Patricia Mumbua Kombo has planted thousands of trees in Kenya and educates students about environmental issues. She’s a journalism university student.
Youth workers recognize the challenges in involving young rural women, youth not in school or training, and migrants. Primary education is widespread although often poor quality, but secondary education lags in some areas, especially for girls and young people with disabilities. Students need more instruction in employment skills. UNESCO’s Basic Education Africa Programme aims to recruit the 43 million school-aged children who are not in school and improve the quality of education.[i]
Visiting an elementary school in rural Tanzania illustrated in the photo at the beginning of the chapter was appalling. Students sat four to a crowded bench, windows had no glass, the black board was trashed, and no books were in sight. Students just copied what the teacher wrote on the board in the small books of paper, similar to the booklets I used to write university exams. Danish journalist Pernille Baerendstsen critiqued this chapter and noted this is similar to many schools she has seen in Tanzania. Few of these rural students will be able to afford to go to secondary school. An insight into a Nigerian secondary school system is tens of thousands of tweets with photos exploded in response to a Twitter post #SecSchoolinNigeria in 2015.[ii] With a British type of education, students joked about dining hall prefects, conceited head girls and boys, class reps, younger boys having to wear shorts, and flogging.
In SSA more than one in three adults can’t read, 28% of youths ages 15 to 24 are illiterate, and only a third of them are enrolled in secondary school.[iii] However, SSA made the greatest progress in primary school of any developed region, increasing enrollment from 52% in 1990 to 78% in 2012.[iv] Due to poor quality education, elites send their children to be educated in the West where they may come back with interest in human rights. Abel, a Tanzanian teen, described his education difficulties in an email.
After the last National Exams, I was among the few pupils who performed well in it. I was joined with a government secondary school and it was easy for my father to pay the school fees because government school fees are cheaper than private school, which is too expensive. But when I was in Form Two, I was suffering with headache and our school it was very far—about 7 km–to go and to turn back every day. I was trying to talk to my father to explain about the situation but he was saying that he didn’t have enough money to fund my transfer to boarding school.
So after that I didn’t have any chance, so I was schooling in the same school for four years and it was difficult for me to do some study after school because of tiredness. In last national exams I wasn’t performing well, so I was among students who failed those exams. At that time my young brother was already joined with one of government schools (boarding school) because he was doing well in his primary education. My father told me that he didn’t have more money to send me to high school, so I had to select one of the short courses as my last chance. [He trained to be a tour guide and went on to work in Zanzibar.]
The following are my goals: To get high education (university) in wildlife and environmental conservation. To hold a beautiful house. To have a family of three children. To take care of others like me, especially orphans. [Many African students mentioned wanting to help orphans whose parents died of AIDS.] To help my young brothers’ education
From South Africa, Nomthandazo (16, f) reported, “Some teachers do their work very lazy, especially when the sun is hot. The school is very old and needs to be renovated. Some learners disrespect others and their teachers which is the cause of most conflicts.” However, she said it’s better than the education her parents received. Felix Mbewe, a university student at the University of Zambia who studies Philosophy and Development Studies, commented via email: “The concern above applies to many countries across Africa; education to sensitize, inspire and mentor young ones into becoming responsible and innovative adults has been neglected due to lack of political will for true change.” He said the main problems facing African universities are “accommodation [his small dorm room has five students in two beds], sanitation, Internet access, political interference in schools, high tuition fees, poor infrastructure, and lack of creativity and innovation promotion for students.” Unfortunately, public secondary school fees are increasing in countries like Kenya where private schools are very expensive.
Felix is one of seven siblings. When his father died his mother took over his job selling food on the street. A government scholarship enables him to be in university. He explained, “Mum and I pay for my other siblings though it is not easy, because I take up a lot of work to help out. Some are not in school due to financial challenges, I plan to take them to school after my graduation when I have a stable income. So those who are not in school I teach them how to read and write at home.” He and his girlfriend started a foundation to help children learn; “Mostly we do the works ourselves by volunteering to teach and be with the children in community schools.” His Catholic faith motivates him to help, “I practice my religion by showing love to humanity because that is the greatest command from GOD.”
Unemployment and Poverty
In his widely read sarcastic 2005 article, “How to Write About Africa,” Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina said to always use the word darkness, discuss poverty, and show pictures of starving children with flies on their faces.[v] A popular Twitter campaign started by a young woman (age 22) called @lunarnomad countered these stereotypes with beautiful photos she and her followers posted on #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou.[vi] A young man raised in Benin in West Africa, who now lives in London, compared the regions, stating that in Benin people can count on a support network, life is less stressful, and people live better on what’s considered a low wage.[vii] Naofal Ali explained, “In Africa family and friendship mean so much to us…someone always has your back.” Old people live with their families, childcare is not a problem, suicide is low, so that “your social revolution is our everyday life. Sharing is not a new business trend in Africa. We’ve got it in our DNA.”
