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Family reconstitution and fertility change in Africa

This image shows two shelves containing piles of record books.


Shane Doyle (PI)

Project Dates

1 Apr 2017 - 30 Sep 2019

Project Value


Project Description

This pilot study sought to develop a new methodology for analysing historical patterns of fertility change in Africa. This is a topic of global importance, but one that is poorly understood due to the challenging nature of the data.

The project was stimulated by the continent’s unique demographic history. Since decolonization, sub-Saharan Africa has experienced both the highest fertility rates ever recorded and a subsequent decline in birth rates of unparalleled unevenness, featuring distinctive patterns of contraceptive usage. The causes of these radical changes in fertility patterns remain poorly understood. Before the first Demographic Health Surveys (DHSs) in the late 1980s, censuses and occasional surveys highlighted the scale of reproductive change, but provided limited detail on its mechanisms. In other parts of the world insights into fertility change have been provided by family reconstitution using church registers (the reconstruction of an individual’s vital events, organised by family). In Africa, while initial attempts at reconstitution produced significant results, problems arising from high levels of mobility and pre-baptismal mortality, gradual Christianization, and inconsistencies in the spelling and recording of personal names were revealed. This project sought to enhance the comprehensiveness and utility of family reconstitution in Africa by linking parish records with hospital registers.

The project focused on the Kikuyu of Central Kenya, because they adopted both delivery in the clinic and family planning unusually early. New techniques of linking individuals across maternity and baptism registers were developed, permitting a more comprehensive reconstruction of women’s reproductive histories than has been achieved by traditional methods. Data were drawn from the years 1979-1988, the crucial period between the World Fertility Survey in Kenya and its first DHS, permitting unique insight into the moment when fertility control first took hold.