How the fastest-growing African demographic is defying negative assumptions
Over the last decade, an increasing amount of writing has emerged about Africa’s ‘youth bulge’. These narratives are circulated by African governments and regional and global multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, the African Development Bank and even think tanks such as the Brookings Institute in the US. Too often in these missives, African youth – over 226 million of them – are considered a surplus population amounting to either a ‘demographic dividend’ or a ‘ticking time bomb’.
What problematic imaginaries and practices are occasioned by a calling into being that, while demographically real, is qualitatively (de)limiting?
As a demographic feature, the youth bulge is understood to arise when infant mortality lowers – something that should be celebrated – but also where a ‘high’ fertility rate endures, prompting an unprecedented number of young people proportionate to a nation’s population. It is important to note that what is considered a ‘high’ fertility rate (more than five births per woman) is never defined from within the geographies where this occurs, but rather remains an index created in global north regions of ‘below-replacement-level fertility’ (fewer than 2.1 births per woman).
While these two non-complex and highly limiting trajectories – demographic dividend and ticking time bomb – are offered as the only possible pathways for the youth bulge in Africa, the tenor of most narratives hinges on fears of a coming ‘explosion’. Or, according to the infamous 1994 essay by conservative American author and political analyst Robert Kaplan, “the coming anarchy”. I have long argued that these fears of African youth build on a racialisation that relentlessly perpetuates the continent as a place of war and disease. This is coupled with a perceived lasciviousness and resultant ‘over-fertility’ – both stemming from a colonial gaze – even though the continent remains less densely populated than both Asia and Europe.
In perpetuating these narratives of a ‘ticking time bomb’, African youth are seen as a homogenous, threatening and invisible entity rather than – as some describe themselves – resilient, vibrant survivors. Or, in the Sheng lexicon of Nairobi where I am from, mamorio machampee: ordinary champions.
The youth bulge narrative conceals these important situated self-descriptions and everyday struggles in favour of a blanket term whose connotations merge with those already circulating about Africa (described by The Economist in 2000 – and not for the first time – as “the hopeless continent”).
The implications of these portrayals are diverse: from Prince William decrying “overpopulation” as the challenge for conservation, to international aid projects focused on a family planning model that explicitly links smaller families with future opportunities for employment, to the hyper-policing and surveillance of youth activities across the continent. There is also the proliferation of market-driven ‘fixes’ promoted by both governments and NGOs, which posit that unemployed African youth should be entrepreneurs (often ‘agripreneurs’), without seeking to address the structural barriers to these livelihoods, such as land and education.
The reality is that all of our tomorrows will be shaped by young people
These are but a few examples of what happens when youth bulge discourses hit the ground: they result in parachuted interventions that ultimately do not benefit young people, since they are remedial and not transformative of the material realities that lead to their exclusion in the first place.
Unfortunately, the failure of these interventions is often attributed to youth themselves. Certainly, older populations often target this grouping (ages 15–35 in the African Union definition) for their perceived laziness against the significant unemployment rate of this demographic. This, in a context where the youth did not invent the economic system and where material conditions are controlled by an older generation who own and control land, institutions and the ability to triple university fees (as happened in Kenya in 2020). What is more, despite the reality that 70% of the Kenyan population are below 35 years of age, only 6.5% of those in the Kenyan parliament are under the age of 40, and this statistic may actually be higher than in many other countries in the region.
The realities facing young people in Africa have been worsened by the pandemic. The many and differentiated effects of this period on the continent and across the globe have been well rehearsed: the heartbreaking costs to life, economic immiseration, unequal access to quality healthcare and vaccines, and even the policing of lockdowns and curfews. However, more needs to be said about the ways communities, overwhelmingly populated by youth, came together to forge a way forward in conditions no one could have foreseen.
Many young people, including those I meet in Nairobi’s poor urban settlements, have long distrusted the government, a sentiment that deepened in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of pandemic regulations in Kenya. “We are on our own”, was a frequent declaration, even more so than previously. And, despite the desperation, the hunger and the millions rendered unemployed, young people led many grounded interventions to make sure their communities could stay safe amid both government and international neglect.
While youth bulge discourses would have predicted violence – a perfect storm of ‘surplus’ youth plus desperation – they do not account for the vast number of young people across the continent who, even as they were reduced to eating one meal a day, sought to entrench more care labours for their community in the many intentional and even imperfect ways
they could. Though many commentators, both local and global, predicted devastation and possible violence, this did not come to pass. Instead, people shared what little they had.