In an article about “Five Myths about Africa,” Kimenyi and Westbury point out that major long-lasting wars ended as in Liberia and Rwanda.[viii] Mobile phone use is growing faster in Africa than any other region used to enhance the economy with money transfers on the phone helping the continent’s sustained economic growth. Youth-led movements for democracy sometimes succeed as when they prevented Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade from extending his term in office and they organize Occupy Nigeria and student movements in South Africa, discussed below. Rappers sing about social issues, including Angola rappers who were jailed for allegedly planning a coup against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in 2016. Hip-hop musicians mobilized voters during the 2012 elections in Senegal.
Marietta, who lives in Zimbabwe, reminded me that there was no poverty before colonialism. If someone’s cattle were killed, other members of the tribe would share to rebuild a herd. But tribalism is problematic, as in her country, where one dominant tribe, the Zezuru, controls the government. The legacy of colonialism is poverty. Over a third of Africans are ages 15 to 35 and over 60 million of them live on less than $1 a day. More than 70% of Africa’s youth live on less than $2 a day, according to the African Development Bank.[ix] One in four Africans is undernourished. The continent still lacks infrastructure and electricity. Young Africans get by in the informal economy, become entrepreneurs, find what is called a sugar daddy or sugar momma, do illegal work in youth subcultures or migrate. Unemployment leads some to trade their sexuality for gifts thereby redefining femininity and masculinity as young women with sugar daddies support their boyfriends. The Social Progress Index that measures quality of life factors in terms of human needs, wellbeing, and opportunity reported that the lowest scoring countries were in Africa; the best scores in SSA were Mauritius, Botswana, and South Africa. The UN also points to Mauritius and Botswana as examples of countries with good governance.
Despite being Africa’s most educated generation, the ILO reports an African youth is twice as likely as those in other parts of the world to be an unemployed adult.[x] About 10 to 12 million young people enter the labor market annually and many with jobs in the informal sector have precarious jobs without benefits or livable wages.[xi] SSA suffers from the highest rate of poverty among working youth, at almost 70%, according to the ILO. SSA also has the highest rate (over one-third) of young people who are willing to permanently move to another country, along with Latin America, The Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Without good education and jobs, young people can’t afford to live on their own and get married, leading to disapproval from older adults. Many of them are in “waithood” not able to find a job or working part-time in the informal economy. The World Bank reported 60% of African’s unemployed workers are young people—more so for young women.[xii] Rates vary by nation, with low unemployment rates in Malawi and Rwanda. Schools too often don’t teach work-related skills and vocational education is considered low status, some employers don’t want to hire inexperienced young people, and some areas lack private sector employers. The fall in the price of oil and other resources that underpin many of the SSA economies produced an economic downturn. This, combined with population growth, perpetuates high unemployment.
However, the IMF predicted in 2015 that for the first time SSA will grow at a rate of 5.7% from 2014 to 2019, making it among the three fastest growing regions in the world. Reasons for optimism, as explained by Professor Stephen Onyeiwu, are: The Arab Spring made corrupt politicians more accountable to the people, increase in entrepreneurs (a study found that youth in Africa are more entrepreneurially than their age group in other regions, as well as being optimistic about business opportunities[xiii]), and discovery of new natural resources such as oil and gas.[xiv] He warned that in one of the most unequal regions in the world, economic growth depends on employing the 200 million youth ages 15 to 24, who will comprise almost a third of global youth by 2050. Violence from Islamic terrorists and climate change can be problematic due to SSA’s reliance on agriculture and natural resource extraction. China’s development path of exporting manufactured goods and investing in infrastructure should be followed, Onyeiwu suggested.
Mozambican scholar Alcinda Honwana interviewed young people in four African countries.[xv] After studying African youth and unlike many researchers, actually talking with many of them, Honwana concluded that neoliberal austerity policies have hurt them more than any other continent so that a majority of young adults are stuck in waithood.[xvi] On the other hand, child soldiers, laborers, and caregivers to younger siblings are forced into adult work roles. SSA faces unique problems regarding the high number of child soldiers and youth with HIV. In the Central African Republic, child soldiers ages 10 to 16 are common in battles between Muslims and Christians. The teens are often drunk and wear anti-sorcery charms and protective amulets to ward off bullets.[xvii] A group of these soldiers told a reporter they had no leader, but an adult man appeared to be the spokesperson. Yet electronic communication influences young people to aspire a “modern” lifestyle able to buy jeans, athletic shoes, hair extensions and cell phones.
