenas and it can be argued that the situation became worse under colonial rule.15

To review, then, it seems that large families are not a value, or else a changeable one, and have nothing much specifically to do with Africa.  Indeed it is widely believed that, here and elsewhere,  they were partly an economic decision, one that seemed to work when there was plenty of land, but has turned out to be disastrously short-sighted as the land has been subdivided and in many places drained of renewable water, despite longer pipes, deeper wells and higher dams.16

Peaceful traditions and community orientation in Africa were noted with some admiration by early European visitors.8  One may be proud of such values, though trying to emphasize them at a national level would be counter-productive in the current world economy.17 

But even more counter-productive is population growth.  Unlike in the 19th century, it is now the case that "nations must first reduce their fertility rates, and then they have the possibility of experiencing sustained economic development," as a comparison of recent decades in Brazil and Japan suggests.18  Further evidence comes from a comparison of the Philippines and Thailand in a study that concludes that "good population policy combined with good governance results in rapid economic growth and poverty reduction."19 Thailand and Japan both reduced their average family size to around 1.5 and their economies took off.   This should not be a big surprise.   Some of the money not spent on children gets invested and will increase productivity, at least in the presence of strong education and sound government policies.20

Finally, note that whether parents are influenced or not by cultural values as they make their decisions on family size, it is their children who will end up dealing with the consequences of those decisions.  A value that ignores children's chances for the future can perhaps be a parent value but it cannot rightly be called a family value.

It is the children who enter, whether they wish to or not, the competition for divided resources at all levels: first for attention in the family, then for financing of their education.  The results have (on average) been devastating for achievement by children of large families, at least in the US,21 though similar results have not been demonstrated in Africa.  Whatever their achievement, these children and the others of their generation will compete on a broader stage for the dwindling resources of their nation, where without further dramatic reductions in family size, another quadrupling of Kenya's population will occur within the natural lifetimes of children alive today. 


Suppose you accept these numbers and agree with what has been said about them.  What is to be done?  Should one just wait for education to increase and equality to emerge, or is there some more direct way to approach the population issue?  In the rest of this paper we describe a practical, non-coercive approach to influencing population, one that moreover takes into account the culture and viewpoint of the people to be reached and draws upon the creative and commercial resources of the nations involved.  We also cite evidence of its success.  Much of this material appears on the website of  the Population Media Center (PMC).22

Mass media, particularly entertainment broadcast media, have played a significant role in a number of countries in bringing about changes in reproductive behavior and in promoting adoption of other health measures.  Radio and television soap operas (serialized melodramas) in Mexico, India, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia have had massive effects on audience attitudes and behavior with regard to HIV/AIDS avoidance and use of family planning methods.23  Moreover the price is within reach: for the Tanzania project described below, the cost per new adopter of family planning was roughly 60 KSh, counting all associated expenses.

In its development of projects, PMC has followed in the footsteps of Miguel Sabido who, as Vice-President of Televisa in Mexico in 1977, created the first soap opera to promote family planning.  The characters in that series were culturally credible and evolved over time to become positive role models for the audience.  This series was enormously effective24 but its strategy needs to be respected if its success is to be replicated.  This means not simply pounding home a lesson, but paying attention to aspects of culture that the audience cares about and engaging them in the lives of the characters.  An example of such engagement can be seen in the thousands of letters from Ethiopian women, hundreds of them stating that they have named their new baby daughters after the lead female character in the PMC program described below.

The most extensive evaluation of the effects of a social content serial drama occurred from 1993 to 1997  when Radio Tanzania broadcast a serial melodrama that attracted 58 percent of the relevant population (aged 15 to 45) in areas of the broadcast.  By design, in one region of the country, around Dodoma, a music program was heard instead of the soap opera during the first two years of the project (1993-95).  Then, from 1995-97, the soap opera was broadcast in the Dodoma comparison area.  Independent researchers from Tanzania and the US measured the effects on AIDS prevention behavior, ideal age of marriage for women, and use of family planning.25,26  Multiple regression analysis eliminated spurious effects like urban-rural differences. Nationwide random sample surveys of 2750 people before, during and after the broadcast showed significant impacts on attitudes and behavior.

Among the findings were a significant increase in the percentage of the population who perceive that they may be at risk of HIV infection; an increase in people’s belief that they can take effective action to prevent HIV/AIDS; an increase in interpersonal communication about HIV/AIDS; an increase in the belief that individuals, rather than their deity or fate, can determine how many children they will have; an increase in the belief that children in small families have better lives than children in large families; and an increase in the percentage of respondents who approve of family planning.

Not only did beliefs and attitudes change, but so too did actual behavior. Over half the population of the areas where the serial was broadcast identified themselves as listeners, with more men than women in the audience.  One of the key characters in the soap opera was a truck driver with many girl friends along the truck route.  In the program he contracts AIDS.  Of the listeners surveyed, 82 percent said the program had caused them to change their own behavior to avoid HIV infection, through limiting the number of sexual partners and through condom use.  Independent data from the AIDS Control Programme of the government of Tanzania showed a 153 percent increase in condom distribution in the broadcast areas during the first year of the soap opera, while condom distribution in the Dodoma non-broadcast area increased only 16 percent in the same time period. 

The program was also effective in promoting family planning.  There was a strong positive relationship between listenership levels by district and the change in the percentage of men and women who were currently using any family planning method.  The research also showed an increase in the percentage of Tanzanians in the areas of the broadcast who discussed family planning with their spouses.  The program also had a significant effect in raising the ideal age of marriage for women and the ideal age of first birth for women. 

