> Thandekile Moyo
A FEW years after we graduated, I bumped into a college friend as I was happily going about my business.
We had been inseparable at college but had rarely been in touch afterwards. She asked after my children and went on to tell me she had gotten married to her college sweetheart.
Amid the giggles, I asked her how many kids they had and immediately, the smile fell off and I saw sadness in her eyes that pulled at my heartstrings. She told me they had been trying for a child for a while now but to no avail. She started to cry as she narrated to me her anguish, her pain, her hopelessness and her desperation to fall pregnant.
She told me that her husband thought she was overreacting, as they had only been married for a few years, but she insisted the whole issue was embarrassing for her. She said people kept asking her when they were planning to have children and she was starting to feel like a failure. We sat there crying together and I felt helpless as all I could do was listen.
Experts claim that in Africa, one in six couples of reproductive age experiences fertility problems. In about 40 percent of infertile couples, the problem lies with the man, in about 40 percent in the woman and in the remaining 20 percent the cause is either joint or unknown. Studies show that one in every four Zimbabwean women of child-bearing age suffers from some degree of infertility. This includes the total failure to conceive, inability to carry a pregnancy to term as well as failure to fall pregnant after 12 months of trying.
The causes of infertility are many and so are the treatments. Modern medical science, traditional science and spiritual healers all try and tackle infertility. Unfortunately in some cases, none of these things work and a couple has to accept that biologically, they can never have a child together.
In the African culture, when a man cannot have children, his family, together with his wife, can agree to let the infertile man’s younger brother impregnate his childless wife. This is done secretly, with only a few key parties knowing and it is meant to be kept from the husband in question forever. This secrecy protects the ego of the man, as being sterile is seen as a sign of “weaknesses” in a man. The practice is done so that we carry on the bloodline and the family name. It also prevents the woman from straying in a bid to get pregnant and then bringing an outsider’s child into the family. This also protects the marriage, as there is no chance of divorce due to childlessness.
Where it is the woman who is infertile, the couple and their parents can agree to bring another woman into the marriage, who can bear children for the new polygamous union. Ideally, the woman’s parents can offer another of their daughters or close relative to go and bear children for her sister. This ensures that their family’s bloodline also continues through this “surrogate” bride.
In some cases, the man can marry a stranger but ultimately, the goal is to bring someone who can bear children for the trio. Culturally, the first born of the second wife is given to the first wife to raise. This is done willingly by the second wife and husband, as the belief is that they will have more children.
It is rare to see an African couple dying without ever raising children as, infertile or not, every couple is expected to help raise any orphans and vulnerable children in the extended family. Adoption of strangers is considered taboo, as our ancestors believed that every child carried the spirits, curses and genes of his bloodline and if a stranger was brought into the family, there was danger of being corrupted. They believed totally in keeping their clans “pure”. Childless and wealthy couples could, therefore, opt to live with other people’s children but only within the extended family.
All these interventions ultimately aimed at preserving marriage point to the fact that our culture is beautiful and founded on the principles of love and protection. Infertility in our culture is meant to be handled with sensitivity, confidentiality and love. Both childless men and childless women are protected from ridicule and the solutions given are meant to protect their marriage and give them the happiness of raising a child while at the same time continuing the family name.
It is with sadness then, that I see people going against the teachings of our forefathers by handling infertility issues with hate and with no consideration for each other’s feelings. I know many couples who are under immense pressure to produce children, simply because society feels that by a certain time into the marriage/relationship a child must pop. I literally cringe when I hear people being called “barren”. I have seen men reduced to nothing as their wives spit insult upon insult at them about their inability to have children. I have heard of women being chased away from their homes like dogs because they are “useless”, all because they cannot have kids.
We have support structures in place meant to help us in times of childlessness but these are the same people who call us names and pressure our spouses to leave us the moment they feel the “window period” to have children has elapsed. At the time, when someone needs the love and support of others, they are usually shunned and ridiculed for something totally out of their control.
People handle things differently, this is because some people are driven by love and a careful consideration for others and some are driven by hate and insensitivity. When love drives us, we are capable of shielding each other’s imperfections and inequities. It is tragic that hundreds of girls abort babies every year because we are judgmental and intolerant. When we learn to compromise and sympathise with each other, solutions could start presenting themselves.
Young pregnant girls could carry their pregnancies to term and give their babies to those whose cultures allow adoption. Couples struggling with infertility would also be able to come out and freely ask for help.
We all know that one person who would love to have a child but for some reason it just is not happening. They deserve our love, not scorn and shaming. There are also those who do not want to have children yet but are victimised for making that decision. If your friend, sister, or neighbour has not fallen pregnant yet, do not be quick to label, for you do not know their struggles. Who knows, the problem may not even lie with her!