Honwana blames widespread waithood, or what West African countries refer to as youthmen, and the resulting lack of dignity that comes from dependency, on bad governments and failed neoliberal policies. She faults African nations for not offering “reliable pathways to adulthood,” although waithood is a global phenomenon in what she calls the global crisis of the middle class. Many young people migrate to cities in hopes of finding jobs, reducing rural areas to “gerontocracies,” but their urban opportunities are very slim. Those that make it to university often find a mismatch between their skills and available jobs when they graduate. Despite these problems, the young people Honwana interviewed don’t seem to be a “lost generation” or apathetic.[xviii]
Lacking faith in government, young Africans share an identity and awareness that leads them to challenge authority and are active in civil society and on social media. They join associations, debate on social media, avoid traditional political parties, and express their views outside of established politics by organizing campaigns against corruption, for women’s rights and so on. Honwana wonders if young people can create a new political culture outside of political parties and if street protests will remain their main tactic. Her interviews with young Africans revealed that they believe they can make real change with their new politics. However, Honwana observes their horizontal organizing methods don’t lead to clear leadership, raising the global question for activists, “Will it be possible for the younger generation to drive the creation of a new political culture from outside dominant cultures?” Her interviewees believe they can create such change but aren’t sure how.
Taika (age 18) reports that in Ethiopia agriculture is still the main source of income, although her parents are urban high school teachers. (A book describes the high unemployment rate faced by young men in her country.[xix]) Most young Africans will continue to work on small farms and household businesses, according to a World Bank report, “Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.”[xx] The United Nations Development Program argues that African governments should spend more on agriculture than their military budgets. Climate change will change farming in Africa, as land for staple crops like soybeans and maize won’t be arable: Up to 60% of land used to grow beans could be unusable by the end of the century and earlier in some places.[xxi] Oxfam’s partial solution to feeding the poor is fair taxation: Four million children’s lives could be saved annually and all children be educated if 30% of Africa’s wealth ($14 billion) was taken out of tax havens.[xxii] More youth job creation efforts are necessary to prevent unrest, especially as youth migrate to urban areas in search of work.
SpeakOut student Felix Mbewe comments on his solution to poverty and climate change from Zambia:
In Zambia and other southern African countries there are serious power cuts due to poor political management, thus, the poorest are the ones feeling the pinch of climate change. They are also taking more from nature in the form of charcoal, firewood and other forms of energy production that degrade the environment. This if it was in a typical capitalist state, that would not be the case because entrepreneurs are always creative and innovative in meeting people’s needs, unlike were the state controls a larger sector of the economy. Free markets have saved more people from poverty than any other force in human history. Therefore, a free market is the best social arrangement to curb climate change and achieve prosperity.
When I replied that the top polluters like oil companies want free markets, he emailed, “Do you know how state companies and private companies perform in poor countries? The gap is so huge, private companies do far much better, all they need is a strong state regulation to adhere to environmentally-friendly ways of production.”
The slowdown in the Chinese economy and reduced demand for African commodities slowed economic growth in Africa in 2016, especially in the largest economies. Nigeria suffered from the decline in oil prices and South Africa suffered from the worst drought in a generation. Nigeria outpaced South Africa as the largest economy in 2012, with a growth rate of 7% and a growing middle class, about 11% of the population. Most of the popular African brands are from Nigeria and South Africa. African trade with the rest of the world is increasing, and since 1996 the poverty rate fell 1% a year. However, about 80% of workers still work in the informal sector and Africa’s most populated country, Nigeria, has only about a dozen shopping malls. As in the West, youth like to socialize in malls. Villagers expect more prosperous relatives in the city to help them, as illustrated in Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’ novel Americanah (2014). It also illustrates the corruption and need for connections to get ahead in her country. Her main character goes to university in the US because Lagos professors were often on strike due to the government not paying them. Unrest is inevitable in Nigeria with the majority of the population trying to survive on less than $2 per day and youth unemployment around 60%, which is also about the percentage of the population 25 and younger.[xxiii] Nneka is a Nigerian-German hip-hop singer who comments on poverty and corruption in her music, as shown on video.[xxiv]
Grounds for optimism exist because despite weak progress in reducing poverty and inequality and civil wars between tribes and Muslims and Christians, half of the world’s 30 fastest-growing countries are in Africa.[xxv] In the “Africa Rising” phenomenon, the middle class is growing, up to around 150 million, predicted to double in a few years as secondary school participation increases. SSA attracts growing international investments from the US, China, Brazil and India–around $80 billion in 2014.[xxvi] That year the Obama administration announced US businesses would spend $14 billion in Africa. To protect these investments and compete with Chinese influence, since 9/11 the US military established a little discussed footprint with bases in 49 of the 54 African nations.[xxvii]
Optimistic philanthropist Bill Gates predicted there will be “almost no poor countries by 2035,” due to innovations such as new vaccines, better health care, better seeds, expanded education and the digital revolution. Although he reported that six million African children died in 2013, his annual letter for 2014 pointed to improvements in African poverty and said not to make generalizations: “In Ethiopia, income is only $800 a year per person. In Botswana it’s nearly $12,000. You see this huge variation within countries too: Life in a major urban area like Nairobi looks nothing like life in a rural Kenyan village. You should look skeptically at anyone who treats an entire continent as an undifferentiated mass of poverty and disease.”[xxviii] Although progress occurs, most countries suffer from a GDP per capita below $2000 for the past six decades.[xxix] Subsistence farmers may make no money while others earn a lot from tourism or minerals.
