Reflections from Kenya as the World’s Population Nears Seven Billion

As the world's population gets closer to the seven billion mark, Reverend Debra Haffner reflects on her career and what she saw on a recent trip to Kenya.  

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

My first job after college was at the Population Institute as a secretary and the Resource Center Coordinator. It was the summer of 1975. One of the first pieces I ever published was a fact sheet called “World Population 1976.” At that time, the world’s population had just passed four billion people.  

Twelve years later, in July 1987, the first World Population Day was celebrated—and the world’s population had increased to 5 billion.

At the end of this month, the world’s population is expected to hit 7 billion. It’s hard to grasp that the world’s population has grown by 3 billion since I began my career in the sexual and reproductive health field. According to Population Action International, the world grows by more than 200,000 people a day. PAI has created an online index to help people see how the world has grown since the day of your birth that I urge you to try.

Our understanding of population growth and the needs of the world’s environment have changed dramatically since early calls to limit population growth in the early 1970’s. But some basic facts are still true: too many of the world’s women don’t have the contraceptive services they need to choose the number of children they want to have. Too many women are denied basic civil rights, including the right to education and equal employment. The developed world still consumes far too many of the world’s resources. The inequality of economic resources and distribution systems is causing intractable poverty and suffering, from inner cities in the United States to villages in Africa and Asia. The mounting Occupy Wall Street movements around the world are dramatic portrayals of the awakening of widespread concern about such inequality.

On Saturday, I returned from a vacation to Kenya. My first visit to Africa was unforgettable, the game parks were lovely and the safari rides thrilling. But, I am haunted by the images of the cities, villages, and reservations we passed through on our way to the game parks.

Like many tourists, we visited a Masai village.  We sat in a mud and cow dung constructed hut, little bigger than the office I am writing in now, that housed 10 people in two beds.  We watched mothers nursing newborn babies, covered with flies. We were told about teenagers, both boys and girls, going through circumcisions and women having babies attended only by their mothers-in-law. When I asked, I was told that “only” about one in ten women in the village die in childbirth. The cities outside of Nairobi we drove through on barely passable roads were filled with children begging when our 4 by 4 vehicles stopped for traffic, with corrugated aluminum tiny homes dotting the roads.

These so-called optional tourist excursions broke my heart and brought home the reality of the need to address poverty, maternal mortality, and access to family planning.  It provided me with a renewed commitment to the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative to engage religious leaders and faith communities in working for U.S. support to reach the Millennium Goals worldwide.

I know that Kenya is not the poorest country in Africa, and compared with its neighbors, it is relatively peaceful. But, still, one in 38 Kenyan women will die in childbirth, 26 percent of women will marry before adulthood, and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced. The average woman in Kenya has six children, while her desired family size is four, although in the Masai village I visited fertility was much higher. Still, this marks substantial progress from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s. Fewer than half of Kenyan couples use contraceptives (46 percent), though this too marks a significant increase compared to the 39 percent reported in a 2003 study. According to the CIA World Factbook, the urban population in Kenya is “growing at an alarming rate as many Kenyans migrate from their rural homes to urban centers,” which has led to a scarcity of jobs and opportunities.

World population growth stops being an abstract idea when confronted with individuals and whole communities suffering without enough food, shelter, sanitation, health care, and economic opportunities. As a minister, I am reminded that the Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth and caretakers of our neighbors. Regardless of your faith, I hope you’ll join me others in rededicating ourselves to renewed action on behalf of all the people of the world.