Thursday, February 22, 2024

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 in three years ago: banana, guava and avocado trees; a thatched, mud-walled hut in the garden, built by a previous Times reporter; and a small library of books about Africa amassed over several decades.

I dived in. Yellowing reference tomes, like “Africa South of the Sahara: 1996,” recalled a world before Wikipedia. Biographies of the famous jostled with those of the forgotten. A handful of admirably obscure works, like “Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527,” appeared entirely untouched.

But the most common kind of book was one that purported to describe the state of Africa, usually in sweeping terms — and, even more perilously, that tried to predict its future. These books fell into two categories: In one, titles alluded to dysfunction and conflict, like “Africa in Chaos.” In the other, titles sounded optimistic, almost Panglossian. For example: “Africa Rising.”

The sparring themes suggested how difficult, even foolhardy, it was to make broad pronouncements about Africa, a continent that has frequently defied the self-declared experts, usually foreigners.

It might seem odd, then, that my next big story idea risked falling into exactly the same trap.

It started with a single fact. In 2022, I learned that the median age in Africa was 19 — far lower than on every other continent. The global median age was 30; in Europe and North America it was 41; in parts of East Asia, like Japan, it was as high as 48.

I had a striking statistic. But how could it translate 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 from life. Young Africans are no different.

I delved deeper. Poring over databases published by the Population Division of the United Nations — huge spreadsheets stretching back to 1950 — I found two data points that, at first, seemed to sit together uncomfortably.

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

Yet Africa’s population was aging at a far slower rate than other regions’, largely because the continent had the world’s highest birthrates. So as populations shrank in Europe and East Asia, they continued to soar in Africa — so much so, in fact, that by 2050 Africa is expected to be home to one-quarter of the global population and one-third of people aged 15 to 24.

It added up to a period of staggering change that would reshape not only Africa but the world.

I had a story.

Others, like Edward Paice, the director of the Africa Research Institute in London, had already spotted this trend. In 2021, he published “Youthquake,” a book that details Africa’s youth surge. I spoke to him and other experts who were both excited and worried about this momentous shift.

At our annual Africa team meeting in Nairobi, other Times reporters shared their ideas about those changes and how they might make for a series of stories.

Still, it would be tricky. I was searching for straws in the wind of a demographic hurricane. But journalists do not turn easily to the crystal ball. We are more comfortable using history to inform the present. We are reluctant forecasters.

And demography, the science that shapes those forecasts, has often been abused or misunderstood. For decades, Africans have borne the brunt of Western fears about overpopulation. A Time magazine cover from 1960, titled “The Population Explosion,” prominently featured a bare-breasted African woman clutching a child. In 1994, the writer Robert D. Kaplan predicted that surging populations in West Africa would lead to anarchy.

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

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

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

And in Kenya, I met young people fizzing with ambition and smarts, many of them running start-ups, who represented a side of young Africa that often fails to make the news: a restless energy fueled by aspiration, innovation and a heady sense of possibility.

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

Hannah Reyes Morales, a freelance photographer, traveled across five countries, seeking out young people in college dorms, at fashion shows, at religious ceremonies and even at a horse race. The scenes of joy, hustle and strife that she captured reflect this heart-racing moment of change.

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

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

As my little library demonstrates, capturing all of Africa in one book or article is a hard if not impossible task. Is demography destiny? It depends whom you ask.

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

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