Gates talked with a mother of five children who is a farmer in Niger. She didn’t know about contraceptives when she got married and considered pregnancy God’s will, but now she walks 10 miles each month to get contraceptive injections and tells young brides who gather at the village well about birth control. Taika commented, “The sense of faith is very strong in Ethiopia. Even though people are becoming more aware of contraceptives by the day, the fact that they believe it goes against what they hold true pushes them to ignore its benefits,” but beliefs are changing for educated young people.
[ii] Nwachukwu Egbunike, “Nigerians Go Back to High School With Tens of Thousands of Hilarious Tweets,” Global Voices, August 6, 2015.
[iii] “Africa Literacy Facts from UNESCO”
[iv] Sam Jones, “UN: 15-Year Push Ends Extreme Poverty for a Billion People,” The Guardian, July 6, 2015.
[vii] Naofal Ali, “I Grew Up in Africa,” Medium.com, September 27, 2016.
[viii] Mwangi Kimenyi and Andrew Westbury, “Five Myths about Africa,” Brookings Institution, March 16, 2012.
[x] Dicta Asiimwe, “Unemployment Among African Youth a Recipe for Increased Unrest,” The East African, February 20, 2014.
[xi] Eme Essien Lore, “Africa’s Youth Challenge and the Private Sector,” Rockefeller Foundation, July 21, 2014.
[xii] Jon Abbink and Ineke Van Kessel, editors. Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa. Brill Academic, 2004.
Filip De Boeck and Alcinda Honwana, editors. Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Africa World Press, 2005.
[xiii] Francois Bonnici, “Africa Must Do More to Harness Young People’s Entrepreneurial Drive,” The Conversation, August 12, 2016.
[xiv] Stephen Onyeiwu, “Renaissance or Mirage: Can Africa Sustain its Growth?,” The Conversation, May 18, 2015. The author of Emerging Issues in Contemporary African Economies. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015.
[xv] Alcinda Honwana. The Time of Youth. Kumarian Press, 2012.
Youth and Revolution in Tunisia. Zed Books, 2013.
“Youth, Waithood and Protest Movements in Africa, African Arguments, August 12, 2013.
[xvi] Alcinda Honwana. The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa. Kumarian Press, 2012, p. 3.
[xviii] “Youth, Waithood and Protest Movements in Africa, African Arguments, August 12, 2013.
[xix] Daniel Mains. Hope Is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia. Temple University Press, 2013.
[xx] “New Report Outlines Priorities to Addres Africa’s Youth Employment Challenge,” World Bank, January 27, 2014.
[xxi] Tim Radford, “Climate Needs Africa’s Farmers to Change Fast,” Climate News Network, March 11, 2016.
[xxii] Winnie Byanyima, “The World’s Inequality Countdown,” Common Dreams, January 18, 2016.
[xxiii] United Nations Development Progamme, “What Will It Take to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals?–An International Assessment,” June, 2010, p. 22.
[xxiv] “NNeka: Occupy Nigeria,” October 25, 2012.
[xxv] Alessandro Bruno, “Forecast 2014: Africa,” Geopolitical Monitor, January 19, 2014.
[xxvi] Nicholas Kulish, “Africans Open Fuller Wallets to the Future,” New York Times, July 20, 2014.
[xxvii] Nick Turse, “Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa,” Huffington Post, March 13, 2014.
[xxix] “Causes of Poverty in Africa,” Soci- Economic Forum, May 26, 2015.