In Kenya, older youth acted as free informal teachers for those children who were out of school, the vast majority of whom were not in the kinds of schools that had online classes and did not belong to families who could acquire smartphones, internet bundles or laptops, or even, at many times, consistent electricity.
Across the continent, public murals in local languages emphasised the need to wear masks and the dangers of the disease. In Senegal and Nigeria, youth innovated creative sanitation interventions, for example, the solar-powered hand washing station developed by the Kayy Rakhassou Youth of Guédiawaye in Senegal, who also distributed masks. In Tunisia, youth co-organised vaccination drives, and in Congo they used vernacular languages and modes of expression to alleviate Covid-19 fears and misinformation.
In Mathare, Nairobi, where most families need to buy water for their daily use, since there is no extensive networked system for this resource in the area, representatives of a youth group called Pirates significantly lowered the price of water they were selling to residents. This is not a perfect tactic, but one that was symbolic of a youth group, and youth broadly, seeking to contribute to making sure their community was safe while also working to guarantee their livelihoods. This water provision was coupled for months with basic food distribution by a number of youth-led organisations, as well as the courageous efforts of community health workers who were the first responders in contexts where quality healthcare was both distant and unaffordable.
Much has been said about the digital innovations that emerge from Kenya, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Silicon Savannah’, from M-PESA, the mobile money transfer service first launched in 2007, to the Ushahidi platform, a crowdsourcing technology that informs humanitarian actions. Ultimately, though, it was offline practices co-anchored in sociality, a community ethic, and what some young friends call a youth ‘daring’ or ‘hard-headedness’, that contributed to the endurance of many African communities in the two-plus years of the pandemic.
The conditions for the youth bulge that preceded the pandemic were already challenging and essentially amounted to a material divide between adults and young people, as the grave youth employment rates across the region illustrate. Certainly, Covid-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and precarities, particularly in relation to race. But, as the events of the pandemic have shown, youth – these vibrant, ‘resilient survivors’– continue to both create and reach for possibilities.
What becomes possible when African youth self-narrations are foregrounded? What futures are enabled when a demographic reality is described by those whom it references?
In early April 2022, I asked a diverse group of young Kenyans to describe how they see themselves. Unsurprisingly, not one referenced the term ‘youth bulge’ or any terminology that mirrored the negative associations in which they are habitually entrapped. Instead, I was told, in Kiswahili, English and Sheng, of ‘go-getters’, ‘daring’ subjects, intellectuals and knowledge producers, individuals who belie the many colonial and racialised narratives told
about them (such as that they are a looming threat) despite the precarity that many of them endure and which has worsened over the last two years.
One does not need to reach far to see how African youth understand themselves: in the dynamism of Afro-beat and genge music, in the proliferation of youth organisations across the region demanding change and envisioning alternatives to present orders, in the situated feminist movements, and in the everyday calls by diverse young people for transformations in education, politics and ecology.
These self-descriptions are ubiquitous and accessible through digital and offline means. Through the very many ways they convey their senses of self, this continental demographic makes evident the heterogeneity, industry and even defiance of Africa’s youth, who think of themselves not as a surplus population, but as the very people on whom tomorrow depends.
The reality is that all of our tomorrows will be shaped by young people. By the young Africans leading social justice centres across Kenya and Uganda, voluntary people-centred formations that are engaging in powerful praxes for equal rights. By the young people in Burkina Faso who brought down, a generation later, the government that killed Thomas Sankara. By the Nigerian youth whose bodies and ideas are the #EndSARS movement. By the Somali youth in refugee camps in Kenya organising for a peaceful, just and educated future for their country.
These young people have never been an amorphous demographic phenomenon, and African states, in particular, will have to listen and create substantive space for, and eventually transition to, the visions these youth are creating. The first step is the recognition of the diverse self-narrations of this 226 million-strong population, and the auto and collective biographies that belie the limiting ‘dividend’ and ‘bomb’ constructions. Instead, we must recognise their potential, as was described to me earlier, as mamorio machampee: ordinary champions.
Wangui Kimari is an anthropologist based at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA). She is also the participatory action research coordinator at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) in Nairobi, Kenya
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2022.
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