Africa's Precious Few
issue 176 - October 1987
Photo: Claude Sauvageot
Africa's precious few
Birth rates are falling everywhere in the world, but the fall
is the slowest in Africa. This is not because Africans are illogical,
irresponsible or short-sighted. On the contrary: it is largely
because Africa is underpopulated. A report by Nigel Twose.
The statistics are thrown at us relentlessly: the population of Africa is growing faster than any other group in recorded history. Nigeria's population will reach 532 million in the middle of the next century; Ethiopia's population will quintuple. My God, the reader gasps, not five times as many Ethiopians! If all that money we gave to Band Aid didn't help, it must be because there are just too many of them.
The problem with doom-laden statistical predictions like these is that they draw attention away from the reasons why so many perfectly sensible people are choosing to have large families. If we genuinely want to participate in the population debates, as opposed simply to joining the chop-off their-willies brigade of population controllers, then we must try to understand those reasons. And we do that by trying to see the world from the point of view of Africans.
Take slavery for instance. Abolished just a little over a century ago, it merits just a short paragraph in many school textbooks. But it is a deep and bitter memory in many African communities. Nobody will ever know exactly how many millions of young men and women were taken as slaves to the Americas during those terrible four hundred years. Nobody can ever detail all the trickery, kidnapping and war that took place to obtain those captives. But what is certain is that the slaves themselves were the most able-bodied young people available and that the most valuable section of Africa's labour force was systematically removed from generations of agricultural families, whose farming routines were devastated.
'What would have been Britain's level of development had millions of them been put to work as slaves outside of their homeland over a period of four centuries?' asks Guyanese professor of history Walter Rodney. His question is not only valid in a numerical sense, for it was not just the labour of those young adults that was removed. It was their creativity and inventiveness too.
Eventually Europe's need for slaves declined, to be replaced in the nineteenth century by a requirement for tropical export products - especially vegetable oils. These products also demanded a large African labour force, both for the plantations themselves and for the roads and railways leading to the ports. The railway between Pointe Noire and Brazzaville, for instance, was built with the forced labour of 127,250 men between 1921 and 1932 - 10,200 of whom died in the process. In Malawi (then Nyasaland) in 1935 between 30 and 60 per cent of men were absent from their homes.
Different ruses were used to encourage Africans to leave their homes and work on the new colonial projects. In villages throughout Africa today, elders will tell you the stories that they heard from their parents. You can still hear the resentment engendered in the villages by these schemes because of the way they so clearly caused poverty and severe labour bottlenecks on the farm. And throughout the continent people resisted these variants of forced labour.
The most effective ploy for forcing strong young workers to leave their family farms was invented in South Africa in 1894, where Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes imposed a tax of ten shillings on all adult males. To pay the taxes in cash, Africans would have to earn cash. This scheme - which was widely adopted by colonial administrations right across the continent - killed two birds with one stone: it both raised money and produced a large labour force which had previously been occupied with growing food. It also halted development in its tracks.
In any country the rich can invest and reinvest their capital, producing greater and greater profits. But the poor can only produce children. Most Africans had and still have just this one significant resource over which they have any control: their labour power and that of their children. In some parts of the continent, such as Senegal, that labour is used to grow cash crops like groundnuts. In other parts of Africa, men migrate to the burgeoning cities in search of employment in offices and factories. In countries like Burkina Faso and Mali, the only option has been to go south to the plantations of wealthier coastal countries like Ivory Coast. But in every case, the migration results in fewer active young people to grow food for those left behind. Despite the cataclysmic statistics the demographers throw at us, families in parts of Africa today will tell you that at certain times of the year they suffer from a severe labour shortage. Many studies have detailed the stress on the lives of married African women - and its effect on food production. In Lesotho, for instance, over half of the women are having to cope with their farms alone because their husbands are away working in South Africa.
