Imungu Kalevera defies the expectations for Kenyan women in a few ways. She’s queer, childfree and a self-proclaimed career feminist, all of which make her a real rarity in majority Christian, sub-Saharan Africa. On a personal level, she’s challenged her family’s beliefs about all these parts of her identity, showing them that she can still create community, contribute to society and love the children in her life. And she had so much to teach me about the fight for gender equality in her country, and what needs to change in sex education, childcare, the health system, and the expected roles of men and women. Imungu is a pioneer, a passionate activist, and a wonderful conversationalist!
If you’re childfree and in sub-Saharan Africa, Imungu would love to connect with you on Facebook :)
Imungu: As a childfree person, and I say this all the time, that I can contribute in very many meaningful ways to society – I have more time to do my work, which is very important work, I have more time to do feminist work, which will help the society, I have maybe sometimes a bit more time to volunteer, you know, if I want to – not if I have to, but if I want to – I can volunteer to different causes, I can fill in the gaps that aren’t filled in by people who have children who has who are so occupied with their children, that they may not be able to fill in some of the gaps within society. And that’s where someone like me comes along, you know, people who are childfree, and they’re developing their craft, they give something to society. So I think I am a meaningful member of society. And I think that’s something that doesn’t come across when people think of childfree people – they just think, “Oh, you just want the easy life. You’re not really doing anything.” So I am doing something, but it’s only what I wanted to do, and when I want to do it.
Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome back to We are Childfree, a podcast that celebrates childfree lives and shares our stories. Today’s guest, Imungu Kalevera, defies the expectations for Kenyan women in a few ways. She’s queer, childfree and a self-proclaimed career feminist, all of which make her a real rarity in majority Christian, sub-Saharan Africa. On a personal level, she’s challenged her family’s beliefs about all these parts of her identity, showing them that she can still create community, contribute to society and love the children in her life. And she had so much to teach me about the fight for gender equality in her country, and what needs to change in sex education, childcare, the health system, and the expected roles of men and women. Imungu is a pioneer, a passionate activist, and a wonderful conversationalist so I know you’re going to love this episode. Enjoy my chat with Imungu:
Imungu: I think maybe it may have been somewhere around my mid-teenage years, late teenage years, and it was really more of a gradual realisation, as opposed to like, one moment. I sort of realised I wasn’t very maternal, and I didn’t have the dreams that every other young woman around me seemed to have about having kids and everything. And I think even when you try to plan out your life, and like, in your head, you’re trying to plan out your life, and, “I can’t do this, I’ll do this”. Every time it will come to the kid thing – it sort of really felt unnatural for me to have children in my life that I was raising as their parent. I imagined having nieces, and nephews, and other children around me who I may have been supporting in one way or another, but it never seemed quite clear to me that I’d have children of my own. It just never really clicked into my eventual fantasy of my life. So I think, over time, I was sort of more ambivalent about children – I think around 18, 19, I was ambivalent about children. And at that time, it wasn’t a priority for me, because I was so young, I never imagined having them for quite some time. And as I began to meet partners, and maybe get into more serious relationships around, okay, not too serious, but kind of like, having those conversations. Around 23, 24, I was particularly dating a woman who really wanted to be a mother, and the more I sat with her, and I saw her passion for wanting to be a parent and a mother, it just occurred to me that I do not feel anything like that, and I moved more from ambivalence into yeah, I think I don’t want to have kids. So I can say, I’ve always been childfree, but I sort of left it open to conversation, depending on the partner that I was with. But as I began to have more serious conversations with that particular partner, it dawned on me that no, I actually do not want to do this. And so I think it’s been a gradual realisation, but I think I started calling myself a childfree woman around 23, 24.
Zoë: I see. So, do you know any other women who are also calling themselves childfree in, you know, where you live?
Imungu: Yes, actually, surprisingly, yes. But I think it’s also simply because of the circle that I keep. I am a feminist, I am a queer woman, I’ve been born and raised in an urban area, I’ve had access to good education, opportunities, travel, seeing the world. So the circle of women that I tend to be around, tend to be feminist women, tend to be queer women, open-minded, so I know a handful of women who actually are childfree, and that’s – I count myself lucky. But of course where we are, they are the huge minority, we are a total minority around here. And I’ve had obviously conversations with other people who have challenged my decision, which I think happens, no matter where you are in the world. But I think, given the fact that I live in an African country, in East Africa, where the idea of women and motherhood is very much tied together, we are a minority, and very rare to come across.
Zoë: Yeah, I mean, I know the pushback I receive here in Germany, you know, and I know that Kenya is a place which is predominantly Christian right? There’s about 85% of the population is Christian. So it’s obviously a very, you know, religious country, and that kind of, it bleeds into everything in life, right? Into healthcare, into gender roles, how women are seen and treated. So I can imagine the pressure must be very intense for women over there.
Imungu: Yes, it is. And I mean, now I’m just about to turn 30 years old. So I think for some time, people have sort of been letting me do my thing, in my 20s, and like, “when she gets older, she’ll change her mind” – and I think I have that a lot. Even from my former partner, she used to tell me, “Don’t worry, when you turn 28, you’ll completely change your mind”. And I’m like, oh, it’s not happening.
Zoë: Yeah, we get that a lot.
