How a small statistic became a story that spanned an entire continent | ET REALITY

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The two-story house in Nairobi, Kenya, that New York Times journalists have been renting since the early 2000s had some notable features when my family moved there three years ago: bananas, guavas and avocados; a thatched, adobe-walled garden cottage built by a former Times reporter; and a small library of books about Africa accumulated over several decades.

I immersed myself. Yellowed reference tomes, like “Africa South of the Sahara: 1996,” recalled a world before Wikipedia. The biographies of the famous collide with those of the forgotten. A handful of admirably obscure works, such as “Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527,” seemed completely intact.

But the most common type of book was one that purported to describe the state of Africa, usually in broad terms, and, even more dangerously, that attempted to predict its future. These books were divided into two categories: in one, the titles alluded to dysfunction and conflict, such as “Africa in Chaos.” In the other, the titles sounded optimistic, almost Panglossian. For example: “Africa rising”.

The discussion topics suggested how difficult, even foolhardy, it was to make broad pronouncements about Africa, a continent that has often challenged self-proclaimed, usually foreign, experts.

It might seem strange, then, that my next big story idea ran the risk of falling into exactly the same trap.

It started with a single fact. In 2022, he learned that the average age in Africa was 19 years old, much lower than on any other continent. The global average age was 30 years; in Europe and North America it was 41; in parts of East Asia, such as Japan, it was as high as 48.

He had a surprising statistic. But how could it be translated into a story?

My first impulse was to focus on 19-year-old Africans from a wide range of countries and circumstances, exploring their lives, fears and dreams as a way to describe the forces reshaping the continent. But that device would have drawbacks. At 19, most of us are still trying to figure out what we want out of life. Young Africans are no different.

I went deeper. By carefully examining the databases published by the Population division from the United Nations (huge spreadsheets dating back to 1950) I found two data points that, at first, seemed uncomfortably close together.

It turned out that while Africa’s median age was the lowest of any continent, it was still rising: in 1989, its median age was 16 years old.

However, Africa’s population was aging at a much slower rate than other regions, largely because the continent had the highest birth rates in the world. Thus, as populations declined in Europe and East Asia, they continued to increase in Africa; in fact, to such an extent that by 2050 Africa is expected to be home to a quarter of the world’s population and a third of people aged between 15 and 15. 24.

It joined a period of astonishing changes that would reshape not only Africa but the world.

It had a story.

Others, like Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute in London, had already detected this trend. In 2021, she published “Youthquake,” a book detailing the rise of youth in Africa. I spoke with him and other experts who were excited and concerned about this momentous change.

At our annual Africa team meeting in Nairobi, other Times reporters shared their thoughts on those changes and how they could contribute to a series of stories.

Still, it would be complicated. She was looking for straws in the wind of a demographic hurricane. But journalists don’t easily resort to the crystal ball. we are more comfortable Use history to inform the present. We are reluctant forecasters.

And demographics, the science that shapes those forecasts, have often been abused or misinterpreted. For decades, Africans have borne the brunt of Western fears about overpopulation. TO Time magazine cover from 1960, titled “The Population Explosion.” It featured a bare-chested African woman holding a child in her arms. In 1994, writer Robert D. Kaplan He predicted that population growth in West Africa would lead to anarchy.

And yet, population forecasts for 2050 were largely reliable, experts say. It would be foolish of me to ignore them. As I traveled across Africa for the next 18 months reporting, I found signs of the youth boom everywhere.

After a coup in Burkina Faso last year, I met a man in his 20s who had spent a decade bouncing from one West African country to another, working odd jobs: in gold mines, on farms, and on shipping ships. fishing. He was the embodiment of a generation that has struggled to find consistent work.

In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, I choked on tear gas as young pro-democracy activists, many of them women, clashed violently with riot police during demonstrations, a sign of the new era of protests led by young Africans frustrated with their old leaders, often autocratic.

And in Kenya I met young people full of ambition and intelligence, many of them running startups, who represented a side of African youth that often doesn’t make the news: a restless energy fueled by aspiration, innovation and a heady sense of of possibility.

Colleagues also found examples. Elian Peltier, The Times’ West Africa reporter, took a taxi with a young rapper in the Ivory Coast. Dionne Searcey, who wrote a book about the lives of women in West Africa, found an inspiring college student in Senegal. Egypt-based Vivian Yee spoke to a student outside a school in Cairo.

Hannah Reyes Morales, a freelance photographer, traveled through five countries searching for young people in college dormitories, fashion shows, religious ceremonies, and even at a horse race. The scenes of joy, hustle and struggle she captured reflect this moment of rapid change.

The result was “Old World, Young Africa,” which was published online last month and in print in a special 40-page section. In the coming weeks, other Times reporters will publish more stories about the surprising effects of Africa’s youth boom.

What it will ultimately bring – boom, doom, or something in between – will likely vary between countries and regions.

As my small library demonstrates, capturing all of Africa in a single book or article is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Is demographics destiny? It depends who you ask.

However, few doubt that epoch-defining changes are underway on the continent, and our goal is to follow the biggest changes, one at a time.

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