OROMIYA, Ethiopia -- If you were to visit 65-year-old Ayatu Nure and his family at their compound in the Oromiya region of Ethiopia, you would probably find eight of Ayatu's 12 wives harvesting banana roots for dinner, while chasing after their combined 78 children. At first glance, this unlikely family appears carefree -- but a closer look reveals that many of Ayatu's children are hungry, possibly even malnourished. Their main source of food -- banana roots -- doesn't provide much nutrition, but unfortunately this is the only thing Ayatu can afford.
In this remote, densely-populated region of Ethiopia, it is common for men to have multiple wives. In Ayatu's case this tradition has backfired. Years ago, he had enough land and food to satisfy everyone's needs. This changed when Ayatu had to sell land or cattle to make the dowry payment for each new wife he took, usually a sum of between $500 and $1,000. Now, the family compound is almost bare from overgrazing, two of his wives have moved with cattle in search of greener pastures, and two others died from unknown illnesses in the 1990s. The situation is so desperate that Ayatu cannot afford to send his children to secondary school, and he is marrying off two of his 15-year-old daughters to ensure they are fed. Thirteen others are living with their married siblings.
Living with two wives and eight children in a neighbouring town is Ayatu's eldest son, Dagne. Dagne said he and his father made a mistake by taking more than one wife and blames it on a lack of education, "Men and women don't have the knowledge of birth spacing or the desire to seek this information," said Dagne.
Ayatu's family is enormous by any standards. In Ethiopia, having at least five children per mother is the norm. "The population is growing at a rate of 2.7 percent annually, said Dr. Monique Rakotomalala, the Ethiopia representative for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. With the population of the country now at 73 million, she is concerned. "That means two million new people every year." At this rate, the population could double over the next 24 years, severely stretching existing resources. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia's Minister of Health, says the secret is smaller families. "We have to educate our communities and tell them the benefits of smaller families because it will bring a better quality of life to each household."
To assist families like Ayatu's, the Government of Ethiopia has launched a network of 29,000 health extension workers to teach both men and women about family planning and provide contraceptives to those who want to delay childbearing. So far, two of Ayatu's wives are using long-term implants. Many women in remote villages opt for this method because of the distance between their homes and health centres. Yet, health extension workers visiting families in this pastoral landscape also face difficulties as they have to walk long distances to reach one household, and sometimes lack sufficient stock to meet the demands of many communities.
Ayatu admits he failed to acknowledge the consequences of having such a large family, and wants to be a role model for young people so they will not make the same mistake. "I wasn't educated," said Ayatua. "Nobody asked me. Nobody told me of the consequences".