Imungu: Yeah, exactly. And this was from someone who really cared for me, but I think she felt that I’d have the realisation that she had. So now that I’m entering my third decade, I’m going to turn 30 in a couple of months, and I think the pressure will become probably a bit more from people, I expect it to grow. However, with the people most important to me, my friends, my family, my partners, I let them know, off the bat like, “This is not going to happen, I’m not going to change my mind, and if I do change my mind, I don’t want your pressure to guide my decision.” But as it stands for this point in my life and moving forward, I don’t want to have children – and I think if anything, the older I’ve grown, the more cemented I’ve become in that decision. I have aunties, I have friends, who have kids, and just like seeing the life that they live, I understand, and I respect that it’s the life that they chose, that they wanted to have kids. But looking at it, I can never imagine that as a life that I’d want.
Zoë: Yes. Describe a little bit about what is it like, you know, in your country when women have kids, are they… Here we are told, you know, we can do it all, we can have careers, we can have, you know, kids, we can look after the home. So I’m intrigued, you know, do women feel that pressure to – they have kids, they can juggle that, and have careers – what is it like over there?
Imungu: Okay, yes. So just to touch on your point about women having it all I think, number one, from a feminist perspective, it’s a lie, I think it’s been a push towards creating a larger workforce by including women, but without giving them the support that they need to actually pursue everything that they want to pursue in their life. For women here in Kenya, it’s extremely difficult, one, because I’m sure you’ve talked, you’ve had conversations around unpaid care work and what that looks like. But we know from research that women in Sub-saharan Africa tend to do so many hours of unpaid care work, and do three times more unpaid care work than their male counterparts, than their partners who are generally men on the continent. So you have to factor that into the decision to have children. So when a woman here, a typical woman – let me just take a typical woman living in Nairobi, she has to work, so she has her unpaid care work, which she does, which is the cooking, and the cleaning. Not everyone is able to afford help to do that – some people are, but not everyone is able to afford to do that. But there’s also the emotional labour that she does, and the mental labour that she does – to organise everything, to arrange, to find even the help if you want to look for help, so there’s that. And then when she does choose to have a child, there’s obviously having to factor in the cost of prenatal and postnatal healthcare, which is not cheap. You can go to a government dispensary where it can be cheaper or free, but the government dispensary and the government health system is understaffed and overworked, and that just cannot fit into your schedule if you’re going to go to work as well, so there’s that. And then, so the pre- and postnatal healthcare, our insurance covers. So the system here in Kenya is that there’s a government health insurance scheme, but there’s also the private health insurance scheme. And most people who are gainfully employed within the formal sector, some of them, not really most of them, some of them are able to access private health insurance through their employer. So let’s even assume for argument’s sake, that she’s privileged, and she has private healthcare, the private healthcare insurance doesn’t cover everything, there are certain things within the maternal package that it doesn’t cover. And so she has to pay those costs out of pockets. So she goes through this process, gets the care, part of it, she pays for herself, and then she goes to the delivery room – she delivers, it may be caesarean or it may be a vaginal birth, and obviously, there’s a recovery involved. And then the regulations in this country, if followed to the letter, she’s supposed to have three months off.
Imungu: But certain employers discriminate against women who are pregnant, or just sort of, make it impossible for you to be pregnant within the workplace. And then other employers don’t give you the three months, and the process of reporting and getting justice is just so long, you don’t even bother. And then after that, what tends to happen here, we don’t have a strong system for daycare, there isn’t a strong public daycare system. So if you want daycare, you’d have to go private, and they’re few and far between. Not many employers have what we’d call a crèche within the building, so typically, this woman would have to nurse her child for three months, if she’s lucky, and then she’d have to get help who would come and stay with her child – this infant – who would come and stay with the infant for the duration of when she’s going to work and coming back home. So she’d do that, which is also not easy to come by. It’s cheaper, I would say that it’s significantly cheaper here to get help, than I imagine it would be in Germany. We call them house managers or house girls here, and a typical house girl would be paid, if she’s working in a middle-class range area, probably around $50 a month to $70 a month. So it’s manageable, but then it also depends with the family – a middle-class family can afford $70 a month, maybe another family might not be able to afford. So $70 just for comparison is 7000 Kenya shillings. So there’s that, and then there’s going back to work probably she’s healing from a caesarean section wound. And then there’s the other unpaid care work that she has to do it, she comes back home. I see my aunt – so let me use my aunt as an example – my aunt goes to work, and then she comes back home, she cooks, there’s the house girl who’s there, but there’s this whole thing of like, the woman of the house must cook, whatever. So she cooks, and then she nurses the baby, and then she says up with the baby, up until, you know, 2am, 3am.
Zoë: Oh my God. What?
Imungu: And so this happens. And I’ve seen this, I’ve been there with her, you know, I was there with her last week –
Imungu: – offering support. So she goes to sleep, and then she comes back with the baby because the baby is, you know, not able to sleep very well – 2, 3am. And then the baby finally goes to sleep, and then she has to leave the house at around 5:30 in the morning.
Zoë: Oh my god.
Imungu: Nairobi for example, has notorious traffic jams, so a woman living in Nairobi has to leave her house probably two hours before she gets to her place of work, so she has to account for that time in traffic. So a typical young mother in Nairobi is stressed, she is sleep-deprived, she’s still doing extreme amounts of unpaid care work. She probably does have a partner but the partner is I think, as far as our society is concerned, the male partner – and I’m assuming is a heterosexual dynamic, which is what’s most common here. The male partner is probably offering some form of financial support, nothing extreme beyond that in terms of childcare, baby care, and other care work in the home, they probably just give money, which is what’s expected of them as per the society – it’s very difficult to find the husband of the home staying a whole day, taking care of the child or handling cooking duties in the evening. It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very rare.
