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Overpopulation is not Africa's problem

WHEN WE talk about overpopulation, most of us probably think of vast numbers of hungry Africans waiting for food hand-outs. Yet if you fly across Africa, you can look down on virgin bush and forest almost devoid of human habitation. Doze off and wake an hour later, and you are still flying over the same landscape. Africa is an empty continent.

It is all a matter of perception. The UN Conference on Population is being held in Cairo. That is in Africa (though not many Egyptians think of themselves as Africans), and Africa has the fastest growing population in the world. According to current estimates and growth trends there are about 600 million Africans now, and will be about 870 million by the end of the decade and 1,580 million by the year 2025. The Cairo conference is predicated on curbing such growth, but that is not a common aim in Africa. Most people on the continent believe the opposite, that the more people there are the better. And from where they are standing they are probably right. Africa was always a continent with too much land and not enough people. Its social and family structures, endemic slavery and the extended family, were aimed at binding people into a unit. Compare, for example, what European and African traditions do with their daughters. In Europe, fathers paid dowry to their prospective sons-in-law, money to take their dependent daughters off their hands. In Africa it is the opposite. If you take a productive member of the household away in marriage you must pay bride price in compensation.

For several millennia it has been a fundamental precept in Africa that the more children you have the richer you are. In the films of the Hamar people of Ethiopia currently being reshown on BBC2, one woman explains the obvious: if you have boys, they bring you goats and look after the cattle and make beehives and you eat; if you have girls, when they marry, their husbands must bring you cows and goats and beehives, so you eat. Many children equals wealth.

And if you are engaged in long, difficult manual labour for survival, that makes sense. The more people there are in your household the lighter the tasks. In traditional African households, children are mini-adults contributing small jobs to the family effort or looking after babies to free the mothers to cook and wash. It is only when that manual labour is replaced by an income, received by one person, that the system, and the mentality, change. When, for example, a man or woman moves to a town where there is no room for a plot to grow food on, their offspring are completely dependent on them. Only when the family members are consumers not contributors does it make sense to limit the size of the family.

The theory that education would put an end to large families has not worked. Education in itself has not taught people to have fewer children, though school fees, the largest single item in most family budgets in Africa, are a fierce deterrent to having many children. Levels of literacy and numeracy rise impressively but where there is no employment at the end of that education, social customs and the instinct born of tradition to have many children, remain unchanged.

At least the UN has dropped the Seventies idea of bombing the Third World with condoms to cut population. That was just another attempt to impose an idea while failing to change economic and social circumstances, and it foundered on the plain common sense of people concerned solely with survival. If your clothes are rags, your home is a crowded shack, your main concern is food and the only escape is a beer and a girl in a local bar, you are unlikely to be too concerned about population growth. Or as a Ugandan doctor, exasperated by the condom campaign, put it: 'If a man's shirt is torn, you can be sure his condom is torn, too.'

Hunger in Africa today is almost exclusively caused by war. In Somalia, a vast and largely empty country, starvation occurred when the civil war passed through the main agricultural area for two years running and warriors of both sides robbed and stole all the food and seed corn. In Angola both sides have planted mines in the fields to prevent farmers growing their crops and have tried to starve each other out by destroying fields.

Only in Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, has population pressure contributed to war. In the past, Africa's wars caused migration and there was usually empty land over the hill where the defeated could start a new life. But in the fertile hills of Rwanda, Hutu peasant farmers were terrified that the returning Tutsis would take their cramped parcels of land when there was nowhere spare to move to.

But Rwanda is an exception. Angola, for example, has a tiny population and much of its empty land is fertile bush. Mozambique, a country with vast potential, is more than twice the size of Britain but has a population of only 16 million. Well managed, it could feed the whole of Africa on its own. The problem of Africa is not that it has too many people and not enough resources but that the people are poor and the resources are not being used properly.

A German survey conducted in the Thirties suggested that Africa could maintain a population of 2,300 million, well above the 'nightmare' predictions forecast for 2025. This was quoted by Lord Hailey in his mammoth African Survey conducted for the British government and published in 1938. Of greater concern to Lord Hailey and his team was the rate at which the forests were being cut down and bad agricultural polices were destroying the land. He also drew attention to the infant mortality rate of Nyasaland, it was 154.6 per 1,000 live births.

Nyasaland is now Malawi but the infant mortality rate has barely changed. Perhaps when it does, the surviving children - and the forests - will be better cared for and the fear that there are too many people in Africa will become obsolete.

(Photograph omitted)