In truly speaking about life in Tanzania, East Africa, many things jump obviously to one’s mind after the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro — namely poverty, food insecurity and likely the element of corruption. However, one thing largely not discussed is the actual composition of the nation’s citizens.
Contrary to my experience as a Canadian in which the average age of a person is over 40 and 16 per cent of population is under the age of 15, Tanzanians are almost shockingly and universally young.
More than 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 with an average age of barely 18 among the nation’s 44 million inhabitants. Given the considerations to the sheer number of youth in Tanzania, life here at times can be akin to living in a high school where there aren’t enough desks and books, the teachers are almost invisible in the crowd and full attendance would mean that bodies start popping out the school house windows.
While there are concerns in Canada as how best to contend with an aging population that is to be supported by a shrinking workforce, there is the underlying reality for youth that job opportunities will eventually increase as one’s elders enter retirement. In this manner, my experience as a Canadian throughout my maturing years has always been one underlined by a reasonable degree of peace and assurance. At some point and time, opportunity has no choice but to open.
However, in a society such as Tanzania wherein age demographics are the polar opposite of those in Canada, there is a palpable undercurrent of anxiety among the majority of the nation’s young citizens. The context for youth here is one that affords little comfort in concepts of transitioning into the job market via retirement in the workforce. The reality is that even if all of the employed workforce of the nation were to leave their jobs today, the freshly available jobs would still be insufficient to fully absorb (or even make a dent) in to the current numbers of the standing idle youth labour force.
In this manner, Tanzanian youth are confronted with an enormous challenge. Entering adulthood is not so much about waiting for one’s position to come up in a natural progression of adulthood. It is one that presents the very real possibility that despite one’s best efforts in education and intention, opportunity may never truly arrive. What this amounts to in terms of the overall cultural undercurrent in the country is an odd mixture of vibrant and hopeful exuberance interspersed with high degrees of uncertainty and unrealistic expectations.
Over the course of the past several years when I have had the pleasure of hosting guests from abroad, the youth question is one that always arises in the form of a single inquiry, "Why do Tanzanians have so many babies?"
Every guest I have ever hosted comes to the same conclusion regarding youth, poverty and food security (i.e. have smaller families); however, each visitor is equally baffled that the logic is lost and nearly impossible to communicate among the majority of everyday Tanzanians.
One of the easiest assumptions to make from a far of Tanzania is that there is no such thing as family planning. Yet in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a reason that people have larger families, particularly in rural communities, and it is not just because everyone loves babies (which they do). Having a larger family is viewed as a one of the sole means of ensuring family security in both the short and long term.
In a nation wherein a single pair of hands may be able to reap harvest enough to put food on the table, it will undoubtedly take several more to realize a bounty large enough for portions to get to market; among aging citizens confronting the reality that pensions will likely never arrive and that nursing homes do not exist, one’s family is the only safety net available. The answer to addressing both instances is always to have more children. There is no other way more affordable or faster to bring greater food and money to the homestead and there is no else that will be able to look after you when you’re old and grey.
Although the saying is tried and true the world over, in Tanzania family really is the only thing truly worth counting on.
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 21, 2013