Zoë: Wow. I mean, that – I’m stressed hearing it, it sounds, it sounds…
Imungu: It’s stressful, it’s very stressful.
Zoë: And I mean, what really infuriates me is, you know, this pressure that governments put on women that this is your duty, you do this, you do this, but then, they don’t get any support. I mean, you know, if governments want people to have kids, like, give them support, and then, if a woman has a partner, who also doesn’t give them support… I mean, it just sounds nightmarish.
Zoë: So I’m not surprised that anyone who faced that kind of life ahead of them would think, no, I actually don’t want to be part of that. You know, it sounds horrendous.
Imungu: Yeah, it’s very, very difficult, and there’s barely any support, and there’s constant criticism. And I think here, one of the common things is, if you don’t have children, it’s “When are you going to have children?” And, once you get one child, it’s “When are you going to have the second child?” And once you get the second child, the question is, “When are you going to have the third one to finish it all?” You know, to sort of wrap things up, because we tend to have, obviously more than one child. So those are the questions that tend to follow you very early into marriage. If you get married, within the first two months. Actually, on your actual wedding day, you’ll be asked about, “When are you going to have kids?” So it’s a question that’s very much tied to women’s work as women, it’s almost impossible to separate. So then the people like me who are like, “You know what? I’m not going to do that”, there’s obviously a lot of opposition. But even from a legal standpoint, the protections for lactating women have just started being set into the work policy.
Imungu: We luckily had a bill that mandated workplaces with I think, over 20 people, to have a lactation room.
Imungu: Great in policy, but in terms of implementation and having that, it’s not there. I worked in a feminist organisation, we didn’t have a lactation room.
Zoë: Okay, wow.
Imungu: I worked in an international NGO – that was my last posting – we didn’t have a lactation room, you know. So the policies are there, but the implementation, no.
Zoë: But yeah, that’s frustrating. I mean, it’s amazing that you’re working to help women to get them equal footing in your country. That’s your dream, like my dream is that we are treated like equals. But it’s just sad that, yeah, even in those places where they should be doing everything they can to support women, that it’s just not, you know, it’s just not there yet. You know, what about your family then, how have your family taken to this decision?
Imungu: So, I think my family is quietly trying to accept but not really.
Imungu: So I’ve taken my family through quite the journey, in terms of like, their awareness. So as I came out to my, I sort of came out, or was outed to my family, over 10 years ago, when I had just started dating. So I already outed to my family, so that was the first big shock that they had. I’m so blessed and pretty lucky that they’ve taken that well. It took a bit of time, there was denial, there was all the questioning, but now they’re in a place where they’ve met my partners, they even liked my former girlfriend a lot, so I’m lucky in that regard. So I think once they started accepting my existence as a queer woman and a member of the LGBTQ community, the idea of me being childfree – this is quite funny – it almost challenges their beliefs, a lot not more than the idea of me being a queer woman.
Imungu: And that’s been a very hard pill for them to swallow. But I think because I’m a pretty headstrong person, I’m pretty decisive, and very open about the decisions that I make, and I stick to the decisions that I make. They’re sort of like, trying to accept it, but also watching, waiting, and seeing if I change my mind. I’m very supportive of my relatives who have children, my aunties who have children. And I think that sort of confuses them, because in their mind, a childfree woman hates children, never support them, never plays with children, never comes to voluntarily babysit – so I challenge all those notions. I think it’s going to be a bit of a difficult road ahead, especially for the next five years, because, like I said, I’m turning 30, and that period between 30, or 35, there’s so much pressure to get partnered, to marry, to have kids. But I’ve already told them, “Please don’t expect me to have children”. They hint about it from time to time, but really, they know that my decision is not to have children. They don’t frustrate me over it so much, but I think within certain conversations, it definitely comes up as a topic of conversation.
Zoë: Yeah, it’s interesting. I read an article a few days ago, that was comparing coming out as a childfree woman with coming out as a queer person. I mean, yeah, I was interested to hear from you, what was the experience for both of those? You know, in your country, would the backlash be more extreme for coming out as queer, or coming out as not wanting children?
Imungu: Okay, so if I just speak about the whole country, because we’ve already spoken about the compulsory Christianity that’s forced into Kenyans?
Imungu: So I think if I were to come out as a queer person, it might be a bit more difficult. But actually, it’s almost impossible to compare them because both of them elicit such visceral reactions. And just to give you an example, on Facebook the other day, I think maybe a couple of months ago, I posted a comment that alluded to me being a childfree woman. And I’ve got a 1000 replies under that comment, of hate, of trolling, of bits of support. But mostly, it was hate – trolling, people telling me that you don’t want to repay their debt, which was said in Swahili, but basically, that there’s a debt that women have to pay, and then you repay that debt by having a child. So there’s a lot of hate under it, which is very similar to the hate that queer people get. So I think as a queer woman in Kenya right now, it would almost be quite difficult to compare, which one would be a bit more of an issue than the other, but maybe being a queer woman slightly more.
Imungu: But I mean, it’s pretty much the same amount of hate.