During the mid-Seventies a major study in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) investigated the reasons why thousands of young men leave the country each year to look for employment in Ivory Coast. The main reason people gave was to get the money to pay taxes. They were then asked why they could not raise the money by staying at home and working on the land. Ninety per cent of those interviewed said that the problem they faced was not drought; 80 per cent said it was not a shortage of land. Instead the majority said it was because there were not enough people in the family to increase their agricultural production.
Almost 100,000 people were interviewed, yet these conclusions sound incredible to those of us raised on statistics of population explosions and global disaster, They certainly sound illogical to international demographers. And to those concerned with national population projections. But they are perfectly rational to the people who were interviewed and to their families.
Their answers result in the supreme irony of young men scraping together some money from their extended families and travelling for days in the backs of trucks as tight-packed as rush-hour subway trains. They feel they have no choice but to migrate, just as their fathers felt they had no choice but to migrate. But collectively their mass migration is ruining the country's development prospects.
Nor do the wages from the plantations compensate the families left in the villages for this loss of labour. At independence most African countries were left with a single cash crop to export. Nine of them are still dependent on just one crop for over 70 per cent of their income. This means that any drop in commodity prices sends these countries reeling and wages on the plantations plummet in the scramble to cut costs.
So when, or if, the young men do return, all they usually bring with them are just a few of the pathetic petty accoutrements of capitalism: a radio, a watch, perhaps a bicycle. Meanwhile their parents - and wives - turn back to the only resource over which they do have some control, and produce more children: hoping against hope that this one might stay and help with the work on the land, or that one might be lucky enough to get an education and a job sufficiently secure and well-paid to bring security for all the family.
For the last forty years population growth has been used an explanation for African famine, allowing us to blame Africans for bringing their poverty upon themselves, But it was European interests that systematically removed millions of young people. It was our colonial system which created export-based farming and the tax systems which continued the depopulation of the villages. And today, it is our system's greed which continues to profit from neocolonial financial and trading relationships at the expense of any hope for sustainable African development.
Having children has been a perfectly logical response of families to the hardship and famine which have resulted from these processes. Until we begin to recognize our responsibility for the current situation, we will not come close to finding a solution that will lead African families to choose to have smaller families.
Nigel Twose worked for Oxfam in the Sahel from 1979 to 1983. He is currently employed at the Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development (ACORD) in London.
I was 14 when I married. At first I thought I could not have children because of my age. But then people started talking, whispering behind their hands when they saw me. My husband blamed me and said I was infertile.
I cried a lot in those days. I would lie awake at night and feel the shame of being barren. It took time for me to accept it. I would go over it again and again: how could I hold my head up when I am not a full woman? My husband was so angry: men have to father many children, to show they are strong. Sometimes he used to hit me, tell me I was worthless.
Sometimes I look at the other women, see one with a baby on her knee, then a little child runs up and tells her something that makes her laugh ...
But my husband just refuses to discuss it. The last time we spoke of it, about five months ago, he just lost his temper and started shouting at me, saying it was my fault. Now his family are telling him he should divorce me. They think I am just a burden and they want grand children to look after them when they get old. They tell him to take another wife. But if he does that, things will be even harder for me. If his new wife has a child I will become likes servant. Everyone will order me around and I will just have to smile and do as they say or they will not look after me when I am an old woman.
Most people want many sons because they carry on the family line and that means our clan can claim more land. But I would have liked daughters because they can help me best in my work. At the moment I have to do everything by myself: planting and weeding the rice, looking after the bananas, coconuts and sweet potatoes. If I had a son he would look after the goats and go fishing with my husband. But girls are a bigger help to a woman. Even at five or six years old they can look after the smaller ones and start fetching water and firewood.
I wish I could go to the doctor with my husband. But he just loses his temper and refuses to come, so now I daren't mention it. But I want to know what is the matter. My period comes every month, so I think I may have caught some illness from myhusband. You know, all men go out in the evenings - drinking and doing what they will. You cannot trust them.
There are those in the village who say I am blessed not to have children, because they mean pain and work. But the people who say that have many children, so how can they know of that other pain that I have?