She sits under a tree to shelter herself from the sweltering afternoon heat, breastfeeding her two-month-old baby while looking after her goats.
She has another child aged just over a year on her lap, crying for attention — and food. The older baby is pale, weak and thin, an indication that she could be malnourished.
At just 24, Viola, a resident of Nakoko village in Tiaty Sub-County, is a mother of eight. That, however, is not surprising in Tiaty as many of her age-mates have just as many children.
Here, women have given contraception and other family planning methods a wide berth. In fact, anyone who tries contraception is beaten up by her husband and even divorced.
In an area with a high illiteracy level, a woman who opts for family planning services is regarded as an outcast who cannot bear children anymore.
According to data from the county government, Tiaty has the highest illiteracy level at 76 percent.
Viola, a Standard Eight graduate, says she will never seek family planning services after her attempt in 2012 led to threats of divorce by her husband.
“I am a second wife with eight children. My firstborns, twin girls, are nine years old. I will continue to have children until menopause,” says Viola.
She gave birth to the twin girls in 2010. Two years later, she again delivered another set of twins, prompting her to seek family planning services.
“Having two sets of twins in a span of two years, I had to work harder to fend for my family. So I opted to go for family planning services at the Nakoko Health Centre without my husband’s knowledge because I was burdened with feeding the family — which is a woman’s duty among the Pokot. I don’t know how he got wind of my plans and threatened that he would send me back to my parents.”
She says the threats made her chicken out. “Why should I be beaten up for things I can avoid? Let me have as many children as possible until I reach menopause,” she said.
Her two co-wives have 16 children between them. The women have to feed their children and husband.
“Women in this community do virtually everything, from bearing children to feeding the family and looking after livestock. Even if you have young children, you have to devise a way of attending to all your responsibilities,” she says.
Many children below five years suffer malnutrition because most of them do not get enough breast milk and a balanced diet.
At one month old, most children are introduced to cow milk and porridge.
In the neighbouring Natan village, about 15 kilometres away, Chemchim, 40, is heavily pregnant with her 11th child.
They sit under the granary eating boiled maize for the afternoon meal.
Chemchim says that her youngest child is one and half years old and that the spacing is already too long.
In the area, a woman who goes for a year without conceiving may prompt the elders to wonder whether she could be secretly using contraceptives. “In our community, when your baby is six months old, you are ripe to carry another pregnancy,” she says.
Musa Lodio, a nurse at Nakoko Health Centre, blames the high level of poverty on the failure by the women to plan their families.
“In this community, women give birth to at least seven children, with most of them going to more than 12,” she says.
“This has exposed most of them to increased maternal deaths associated with birth complications due to poor spacing of children. Minors also suffer from malnutrition due to lack of food because most of them cannot afford to feed the many children, with most families depending on one meal per day.” he says.
Despite the many interventions from the Ministry of Health and other partners like World Vision and the Kenya Red Cross to sensitise locals on the need for family planning, few women come forward, he says.
“Nakoko serves many villages, including Napeikore, Todo, Cheptunoyo, Chepkogh, Nakoko and Chesakam, but we receive at most three women seeking family planning services in a month. Women in this place even avoid giving birth in health facilities for fear of being introduced to family planning,” he says.
Pokot women are respected and adored if they have many children; they are seen as a symbol of wealth.
“Birth control drugs are associated with barrenness and no one would want to be associated with a barren woman. There is no way we can go for the services without consulting our husbands, who are the major decision-makers. Why should I even introduce such a topic when I know that he may even kill me?” Chemchim says.
Men, she says, do not want their women to give birth in medical facilities for fear of unknowingly being introduced to contraceptives by medics.
“We don’t trust medics; we rely on traditional birth attendants for fear of being injected with birth control drugs without our knowledge and consent. We need more children, irrespective of the harsh climatic conditions and scarcity of food. God will take care of them,” she adds.
Chepongil, 20, a mother of three, aims to have at least 15 children. “I will never step into a health facility in the name of birth control because I will end up being the laughing stock in my community. I need children to look after the livestock and other domestic chores. Contraceptives are also linked to birth complications and I will not have them,” she says.
Elders in the region are categorical that they invested a lot in paying dowry to their wives whose responsibility is to sire many children in return.
Asiroi Loitamedo, an elder from Napeikore, says he cannot negotiate with any of his three wives about giving birth, having paid more than 40 goats, 20 cows and six camels for each of them as dowry.
“Why should I negotiate with a woman about how many children she should bear? Their responsibility is to sire as many children as they can, and what is the need for spacing children? Getting them pregnant every year is also a way of taming promiscuity,” he says.
Children, he adds, provide the labour force, taking care of the livestock.