Zoë: Gosh, I can’t believe that. So many trolls, so much hate for something that doesn’t affect them – it’s your life. This is what, people just… It’s like you said, it’s a visceral reaction, it’s almost like they don’t, they just don’t understand it, and they fear that, I think, and that leads to hate. And this is why, the more women that can say it out loud, then I hope that we can start to change the narrative. And like you said, with your family, seeing that you’re great with kids, it’s not that you hate children, it’s not that, it’s that you have decided that you want your life to go in another direction, and that should be accepted. And we need to break the stigma, and normalise this as a choice – and there’s nothing wrong with it. But yeah, I imagine that the pressure on you must be intense, so, you know, I’m sending so much love towards you, because yeah, it’s incredible to be so strong in your reserve, you know, in a country that treats women you know, not great. It’s, we have obviously similar attitudes towards gender roles here regarding… women are doing more unpaid work in the home still, but obviously, it sounds like where you are, it’s even more intense. So, I have so much respect for you to stand up against that and say, “No, this is who I am”, it’s incredible.
Imungu: Yeah, thank you. I mean, I’m really grateful for the experiences that I’ve had in my life. I was raised by a single mom, she was amazing. She passed on when I was in my teenage years, but I think she gave me a wonderful foundation of what it means to be a woman in your own right and your own woman, and to make your own decisions – because I saw her doing things that traditionally she wouldn’t be doing, you know. And then also later on in my life, being around feminist politics, and just understanding my place in the world as a feminist – being able to call myself a feminist, which was also a journey in and of itself. I’m grateful for that. Because I think once you begin to own an identity that has been so misrepresented, you are able to make choices that other people may not understand but are the best choices for you. So I’m pretty privileged, and I’d like to really mention that given my life circumstances, in some ways, I’m not privileged, but in many ways, I am privileged, I’ve gotten a good education. Like I said, I’ve been living in an urban area, the work opportunities that I’ve gotten, and just be able to travel the world and see different mindsets, I’m privileged in that sense. I often meet women who tell me straight up that they have kids, but they sort of regret having children, and I think that’s something they’re only comfortable telling someone like me.
Imungu: Someone who’s typically seen as a wayward, confused, woman – if you were to ask the average person in Kenyan society, I’m wayward, I’m confused. But those women find it comfortable to come and tell me that, “You know what, I have kids. But I wish someone had told me that it wasn’t compulsory. I wish I knew I had a choice.” Yes, but most women don’t have that – it’s sort of automatically drilled into you that you do this thing, where you finish school, if you’re able to finish school, because we also have the issues around girls having access to education here. So if you’re able to finish school, you finish school, you get married, you have kids – many, many, many girls in the country don’t even get to finish school, instead of maybe do their first primary school years. And then even before they finish, they meet someone because of poverty as well, their parents sort of give them away to this person. And that labour is transferred – because let’s be honest, in our society, many times a woman getting married is simply the transfer of labour from her father’s home to her partner’s home. And that’s very much how I’ve seen it, especially because we also have the dowry system. I don’t know if you’ve read up on the system. For her, it’s simply a payment for the exchange of labour. Right? They there might be other traditional reasons for it, but very much it’s the payment for the exchange of labour. And women are seen as labour. And I think that is also a pervasive thought that that is replicated across the world, depending on the economy, of course, and how the economy is set up. But capitalists see women as labour. That’s pretty much it, you know?
Zoë: Yes. Oh, yes. No, we are cogs in a machine to keep exactly to keep producing more cogs for the machine. And, once you kind of really look at what’s going on, and your eyes are open, you can see that that’s exactly what society is trying to tell women – that this is your duty, this is what you’re meant to do. And we need to, like you said, empower, especially young girls, to know that they have a choice. But obviously education is so important. I mean, you know, the birth rate, we are told is decreasing in some countries. And it’s absolutely because of education, of giving women opportunities, giving women access to contraception. And, you know, we need to do that for every place in the country so that every girl knows that they have a choice, and that they can take control over their body. I mean, I know that in Kenya, abortion is illegal, is that right? In most instances, which is, you know, terrifying. It’s heartbreaking that, you know, women still do not have bodily autonomy to make the decisions for themselves.
Imungu: Yes. And I think people misunderstand, they feel that by creating laws that prevent abortions, you actually prevent abortions. And from a professional perspective, I know that’s not true. From a statistical perspective, I know that’s not true. The rates of abortion around the world don’t change that much, but the rates of unsafe abortion change. So really, any legislation against abortion is really a legislation against safe abortions. You know, and I think even around the contraceptive conversation, I don’t use contraceptives. I don’t use hormonal contraceptives, simply because they’re also not designed to be very friendly to women’s bodies, and I have many, many friends who are also of the same opinion. So I think there also needs to be more research into how do we make contraceptives easy to use friendly to women’s bodies, and minimise the very many side effects that I hear my friends complain about – weight gain, loss of libido, irritability, acne, so many things.
Zoë: I was reading an interesting article that was comparing, basically, that women, we obviously can take the contraceptive pill, which does so many side effects to our bodies, and men have the option of a condom. So we have basically no side effects. It’s actually, the simplest, easiest thing ever, but men don’t actually want to wear a condom, because it reduces a tiny amount of pleasure for them. And for that, they will they will risk unwanted pregnancies because they would rather have that moment, that extra 10% of pleasure, than just put a condom on. And yeah, it’s truly heartbreaking because the contraceptive pill, I mean, I struggled with that as well. And as soon as I could get off it, I felt a million times better. But you know, sometimes it’s needed for some women in cases where it helps certain things. But it’s, you know, for lots of us, it’s horrible, to be honest. So to live in a country where your choices are you either are on hormonal pills that wreak havoc, possibly, with your body, or you are facing – what if you have an accident? What if something happens? And now what do you do to get an abortion? I can’t even imagine the terror that some women are living through going through, and obviously many women die… I can’t even fathom the health implications that are going on when you have unsafe abortions, it’s truly terrifying.
