Education systems struggle to tackle and teach booming African population

Mon, Oct 31, 2011, 00:00

ON THE wall of Heliu dispensary in northern Kenya, the numbers get bigger by the year. A chart mapping population growth in the area says there were 4,500 people here in 1999. Now there are 8,309. The acute malnutrition rate was 12.3 per cent in children under the age of five before the current food crisis hit.

In neighbouring Marsabit and northwest Wajir, malnutrition rates are at 27 per cent, almost double the rate that constitutes an emergency.

“Having too many children is one of the main reasons behind malnutrition,” says Paris Kagendo, the local nurse for the area.

“But even if you don’t have enough food, you must have children here. That was okay when there was enough, but many do not farm so rely on relief food. All the cattle have died and people are very poor.”

Families in Heliu, a rural district outside the border town of Moyale in northern Kenya, have nine or 10 children according to local health workers.

Due to a succession of droughts in recent years, many families are unable to feed the children, meaning they have to turn to aid agencies for assistance.

As the world’s population hits seven billion, countries in Africa are struggling to deal with the consequences of population growth. At conservative estimates, Kenya’s population will hit 85 million by 2050 from 41 million today, putting pressure on everything from schools to health services as the country’s social system struggles to cope.

“We are adding one million people a year and it is choking the economy,” says Dr Boniface Omuga K’Oyugi, director general of Kenya’s National Co-ordinating Agency for Population and Development.

“When 43 per cent of the population are aged 15 years or less, it means we are consuming more and spending less, which leads to high unemployment rates among young people. They become dependent on their families which, by association, have low nutritional levels.”

Kenya began tackling high population growth rates in the 1980s when the average woman had 8.1 children. That number now stands at 4.6, off the government’s target of 2.5. However in neighbouring Uganda the figure remains high – on average a woman has seven children in her lifetime.

By 2050, Uganda’s population will have more than doubled from 32.4 million to over 80 million, according to a recent joint report from the country’s National Planning Authority (NPA) and the World Bank.

Prime minister of Uganda Amama Mbabazi says these added millions “should be regarded a crucial resource that can be harnessed for national development.”

However, like elsewhere in Africa, “the economy and the government have to expand jobs, schools and infrastructure at a very rapid rate just to stay even,” according to John Bongaarts, a demographer and vice president of the Population Council in New York.

At St Bernadette’s primary school near Jinja in the east of the Uganda, Sr Lucy Kabagweri looks proudly at the new school building erected this year. “We started building two floors, but the population was growing so fast that we had to add another,” says the Sacred Heart nun.

Money from the Irish organisation Misean Cara financed the new building, turning the school into one of the most popular in the area, and the most successful in the district.

But teachers like Catherine Naanyonjo still struggle to teach, in her case, 62 pupils.

“They’re difficult to control,” she says, taking a break from a maths class, where desks usually seat three children.

“Once you walk to one side of the room the other one starts talking. You really do get tired trying to manage them,” she says.

According to critics, the introduction of universal primary education in Uganda in 1997 did not lead to an equal investment in the schools system.

Of St Bernadette’s 22 teachers, eight are paid by the government. The others are financed by contributions from parents, most of whom are too poor to feed their children. Among the 905 pupils, only about 50 receive a solid lunch of rice and beans every day. The others get maize porridge which the school provides for

free.

“Ninety-six per cent of children who should be in school are in school,” says an education adviser with a diplomatic mission in Kampala, up from 85 per cent in 2000. “[But] the quality of education is not good, morale of teachers is low and materials for children scarce meaning there is a low completion rate (60 per cent).”

Uganda is looking at ways to reduce its population, which it calculates should lead to a respective rise in per capita incomes. But finding ways to do that is proving difficult.

“When the only people who are going to protect you when you get older are your children, how can you lecture them that they shouldn’t have more babies,” asks John O’Shea of Goal.

“The welfare systems we take for granted in the West aren’t available in Africa, meaning parents have to look to their children for support. It’s not just a matter of giving out the pill.”

Governments such as Uganda’s are now looking at putting more girls in school, as they say there is a direct correlation between rising literacy rates in women and the number of children they have.

Already, the birth rate among highly-educated Ugandan women is 3.9 against 7.8 for those with a low education.

Family planning is also crucial. “Two hundred and fifteen million women in the world say they want to plan families but have no access to family planning services,” says Lester Brown, an environmental analyst who heads the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. “They represent one billion or so people and are for most part the poorest.

“Helping them to plan wouldn’t stabilise population growth, but would bring it down to a very low level,” he says. But convincing people to have fewer families is easier said than done says Abdi Galgalo, a community health worker in Heliu.

Women can avail of the contraceptive pill for free, he says. But although many do, they don’t tell their husbands.

“Some women don’t bring any evidence home with them that they have had a contraceptive injection or are taking the pill.

“They don’t want their men to know, as they take pride in having more children. “Even if they have 10, maybe only one will go to school.”