Independent data from Ministry of Health clinics showed that 41 percent of new adopters of family planning methods were influenced by the soap opera to seek family planning.  This included 25 percent who cited the soap opera by name when asked why they had come to the clinic, and another 16 percent who cited “something on the radio” and then identified the soap opera when shown a list of programs currently on the air. 

More recently, PMC broadcast social-content radio serial dramas in Ethiopia from 2002 to 2004, designed to change reproductive health behaviors.  Two Kenyans, Tom Kazungu and Kimani Njogu of Nairobi, trained the Tanzanian production and writing team in the methodology for creating effective behavior-change soap operas.  These programs became the top rated programs on the air – even out-competing television in urban areas.  These programs, one in each of the country's most widely spoken languages, addressed issues of reproductive health and women’s status, including HIV/AIDS, family planning, marriage by abduction, education of daughters, spousal communication and related issues.  The programs generated a huge audience response, with over 15,000 letters from listeners.  Particularly significant are those coming from women who describe gaining the courage to address and even convince their formerly intransigent husbands in matters of reproduction and life-or-death health issues.

During the two-and-half years the radio programs were on the air, each episode was awaited with great anticipation.  The series as a whole had major effects on demand for contraceptives, their use, seeking HIV testing and fertility rate.  As of November 2004, 63 percent of new clients seeking reproductive health services at 48 clinics in Ethiopia reported that they were listening to one of the PMC serial dramas.  In fact, 27 percent of new clients named one of PMC’s programs as the primary motivating factor for seeking services.

Press coverage was remarkably strong with some 64 feature articles and news reports. The series was the topic of no less than 30 talk shows and discussion programs on radio and television.  Academia and government also took notice.  At Addis Ababa University, a doctoral dissertation, two Masters theses and ten senior essays focused on the dramas, and the Government of Ethiopia allocated funds to support the project.

In review, we have attempted to establish three main points. First, for their own sake, individuals and nations will do better with much smaller families than those that are desired and produced in Kenya. Second, African family values should not be regarded as inconsistent with family size reduction. Finally, for nations seeking to reduce family size as part of a strategy for their own economic improvement and environmental sustainability, we have reviewed some major accomplishments of one organization's culture-sensitive approach.


Note:  Each item that is posted on the web can be reached by clicking the word "Link" next to it. To return to this article, use your browser's back-up button.

1.  Population, Health, and Human Well-Being--Kenya.  EarthTrends: Country Profiles.   Link

2.  Ntibagirirwa, S. (2001).   A Wrong Way: From Being To Having In The African Value System.  In: South African Philosophical Studies, II, Patrick Giddy (Ed.). The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.   Link

3.  USAID Congressional Presentation (2000).  Link

4.  Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2003).   Link

5.  Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Family Planning.  CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, December 03, 1999 / 48(47);1073-1080.   Link

6. Garrett, E.,  A. Reid, K. Schurer and S. Szreter (2001).Changing Family Size in England and Wales. Cambridge University Press,

7.  Population Trends 118, Winter 2004.  Office for National Statistics, UK Government.   Link

8.  Sparks, A. (1990) The Mind of South Africa, , Alfred A. Knop, Inc., New York.

9.  Seager, J. (2004). Why Anxiety Over Low Fertility?   False Alarms About Slower Population Growth.  Link

10.  Ryerson, W.N. Sixteen Myths about Population.  Carrying Capacity Network.   Link

11. Fapohunda, B.M. and P.V. Poukouta.  Trends and Differentials in Desired Family Size in Kenya., African Population Policy Research Centre, Population Council, Nairobi, Kenya.  Link

12.  Otieno, S. (2003). Kenya: A Top Achiever of Universal Education., The East African Standard (Kenya).  07.26.03.  Link

13. UNICEF (2003).  Girls' Education In Kenya.   Link

14.  Bradley, C. (1997). Why Fertility is Going Down in Maragoli.  In Weisner, T.S., C. Bradley and P.L.Kilbride (Eds.)  African Families and the Crisis of Social Change . Bergin and Garvey.

15.  Nasimiyu, R. (1997). Changing Women's Rights over Property in Western Kenya.  In Weisner, T.S., C. Bradley and P.L.Kilbride (Eds.)  African Families and the Crisis of Social Change. Bergin and Garvey.

16.  de Villiers, M. (2000). Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource.  Houghton Mifflin Co.  Boston.

17.  Friedman, T.L.  (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

18. D.Poindexter.  Population Realities and Economic Growth.   Link

19. Twenty-two Economists from the University of the Philippines (2005) Population and Poverty: The Real Score.   Link

20. Navaneetham, K. (2002). Age Structural Transition and Economic Growth: Evidences from South and Southeast Asia. Trivendrum Working Papers 337, Centre for Development Studies, Trivendrum, India. Link

21. J.Blake (1989) Family Size and Achievement.  University of California Press.

22.  W.N. Ryerson.  The Effectiveness Of Entertainment Mass Media In Changing Behavior.,   Link

23. Singhal, A., M. Cody, E. M. Rogers, and M. Sabido. (2003).  Entertainment-Education and Social Change: History, Research and Practice.  Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

24. Sabido, M. (1981).  Towards the social use of commercial television: Mexico’s experience with the reinforcement of social values through TV soap operas.  Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Institute of Communications (Strasbourg, France).  Institute for Communications Research, A.C. (Mexico City, Mexico)

25. Rogers E.M., P. Vaughan, R.M.A. Swalehe, N. Rao, P. Svenkerud, and S. Sood. (1999). Effects of an entertainment-education radio soap opera on family planning behavior in Tanzania. Studies in Family Planning 30(3): 193-211.

26. Vaughan, P., E.M. Rogers et al. (2000). Entertainment-education and HIV/AIDS prevention: a field experiment in Tanzania.  Journal of Health Communication 5.