Imungu: Yes, and I think in a country whose health systems already need some work, and they need almost a complete overhaul, you can imagine what it looks like when you go outside of the health system, when you’re trying to procure a private abortion with someone who may not be licensed, someone who may not be skilled in the procedure. Lots of women die, and there is there are cases of uterine rupture. There are cases of extreme haemorrhaging, there are cases of obviously the psychological toll it takes on you. And then even if you do have a complication, because of an abortion, and you go into the hospital, depending on which hospital you go to, they can refuse you care. So you can literally be haemorrhaging, walking into the hospital. And then the care providers turn you away, especially if it’s a mission hospital. So maybe just to give context, mission hospitals in this country, are run by the Catholic church, and the mission hospitals, they tend to be pretty decent in terms of general care. But when it comes to issues around post-aborto care, it’s very difficult for you to get care from those mission hospitals. They tend to be widespread in the country, and they tend to be cheaper. So they would be the first place you run to when you’re having a post-abortion complication. But they’re likely to turn you away because obviously, of the Catholic church’s view on abortion, and if you have to go to a government hospital, you probably will get care – but the attitude of the healthcare workers, the attitude that they serve you with, the attitude that they help you with really doesn’t make things easier. And you will obviously walk into a facility that is understaffed and overworked. So that also affects the quality of care that you’re getting. You might not get psychological help, or psychological counselling, after the incident – they pretty much give you some drugs, clean you up and send you away as quickly as possible. And that’s the reality of many women who have post-abortion complications. We do have one provider in the country that is known to give safe, medically-approved abortions. But for a long time, the government has been trying to shut them down simply because of that fact. But they are currently still running. It’s like an open secret. We all know they give abortions but we kind of pretend like we don’t know. Also that the cost of the abortion there is pretty much out of the reach of many women – someone like me, I’m pretty much privileged, I can put together some money and afford it. But the average Kenyan woman can’t afford care at that place. Now, what they wanted was an abortion. And I think just to make a note about the contraceptive situation here in the country. My former partner was a nurse and she worked at a district hospital next, pretty much within Nairobi, on the outskirts of Nairobi, and many women would come and give birth to a child and they would ask for their implant, or their tubes to be tied, at that point. Because if they come back later, their husbands wouldn’t allow them. Because the general impression is that if you’re a woman taking contraception, you are a slut. And you’re sleeping around, so that’s wrong. So there’s that, and then there’s obviously people who are follow the Catholic doctrine around contraceptives, unable to get contraceptives. But for many women, their husbands can’t allow them to come and get the implant or the injection, or the IUD. So it has to be done before she’s discharged after her delivery, otherwise, it can’t be done, because he won’t allow it.
Zoë: Wow. So it is really – many women are property of their partners. I mean, it’s just heartbreaking to know that you do not have bodily autonomy of your, you know, yourself. You can’t take control of your own body – you’re property of someone else. It’s disgusting. I mean, what can we do? How can we, you know, what are you doing in your work? How can we help this situation?
Imungu: So, I’m a big believer that policy really has to change. Yeah, so from a macro level, we have to agitate for the change of policy around access to contraception. And I want to say especially around comprehensive sexuality education. So comprehensive sexuality education, let me speak for Kenya right now, is a hot button topic. It’s been fought very many times by religious leaders, of course, because they don’t understand the value of comprehensive sexuality education. The sex education that I remember getting was a video. I don’t know if I don’t know if you got this video. But this video that was being shown, it’s a video narrated by a Kenyan man, a pretty prominent Kenyan man. And pretty much for an hour you just showed pictures of damaged genitals. Yeah, like, just you know what gonorrhea looks like, what syphilis, like for pretty much an hour. I remember this video, because it was very traumatising. So that was the video that I got. And I think that was the entirety of my sex education. If there was anything more than that, I don’t remember getting a lot more than that. But it was fear-based and abstinence-based sex education. And surprise, I still had sex.
Zoë: Yeah. What is – what are they thinking?
Imungu: Yeah, I still had sex. And I had lots of sex. You know, and I wish I had the information to help me make better choices. Yeah. So I made very risky choices, I think, because of my curiosity, and my education, I sort of learned, okay, so these are the precautions to take. But then you also have to remember, I am a queer woman, so primarily, most of my sex has been with women. So I did know how to protect myself when it came to that, I had to really look for that information, and thank god for the internet.
Imungu: But I think one of the key things we have to start with is comprehensive sexuality education within the country, so that young people are able to make informed choices, and so that they’re able to prevent unplanned pregnancies, and young women are able to have the power to say, you know, what, no, I’m not going to proceed with this unless we put on a condom, so that won’t happen. And also in terms of distribution, not only distribution for external condoms, but also the distribution of internal condoms. I saw an internal condom for the first time in my life, I think four years ago, simply because of my work within the feminist movement, and I haven’t seen an internal condom since. So that’s also a conversation we need to have.
Zoë: Yeah, I mean, this is, it’s something I, it’s also not really in my sphere of knowledge that we use commonly either over here.
