Relentless Trends

Alright, let’s get the new year started with a nice bit of controversy. In three parts. Today: part one. Triggered by a story in the press a few days ago.


This week, the national agency for statistics and demographics (ANSD in French) issued a report with the latest demographic trends. They contain nothing new yet another illustration of how things may well turn out in the near future.

Senegal, says the ANSD, is young and going urban. There are around 12 million people in the country, between 2.5 and 3 million have converged on the capital Dakar and its suburbs. At independence in 1960 that figure was 300,000. So in the space of barely two generations, Dakar has grown around tenfold.

Somewhere between now and 2013, the urban population in Senegal will reach 50%. And here’s another 50% for you: half of all Senegalese are under 20 years of age. The picture is repeated all over the continent.

A few years ago I interviewed the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn. He has spent his academic life studying genocides: why they occur and how. Heinsohn told me that if you live in a society where 30 to 40 percent of men are between 15 and 29 years old – you live in a society heading for trouble. He called it: the youth bulge. I am no statistician but from the ANSD figures it would appear that Senegal (and indeed pretty much all of Africa) fits the bill.

photo: Human Rights Watch

What you see here is an ongoing scandal all over Senegal, recently highlighted once again by Human Rights Watch but (and this is more important) increasingly seen in Senegal itself for what it is: brutal child exploitation. You can actually argue that this is a precursor to what awaits young men once they join that 15-29 age group. Society’s message to them is dead simple: you’re on your own.

Yes, Heinsohn says, this does indeed apply almost exclusively to men. A society can always put women to use in the home – or in someone else’s home. For men, this option does not apply. ‘He will never become the kindly elder uncle without children in the house of his birth,’ Heinsohn argues. ‘He must go.’

In other words: these young men are surplus to requirement. If they don’t work they are unproductive and a waste of resources. If they fail to get work, everyone wants to get rid of them: family, clan, society.

Photo: Ligue des Droits de l'Homme

And off they go. Departure is one of the few options available to young men who are not wanted. Sounds cruel? For centuries, Europe did exactly the same. Half a millennium ago, the Bubonic Plague wiped out 60% of the population there. The authorities of the day (read: the Roman Catholic Church) began a merciless repopulation campaign, banning anti-conception, killing tens of thousands of midwives (they were suddenly “witches”) and the resultant excess male offspring, quickly found out that they were needed elsewhere.

Spanish pirate by the name of Cortez lands somewhere in Latin America

How did the Spanish call their armies that conquered Latin America? Secundones, the second sons (or indeed the third, fourth, etc…) This thing went on for centuries. The decline of the Roman Catholic Church, the Industrial Revolution and two massive world wars put an end to it. In Europe, the youth bulge is history. That’s why a young man’s death (in war) has suddenly become a tragedy. Most societies have a young male surplus, which is disposable. They do build empires, though…

More to come on this fascinating topic – tomorrow…

Tags: , , ,

7 Responses to “Relentless Trends”

  1. Carolien Cleiren Says:

    This is so interesting Bram, mind you we in the west had a youth bulb after the 2nd world war, here it was called the baby boom. People just turned into hippies and tried to live with minimum resources

    • bramposthumus Says:

      Yes, it is fascinating. I think what made the baby boom unique was that it came on the back of a buildup of wealth never seen before. Which then created its own problems…Watch out for part 2 of this tomorrow…

  2. Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs « Bram Posthumus – Yoff Tales Says:

    […] Bram Posthumus – Yoff Tales from my street in Yoff, Dakar, Senegal and far beyond…. « Relentless Trends […]

  3. Relentless Trends – 4 (some more brief thoughts) « Bram Posthumus – Yoff Tales Says:

    […] would the observer of demographic trends I cited in a previous post have to say about this? In spite of Gunnar Heinsohn’s statement that […]

  4. Inga Molzen Says:

    Great to have your blog on local events and forthcoming ones. See you in December in Yoff!

  5. Les Coxeurs | Bram Posthumus - Yoff Tales Says:

    […] Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them. […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: