• Countries with high proportions of young people are more likely to experience conflict
• Young men (and increasingly women) without education, jobs or opportunities get restless and can be easily exploited.
I had a video chat with a good friend a few days ago—how else can we see our friends while so many us are self isolating in line with government direction?
He had clearly taken the time to arrange his background – a bookcase filled with serious looking tomes, family photos (lots of children) arranged strategically on the top shelf.
Inevitably we discussed the end of the pandemic, whenever that may be. My friend, a successful businessman in the retail sector, joked that he was looking for shop space to sell baby clothes. He is thinking about little T-shirts that say, ‘Corona Baby’.
“You and I both know what is going to happen when husbands and wives are at home for so long!” he laughed. I laughed at the time but the joke became less funny the more I thought about it.
Is Kenya short of people? Certainly not. In fact, we are having fewer children than we did before – from an average of just under five children per mother in 2004, the figure is now just under four. That means 20 per cent more of everything for everyone – healthcare, education, job opportunities.
In the home it means more food to go around, more parent time for each child and more time for the parents themselves to pursue their careers and to build their future together with. But the global average is lower still—2.5 children per mother. The Kenyan population continues to rise at a rate of 2.6 per cent per year, which means our population will double every 25 years, especially as we all live longer.
But while the older generation lives longer, the vast majority of Kenyans, 70 per cent, are under 30. Herein lies a potential problem.
Countries with high proportions of young people are more likely to experience conflict: Young men (and increasingly women) without education, jobs or opportunities get restless and can be easily exploited. But having so many young people also offers Kenya a massive opportunity if that self same restlessness is channelled into constructive, not destructive activities.
A young, educated, healthy population that is working effectively can have a dramatic effect on a country’s economy (look at any of the Asian countries whose economies boomed in the 70s, 80s and 90s). Kenya could see an increase of 10 per cent or more in its annual GDP if our workforce was structured better.
How do we do that? Not by copying Maoist China’s one child policy in the 1970s and enforcing a reduction in the number of children we have. We do not need to nor would we want to, because our children and our families are at the heart of our identities and represent a gift from God. We just need to be a bit smarter about how, or should I say, when, we have our children.
The solution is twofold: It is about timing and about spacing. Firstly, Kenyan women frequently have their children too young. In the short term, having children in the early teenage years forces girls to drop out of school, damages the girl physically and increases the risk to the child.
In the longer term those women could have been educated (better for the young woman and her children) and had careers (better for the family and the economy). But teenage pregnancies do not just happen out of the blue. Kenyan men need to let Kenyan women have their children later – and their teenage years now.
Secondly, I write at a time when we are told we must space out to control the spread of the Covid-19 distance, ‘social distancing’ as it is known. Spacing out births is equally important. If a mother has her children with less than 18 months between births there is a higher chance of premature birth, low birth weight and death.
Having more children more frequently means higher rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality and long-term disability for mother (whose body is simply worn out). A two year gap between babies means a two thirds drop in all of those risks.
We didn’t get to choose the timing of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we do get to choose when we bring a new life into the world. Just as we are spacing out in the supermarket or restaurant, so we must space out our offspring.
It will pay dividends for our children, their parents and the country as a whole.
Waweru Njoroge is a media and marketing practitioner