Zoë: But you know, you’re right, with the lack of sex education, it just means that young people, they’re still having sex, but they’re just taking more risks. And that’s gonna lead to more unwanted pregnancies, more STDs, more health issues. And, you know, the governments need to realise that you’re not stopping anything. Like you said, with abortion, you’re not stopping abortion, you’re just causing more pain and harm and trauma to people.
Imungu: Exactly. So even right now, over the past year with the pandemic and everything, we’ve had a record number of teen pregnancies.
Imungu: A record number of teen pregnancies. We are looking at thousands of girls who probably have to drop out of school. Some, okay, so our policy is you can’t go back to school after you’ve had a child but really considering the financial state of many homes during this time, that girls might not be able to go back to school, they might get married early, get married while they are underage and just become mothers, you know. And it’s great being a mother if it’s something you’ve chosen to do at an appropriate time in your life, where you have the resources and the knowledge to carry through. And it’s even difficult at that age, at that time, but for a young girl who’s 14, 15, her life has completely changed. So I really think sexuality education is an important thing, because some of these pregnancies, so many of them are also cases of defilement where older men took advantage of these young girls. But also, there are many that were sort of sexual relations amongst peers, because they were out of school, school was interrupted, there was so much free time, and they were having sex, they were having unprotected sex, they don’t have the knowledge on how do I protect myself, and then that resulted in too many unplanned pregnancies. So the boys can go back to school, of course, but the girls their life has completely changed. So for me, education is a very big foundation, and that’s where to start. And then now we sort of move into changing legislation around, number one access to safe abortion, having contraceptives that are more available to women whenever they want it. So the contraceptive situation in the country is sort of like, a mixed bag. In dispensary in government dispensaries, you can access contraceptives, but it’s also because there’s been such a global push for African women to have less babies, so there’s also that, which also has neocolonialist connotations to it, and we can unpack that maybe at another time. Because it has always been the thing of African women are having too many babies. So I support the messaging around women being able to make informed choices around their contraception, but it also needs to be done with dignity, you know, not from a talking down point of view, it needs to be done with dignity.
Imungu: So I think making contraceptives more available, but also from a global perspective, putting in research into better contraceptives, I am lucky that most of the time, my partners are female, so I don’t have to worry about contraceptives, and having contraceptives. But at the moment, I am also seeing a male partner, and that makes things really difficult for me, because I’m sort of like learning again, like, oh, so what do I do? In terms of like, making sure I don’t get pregnant.
Imungu: So at the moment, that’s really difficult. And we’ve had conversations amongst the two of us about I cannot afford to get pregnant, and I do not want to get pregnant. So at the moment he’s sort of like, a bit of, you know, we are sort of like, playing the odds, and hoping I don’t get pregnant. So but I would love to have a contraceptive method that agrees with my body.
Imungu: I’m a pretty active person – I like being active, I like running, and hiking and going to the gym. So any contraceptive that I am taking has to agree with my body and has to treat it well, and looking at the options that I have, none of them appeals to me. So it’s either down to condoms, or like, other means that are available that are non-hormonal, but even the IUD, I’ve had friends who have used the non-hormonal IUD coil, and they have talked about bleeding for several weeks, horror stories of just bleeding and pain, and I can’t do that, you know.
Zoë: Would you ever consider sterilisation?
Imungu: I have considered sterilisation, but I think the, so there are two things for me specifically around sterilisation. Firstly, we mentioned the main issue for most women here, you just won’t get it.
Zoë: Yeah, yeah.
Imungu: You’ll have to get approvals, and counselling, and no doctor will do it for me under 30, even if I turn 30, no doctor will do it for me.
Zoë: Yeah. Oh, it’s the same over here, Imungu.
Zoë: It’s the same here. It’s really difficult for any woman to actually have full bodily autonomy when they say they don’t want children.
Zoë: It’s a fight, it’s a real fight. So I understand you on that.
Imungu: Exactly. And then there’s the cost, you know.
Zoë: Yeah, yeah.
Imungu: There’s the cost implication around… Because if I were to get a doctor who’d do it, this would have to be a private hospital doctor who would charge me upwards of maybe $2000. I don’t have to $2000 to spend on a sterilisation honestly.
Zoë: No, no, no, no, no.
Imungu: And then there’s the idea that I sort of think it’s true. I’ve read up on the procedure, and I think it’s just like, a bit too extreme, for me, at this point in my life, I don’t want to go through that procedure, I don’t want to go under the knife. And I’m looking at my partner, he doesn’t have to do anything, you know, so why am I going to get sterilised? You know, let him learn to use a condom, you know, it’s much easier.
Zoë: It’s much easier, cheaper, exactly, I mean that’s it.
Imungu: Cheaper, easier, everything, you know.
Zoë: Yeah, It is.
Imungu: Yeah. So yeah, those are my particular issues around it. But I do know some women are trying to pursue sterilisation. I had a friend recently who was able to get it done, but only after she had fibroids so big, they actually have no choice but to give her a hysterectomy.
Imungu: So it’s not that they gave her a sterilisation because she wanted one, it’s because the fibroids in her body were just so big, and the situation was so complicated, they just had to give her a hysterectomy.
