Young motorcycle taxi drivers waiting for customers. Many of these motorcycles are imported from China. See below.
Announcement: Parfaite Ntahuba, the Coordinator the Friends Women’s Association’s Itaseka Clinic in Kamenge, Bujumbura, Burundi, will be on a speaking tour of the United States from September 19 through October 25. For details on their work with HIV+ people, gender based violence, rape survivors, family planning, and trauma healing/peacemaking, see their webpage at http://www.fwaburundi.com/. If you are interested in arranging for her presentation, please contact me at email@example.com and/or Parfaite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the major differences between living in Kenya versus the United States is the youthfulness of the Kenyan population compared to that in the US. First I will give some statistics to illustrate the overall context and then how this impacts the situation in Kenya and our daily lives.
Let me illustrate the extremes of a youthful country versus an aging country: Burundi and Japan. Burundi has one of the highest birth rates in the world so that the median age – that where half of the people are younger and half the people are older – is only 17 years old. This means half the people in the country are children. Above is the population pyramid for Burundi. (All data is taken from the CIA’s World Factbook.) As you can see, each five year age cohort is progressively larger than the ones before it. This is the classic pyramid shape for rapid, substantial population increase. In particular note the 65 to 69 age group – this would be the grandparent generation. By my crude measurement, there are about thirteen 0 to 4 year old for every 65 to 69 year old.
The other extreme, illustrating the aging society, is Japan which has a median age of 46.9 years. Here the 65 to 69 age group which includes the Japanese post-war baby boom had more people than any other age group since that time. The “pyramid” is more like an irregular rectangle than a pyramid. I estimate that there are almost two 65 to 69 year grandparents for each grandchild.
The United States is not quite as “aged” as Japan, but moving in that direction. The median age is 37.9 years. Here the 65 to 69 grandparent age group has a little more than one grandchild per 0 to 5 year old grandchild. Note the more or less rectangular shape which illustrates that the native born population will not be increasing in the future – current US population increase is fed mostly by immigration which the Trump administration is trying to curtail.
This brings us to Kenya which has a median age of 19.5 years – two and a half years greater than Burundi, but about half the rate in the United States. Note here that the bottom three age groups are not increasing while those above are much more like the Burundi pyarmid. Here there are about eleven 0 to 4 year old grandchildren per 65 to 69 year old grandparent.
In Kenya, “youth” who are 18 to 35 years old are what are called in the US “young adults.” Gladys and I are impacted by this youthfulness. Gladys has five sisters who have given us a total of 23 nephews and nieces – an average of 4.6 children each, the norm in Kenya for the years these children were born. They range in age from fourteen years old to their mid-forties. Most of these nephews and nieces visit us. We have helped three through college, a number through secondary school, and others for special courses. Now we are taking care of two of their children. On the other hand when we need some kind of help we can almost always find one of these to pitch in. For example when a visitor left his passport behind, we had one of our nephews take it to him in Nakuru. Aging church attendance in Kenya is not the problem it is in the US as half of the 100 people attending Lumakanda Friends Church on a given Sunday are youth. Another 60 to 80 children attend Sunday school.
The problem is that there are many more youth than there are activities – schooling, jobs, and so on – for them. One major occupation for young men is being a motorcycle taxi driver. There is at least half a million of them or almost 1% of total population and 5% of the young males. A motorcycle taxi driver does not own the motorcycle but rents it for $3 per day and adds fuel costing perhaps $2 more per day. Therefore the first $5 is overhead and any profit for the day is what the driver can make above this. On an average day I estimate that they can earn a few dollars and on a very good day $10 or more. Most of these drivers have had at least a secondary school education. This occupation, of course, has no future and is no more than a daily wage. Nonetheless these are “good” positions. Others work day labor in construction, farm work, washing clothes by hand, and other physically demanding work. Most youth, both male and female, therefore are quite strong, lean, and physically fit.
The surplus of youth keeps wages very low since there are always many unemployed youth willing to work. I have calculated that in the countryside it is cheaper to hire young men to mix cement with sand and water by hand with a shovel to make concrete than to pay for just the fuel for a concrete mixer. I have seen up to 100 youth laying the cement floor for a two story building. Women can be seen daily washing clothes by hand. It seems like science fiction to me when I read that robots are going to take over many occupations in the United States as in Kenya washing machines and concrete mixers would be great labor saving devices.
For our peacemaking work in the region, this unemployment and underemployment is one reason we have so many facilitators on call who can come as needed and who are willing to work for the equivalent of $10 per day. In addition this means that there are more than enough people available for a three day workshop and are willing to come solely for the education plus the tea break and lunch provided. We have learned that we have to cancel workshops during planting time when all hands are on deck for this work.
Nonetheless there is a very negative side. The large number of marginally employed young men leads to substantial violence. This runs from minor theft to gang violence. During election time such as now large numbers of these youth attend political rallies, sometimes in the “employ” of a particular candidate who gives them “a little something” for attending. Often this leads to rioting and violence and sometimes to death of demonstrators. It is intimidating when a candidate’s parade goes through town with many motorcycle taxi drivers honking their horns and hundreds of youth marching along waving branches and singing slogans – I have experienced this myself, moving to the side of the road until the candidate and supporters pass. These youth, then, are also the ones available for mischief in the time of clashes such as during the 2008 Kenya post-election violence.
China, South Korea, and other Asian countries were able to use their past youth population bulge to industrialize and raise their standards of living and thus absorbing their youth in productive enterprises. This has not happened in East Africa. These idle youth are one of the major contributing factors to the violence, insecurity, civil wars, rebel groups, and election violence that is currently endemic in the region.
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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.
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