Kenyan abortion rights documentary reveals excellent pregnancy crisis support
When Lucy (not her real name) found out she was pregnant, she was already five months along. At the time, she was only seventeen years old. Soon after, out of embarrassment, she stopped going to school. Her boyfriend, an older man, denied responsibility and stopped talking to her.
It is not clear how she ended up at a crisis pregnancy centre, run by an organisation known as Youth for Christ, somewhere in Nairobi, Kenya. What is clear is that, by the time a journalist making a documentary for the BBC caught up with her, she had just given birth in a hospital, and was about to return to the centre with her baby.
At the centre, she had learned the basics of taking care of a baby, and been supplied with the material necessities for the task, along with moral support and the company of other girls in similar straits. Additionally, she had been presented with the option of putting her baby up for adoption and returning to school, if she so chose.
By all accounts, this is a beautiful story. A young girl, abandoned by the rascal who got her pregnant, finds the support she needs from a group of concerned and skilled well-wishers, and chooses to preserve the life of her child, the only innocent party in the entire scenario. The only better ending would have been if the absconding father had been caught and castrated as well.
However, according to Linda Ngari, the journalist who told her story, Lucy would have been much better off if she had been offered legal abortion. Or at least that’s the sense one gets from her documentary, titled “Breaking the Silence: Abortion Rights in Kenya”, which was published last week as part of the BBC’s Africa Eye investigative series.
It’s a little difficult to identify the documentary’s main point. On the one hand, the title clearly isn’t critical of abortion. Neither is Ms Ngari’s tone and commentary; she is obviously uncritical of the pro-abortion voices she interviews, while being derisive of the pro-life side’s statements and actions. Additionally, more than once, she presents a very liberal reading of Kenya’s abortion law, which is in fact quite restrictive.
On the other hand, if one were to ignore Ms Ngari’s commentary and the title, the pro-life people and organisations in the documentary turn out to be its most benign subjects. They lavish confused pregnant women and girls with love and care, provide them with the material means to weather their condition, and offer them a path back into society. They are the only ones whose outlook on the future isn’t bleak.
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One of the pro-lifers interviewed for the documentary is Domtila Ayot, about whom we wrote several years ago. She runs a crisis pregnancy centre in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s largest slums. Speaking to me after the film was published, she reiterated that her only goal was to save lives and give young girls hope. As she puts it in the film, if a girl she’s dealing with decides to go ahead and have an abortion, she only asks that the girl not block her phone number, so that they can remain friends. Thankfully, not many do; it’s hard to escape her infectious joy.
On the whole, one gets the sense that Ms Ngari went looking for villains in the Kenyan pro-life community and, when the people she met turned out to be regular folks just trying to help vulnerable women and their unborn children (including well after they’ve been born), couldn’t quite weave them into the narrative she had prepared.
And this is just as well, because it denies her argument its most potent crutch. Thus, left without the possibility of portraying pro-lifers as a bunch of judgmental zealots, she clutches at straws, like drawing attention to linkages between Kenyan crisis pregnancy centres and American ones (means nothing; the pro-abortion lobby in Kenya also has significant American support), and trying to bait one of the girls at a centre into speaking ill of her benefactors (as if she was forced to be there).
Skirting the real issue
The result is that the documentary, much like most previous attempts to push for abortion rights in Kenya, fails to make a point. It lacks legs to stand on. Instead, it comes across as a montage of stories in a futile search for a cogent throughline. It doesn’t even prove that there is silence about abortion in Kenya; there is no shortage of Kenyans willing to speak about abortion either way.
But perhaps the most worrying weakness of the documentary is that it fails to contend with the moral quality of its subject matter. And it’s not exactly because there wasn’t an opportunity to do so. There are, in fact, quite many. I know this because I speak Kiswahili, the language in which much of the dialogue is conducted.
Unlike the English language, which has already been corrupted by euphemistic takes on abortion, colloquial Kenyan Kiswahili doesn’t lend itself as easily to obfuscation on the subject. There is a particularly jarring scene in the documentary, where Ms Ngari asks an abortion clinic operator how he would dispose of “the aborted foetus”. Or at least that’s how the provided subtitle translates it.
Properly translated, however, her words mean “the child that has been eliminated.” And she knows it, because she first uses a Kiswahili pronoun for an inanimate object (hiyo), and then corrects herself and shifts to the proper one for a human being (huyo).
I’m still not sure how that didn’t stop her in her tracks.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
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