Kenya

How Kenya's 'kangaroo dads' are breaking tradition and saving pre-term babies

Philip Barasa and his wife Sarah Konywar are kangarooing their twin babies, while Cynthia Muhambe, community health worker from Save the Children, pays a visit to their home in Buyai village, Bungoma county, Kenya, as their older daughter looks on.
Philip Barasa and his wife Sarah Konywar are kangarooing their twin babies, while Cynthia Muhambe, community health worker from Save the Children, pays a visit to their home in Buyai village, Bungoma county, Kenya, as their older daughter looks on. © RFI/Victor Moturi

In western Kenya, as in other parts of the Africa, childcare is usually the responsibility of the mother; tradition and culture have relegated fathers to a back seat. This is gradually changing thanks to a health initiative known as Kangaroo care, which gets fathers helping mothers save the lives of their premature babies.

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Hospitals in rural areas that do not have enough incubators for pre-term babies are resorting to Kangaroo mother care, a method which is playing a major role in saving thousands of babies in remote areas across Africa. 

The skin-to-skin contact provides heat from the mother that keeps the infant warm and helps the babies gain weight much faster.

This practice has been adapted by fathers in western Kenya who are now helping their wives by offering Kangaroo services in hospitals, and at home, despite cultural beliefs and practices in the region.

Anita Makwata helps her husband, Jackton practice Kangaroo baby care with their premature infant in western Kenya.
Anita Makwata helps her husband, Jackton practice Kangaroo baby care with their premature infant in western Kenya. © RFI/Victor Moturi

Lack of electricity in rural hospitals and the distance to the hospitals also discourages many parents from going there to give birth. Kangaroo mother care therefore acts as the nursery or incubator at home.

Teresa Akung, who is a Kangaroo mother care champion in western Kenya says that so far 9,000 babies have benefited from this method since inception.

“We have been doing a lot of advocacy, mostly mothers are self-care givers for this babies and there is a lot of culture around prematurity. In most cases community thinks it’s a curse, maybe there is something that you did that has made you get a very small baby. So, we have been talking about this to demystify the culture and also the myths around the preterm babies,” says Akung.

Seeing positive results

One week ago, new mother Anita Makwata was admitted to the Kangaroo room, where the weight of her baby improved from 1500 grams to 1900 grams when she started using this method. Anita’s husband, Jackton, helped her and used the Kangaroo method at the hospital, too.

“I came here because my baby is under Kangaroo mother care (KMC). I usually come to help my wife to Kangaroo the baby,” says Jackton.

“It is not easy but I am happy to help my wife and not many men will agree to come but I thank God,” Jackton affirms.

After her baby gained enough weight, Anita was discharged to continue with the Kangaroo care at home.

Kenya’s western region is known for its diverse culture and the way children are brought up is exclusively the role of the mother. However, the situation is gradually changing as fathers are now getting involved, assisting their wives in raising children by participating in the mother care program.

According to Jackton it’s good to be close to your child, not just to provide enough love but healthcare. People may laugh at you, mock you or ridicule you but never mind by proving them wrong by getting involved he says.

“This notion of saying that bringing-up of children belongs to the mother is of the past now, and since I have succeeded, I hope they will also change that notion that the work of raising kids belongs to women,” Jackton explains.

Overcoming superstition

Webuye hospital is one of the health facilities which records a high number of premature babies in western Kenya. Here nurses and doctors work round the clock to train mothers and fathers on how to put their children under kangaroo mother care method.

“The challenges we usually face is that these mothers get tired and occasionally need support. So when they need support we usually need the men to come in, the male involvement in KMC, where we call it Kangaroo father care,” says Grace Oniang’o, the head of newborn unity in this facility, which monitors the progress of other three preterm babies in this ward.

“Usually in Luhya land, we have a superstition of men taking care of the newborns. However, we are initiating it to men who are gradually accepting Kangaroo care,” she says.

They realize it benefits the baby who must be at least 2.5 kilograms before he or she can be discharged from the hospital.

“So far we have four men; some are positive but some fear, so sometimes they need their own room. If a father comes, and sees he is the only man, he will shy away,” she elaborates.

Precious help at home

In Buyai Village, Bungoma County, Philip Barasa and his wife Sarah Konywar are happy parents. They are applying the Kangaroo nursing method to their preterm twins Favour and Esther, while sitting under the tree outside their house. They had just returned from hospital three days prior after their babies gained the minimum required weight of 1.9 kilograms.

“I thank my husband because he used to come to hospital and sometimes help me Kangaroo one of the twin as I am helping the other twin,” says Sarah. “This is by the grace of God because it is unusual. As a mother I feel good because one of the twin has improved by 1.78 kilograms from 1.62 kilograms in a short time,” Sarah adds.

Her husband Philip tells Africa Calling about the challenges he faces due to the cultural stigma.

“When they see a man practicing KMC, they see it as being controlled by your wife, but that’s not the case. If it wasn’t the effort we had for these babies, we couldn’t be discharged very fast from hospital,” says Philip.

“When I kangaroo my children I feel good because it comes from my heart. The love of a father to his child,’’ he adds.

Defying cultural stereotypes

In the neighboring Busia County two-year-olds Moses and Ann are playing in their house in Ujamii Village, two of the many babies who benefited from the Kangaroo mother care method in this region.

Their father Samuel Nyamweya says he had to defy the culture to apply the kangaroo nursing method to his babies regardless of laughter from other men and even women.

“The first day my wife started practicing Kangaroo, Ann gained 60 grams and I decided to join her to Kangaroo Moses so that the kids can be discharged in few days. When at home in the evening, my wife can Kangaroo one child as I kangaroo the other one,” says Samuel. 

“The existing culture of children belonging to women is gradually fading away now,” he adds.

Kenyan men aren’t totally on board yet, according to one health professional in Busia county, but men are starting to understand the importance of their role in childcare.

“We have a few fathers who are willing to assist their wives to take care of babies, but we are still using the community health workers to pass the message to the community that when a baby is born, it is the responsibility of both parents to take care of the baby,” says Salome Miale, a nurse and the head of community health volunteers.

“The majority of men are afraid the baby is too small, they fear holding the baby and also other taboos but we just encourage them to help their partners in taking care of the baby,” she adds.

Since its inception in Kenya nine years ago, countries such as Tanzania and Uganda have also started embracing the Kangaroo mother care method, followed by Rwanda, Comoros, Nigeria, Togo, Mali and Niger.

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