Zoë: Got it. Yes, I went through a similar thing myself, Imungu. So I had a really large fibroid, and it turned into an emergency situation that meant I just didn’t stop bleeding and that they you know, the surgeon asked me, do I want kids? And I said no, and I was able to get – it’s a partial hysterectomy. So they remove the uterus. But you know, since that moment, I mean, there is such a relief knowing I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant, I don’t have to worry about periods, or heavy bleeding. You know, it really, so many of us deal with these health issues. And you know, fibroids is a really common thing for many women, most, I think it’s something like, the majority of women have them, but many don’t feel you know, pain, but they still have them, and then there’s obviously a large amount of us who have issues with them. But we have, we live with these things, its things that affect our life, and our quality of life. And, you know, being able to take control of your body is the thing that you should be able to do – to make decisions that will help your quality of life as well. So do you know whether she, was she upset at that? You know, that happening to her? Did she want children or not?
Imungu: Oh, lucky for her, she didn’t want children.
Zoë: Okay, okay.
Imungu: So she was pretty happy with the procedure. And so now she’s guaranteed to live a childfree life, and I’m very happy for her. Unfortunately, the circumstances weren’t the best. And I think statistically, fibroids are very common with women, but also slightly more common with women of colour. Yeah, so as a woman of colour, as a black African woman, myself, I have a family history. My grandmother had fibroids, and she had to have a hysterectomy, my mother had fibroids throughout all her pregnancies, and so I’m pretty much getting into that age where I’ve been afraid for a long time to go get checked, but I might have to go get checked, and then certainly the reality of I might have fibroids. I had a friend who had fibroids, and they caused her excruciating pain, and she’s also childfree, and she just talked to her OBGYN and she was like, “I don’t want to have kids, and I don’t want to feel this pain again, can you take out my uterus?” And the doctor told her, “No, we can’t do that, because you haven’t had kids yet, you might want to have kids.” So the doctor was more comfortable with her going through that level of pain, again, than just giving her a simple solution. And that might be the that challenge that I face If I do have fibroids, and they do start to act up, I’ll be faced with that decision of do I go through excruciating pain, then a surgery to remove the fibroids but not the uterus, then come back to do it again, because fibroids have a very high rate of recurring.
Zoë: That’s it. I mean, and the first doctor that was dealing with these fibroids said “No, we’re not going to talk about hysterectomy, we’re not going to deal with that, we’re going to wait and watch”. And so I had another two years of just being in pain and having heavy bleeding. And so it’s just, you know the doctors really don’t understand that so many of us would actually rather choose our quality of life over the ability to have children. I mean, to me, as a doctor, I don’t, I still don’t understand the thinking behind letting people live in pain who say I would rather choose a pain-free life, then the possibility of having children but hey, you know, this connection of motherhood and womanhood is so intertwined in our cultures, that doctors really just don’t believe us, do they?
Imungu: Yes, they don’t believe us. And I think also the issue around the decisions that doctors make is not only informed by number one, sometimes very outdated medical research, let’s be honest. So the medical research they’re basing their decisions off of is outdated medical research, and then on top of that, it’s informed by society, and how society views women as being tied to motherhood. So they impose these two things on to you, you know, and you don’t have a way out. So I think also within the medical community, there needs to be a shift around, really letting women decide for themselves what they need to do with their bodies. And they can do as much research as they want to do around outcomes of childfree women versus outcomes of women who have children they never wanted to have. And I think the research will be clear that women who have chosen a childfree life for themselves are happier, are healthier, are living longer, are having a higher quality of life than women who have had children who they didn’t want to begin with. And there’s no worse thing for me than bringing a child into the world who may not be loved the way they deserve to be loved simply because I followed a societal order, or I did what my family wanted me to do. I think that I have seen the effects of bad parenting, I think you see the effects of bad parenting everywhere, really in society. And I don’t want to pass that on to anyone else who was not wanted. And as a childfree person, and I say this all the time that I can contribute in very many meaningful ways to society – I have more time to do my work, which is very important work, I have more time to do feminist work, which will help the society, I have maybe sometimes a bit more time to volunteer, you know, if I want to, not if I have to, but if I want to, I can volunteer to different causes, I can fill in the gaps that aren’t filled in by people who have children who are so occupied with their children, that they may not be able to fill in some of the gaps within society. And that’s where someone like me comes along, you know, people who are childfree, and they’re developing their craft, they give something to society. So I think I am a meaningful member of society, and I think that’s something that doesn’t come across when people think of childfree people, they just think, oh, you just want the easy life, you’re not really doing anything. So I am doing something, but it’s only what I want to do, and when I want to do it, and that’s it for me, really.
Zoë: I mean, yeah, society doesn’t like it when women know what they want in life, and they, you know, they reject what a patriarchal society says they should be doing with their life.
Zoë: And that’s where the pushback comes- you know, we’re saying, “No, you can’t control us, we are going to do whatever we want with our lives”. And society does not like to hear that, you know. I hope it changes, I hope by hearing voices like yours and other women, we can really see, get our eyes open, that we still live in such an outdated, patriarchal, capitalistic society. I speak to some women, and they say, “Oh, but it’s, it’s getting better, it’s getting better”. And I’m like, “Do you really think that? Then you’re not reading the articles that I’m reading.” When you just open your eyes, and you start to look at how, y other countries are doing this, but you know, look closer to home, look at how women are treated in your own country, and really analyse that, and you’ll see – we have so far to go. So, you know, if you had any advice for anyone who was thinking that they wanted to be childfree, and obviously they’re facing intense societal pressure, what would you say to them, Imungu?
