Catholic mother in Kenya fights child marriages

Because of poverty and illiteracy, child marriages are still very common in Kenya. Inspired by her own experience, the founder and director of the Single Mothers Association of Kenya, Angelina Nandwa, rescues young girls from their marriages and offers them spiritual, academic, and economic support. She told her story to international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need:


“My name is Angelina Okweya Nandwa. I am 64 and the mother of nine children; three are biologically mine, and six were adopted from my deceased relatives. I am a Catholic by birth.

“My relatives and I are members of the local church and a community prayer group, and I am a member of the Catholic Women’s Association, which consoles members in times of need and visits the sick, the elderly, and orphans.

I studied at Our Lady of Mercy Girls’ Primary School, and while there, I received the sacraments under the guidance of strict Catholic nuns from Northern Ireland. We observed all Catholic teachings, and confession was required every Saturday.

“When I was 17, I came home on holiday and learned that my cousin had found a 60-year-old divorcee—and father of six—to marry me. My resistance fell on deaf ears, and I gave in for fear of curses from my parents, who had already accepted the offer.

“I led a sad, frustrating, and lonely life. My new family mistreated me. I was basically hired help: no one was allowed to help me with housework, and whenever they were around, I sat in the kitchen alone. I think that the man needed someone to care for his children, but not a life partner.

“During my first pregnancy, I suffered from depression and nearly fatal high blood pressure. Thanks to God’s love, we both survived, though the baby weighed only one kilogram [about 2.2 pounds] and was put in an incubator for three months.

“When I left the hospital, nothing changed. l did not have a helper, and my husband would not allow anyone to visit for fear that they would convince me to leave him.

“While I was pregnant with my second child, I woke up one day, looked at myself in the mirror, and realized that I’d had enough. I returned to my parents, who welcomed me back. l forgave them for [forcing me into the] marriage. I drew strength from Sunday readings of the liturgy, my prayers, and the rosary.

“My father was a highly disciplined member of the military, and my mother was a social worker, as well as a community midwife and trainer. Our parents instilled in us the spirit of volunteerism at a very young age, which led me to my current work. Once I was emotionally healed, l felt that there was a great need for a forum where single mothers could meet to share their experiences and find solutions to their problems—especially for the sake of their children.

“I founded the Single Mothers Association of Kenya (SMAK) in 1991. We held monthly meetings in my house until we secured a meeting place. My focus remains young single mothers, and we currently offer a residential program to 10 adolescent mothers with babies younger than one year.

Girls in the SMAK program

“We rescue the girls from forced marriages to older men and equip them with different life skills for one year, after which they are registered for the government grade test (NITA) in preparation for their exit. They are also given time to attend adult classes, since they have not received a secondary education.

“We mainly receive funding from well-wishers and rent out some of our facilities during school holidays. We also offer outside catering and baking services.

“The areas that currently pose economic challenges are raising money for the government exam (NITA), which costs 5,000 shilling [about $50] per girl; raising money for food, lesson materials, and adequate bedding, shoes, toys, nappies, and clothing for the girls and their babies

“My dream is to see SMAK become a multi-purpose community-based university run by alumni, and I hope that it will change many young mothers’ academic statuses and lifestyles.”

In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) helped the Church in Kenya with projects in the amount of $720,000. Projects included support for seminarians, subsistence aid for women religious, and the construction of churches and chapels. Across Africa, ACN supports numerous initiatives designed to strengthen marriage and family life.

—Susan Mwnesi