Imungu: I think that I’d say, in the end, at the end of the day, it’s your life, and you have the right to really make your own choices. I have found there’s so much peace in owning the fact that I’m a childfree woman, and I found immense peace in it. Especially because I know no one can change my mind, you know. I’ve had literally strangers come up to me and call me selfish – strangers, people who don’t know me, call me selfish for my choice. But because I took time to decide, and I sat with myself, and I thought of my life as a mother to children who I don’t want to please society. And I thought of myself as a childfree woman doing everything I do want to please myself. And I think, between these two scenarios, I am better for society when I am happy, and I’m fulfilled, and I’m living the life that I want to live, you know. And if you are considering being a childfree person, considering that life, and that’s what you want for yourself, by all means go for it. People won’t understand, people will judge you, people will call you names, but those people won’t help you carry a pregnancy, those people won’t help you raise a child, those people won’t help you through sleepless nights with that child, those people want to help you share in the very deep emotional labour of choosing to parent as a mother or a father, but especially as a mother. So because those people really have no skin in the game, they can say whatever they want to say – you have all the skin in the game. So if that’s what you want to do with your life, there are so many other things in life that are fulfilling, besides having children. For people who want to have children, I imagine children for them are fulfilling, but for those of us who don’t want to have children, it would be a burden that you’d have to carry every day of your life because parenting has no off-time, doesn’t have any summers off, and that’s not a choice that you want to make. It’s easier to go through life, wondering what would have happened if you had a child, than to have a child who you don’t want, and where do you take them?
Zoë: That’s amazing advice, Imungu. Yeah, I think everyone has to really, you know, think about what they want in their life, and that’s just such amazing words for them to kind of, you know, keep close to their heart and stay strong, you stayed strong.
Imungu: I will thank you.
Zoë: You’re living your life, and I’m just, yeah, I’m just an awe of you. And thank you for all of the work that you do to help women live the lives that they want, and to get the respect and the equality that they deserve. You know, that’s what we all want, right? So is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that I missed off, Imungu? Is there anything else that yeah, you wanted to discuss?
Imungu: I just wanted to mention that one of the critiques, one of the major critiques that I get, when I tell people that I’m childfree is “Who will take care of you when you’re older?” And so when I’m like, you can have kids, and they don’t take care of you – children aren’t our insurance policy, so let’s just start there. But also number two, I think in the individualistic society that we live in, we have sort of forgotten the very many ways in which community can be built. Community can be built around friends, community can be built around partners, community can be built around other unconventional or older, you know, ways of configuring community. Community is not limited to your children, and your children are their own people. There’s this lovely book that I like to read, it’s called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and it’s just a collection of poems. And he talks about children, and he says – your children come from you, but they are not you, they are pretty much their own beings, and that’s what children are, and I think we need to let go of the fact that children are an extension of us, and hence they are us. They are not us, and children need to be allowed to make their own choices, and also make their own mistakes. You can guide them, but they need to make their own mistakes and make their own choices. And sometimes those choices will lead them very far away from you, and they won’t be able to take care of you. So I think for anyone who is struggling with that idea of “Oh, who will take care of me?” I think there are very many ways to build intentional community that does not revolve around your own biological children. But also as someone who’s childfree, you’re able to be there for other members of your family, if you want to, if you choose to. You can have nieces and nephews, and they’ll always be children in your life – trust me, I’m a childfree woman, but there’s so many children in my life.
Imungu: And if I build intentional community, around family, around friends, around loved ones, around people like you who are able to, you know, encourage me in my decision – all these things contribute to helping me feel cared for, to feel seen, to be respected, to be loved, you know. And as you age in your life, some of these relationships might fade, but many of them will continue to grow strong. And that will be your community, that will be the community that takes care of you in your old age. So it’s not limited to children, it’s limited to the people who want to be there in your life, and who wants to support you throughout the entirety of your life.
Zoë: Absolutely, we can create a chosen family, you know.
Zoë: And not having this pressure of – it must be a biological family. We don’t need to adhere to that,, we can create whatever type of family we want. And I think people like to throw that at childfree people of, “Who’s gonna look after you?” because maybe that’s what people do think when they’re thinking about having kids, you know.
Zoë: They, it’s the easy option, isn’t it? I mean, you had, you have a kid and you’ve automatically got someone there who maybe can look after you. But like you said, there is, there are no guarantees in life, and we can’t put that on a child as well.
Zoë: You know, put those kinds of pressures on children that when they grow up, that’s their role. No, you have to – if you’re bringing a child into the world, you have to let them go and let them live their life, and, you know, hopefully, yeah, they’ll be there when you’re older, but you just can’t guarantee that and you certainly can’t pressure… And I love that idea, Imungu: about creating a chosen family and building a community in whatever way you want. That is such an amazing, such an amazing place to end our lovely conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Imungu: – I know it’s going to empower and inspire so many others, so thank you.
Imungu: Thank you for having me. It was great, I was really looking forward to sharing this story, and especially as a woman living on the African continent, it’s really more important that more women feel that it’s safe to make a choice even if other people don’t understand it.
Zoë: It’s so important to hear our voices all over the world, you know, because we can live in bubbles and you know, I know what there is a privilege that I have being able to say I’m childfree, and I can make this decision. But there are so many women out there who do not have that privilege, that are forced to have unwanted pregnancies, face immense backlash. So while I have this privilege, I need to use this, and use the platform that I have to lift all of our voices, so we all know that we’re all connected and we’re all going through you know, very traumatic things and we need to help each other and support each other so it’s so important to have voices like yours be heard, Imungu, so, thank you.