KANO, Nigeria — The boy stepped into the grubby street, looking both ways for traffic. He was wearing the clothes he wore yesterday and seemingly all the days before: a pair of too-big cotton pants and a black shirt so tattered that it seemed ready to fall off his body. His bony shoulders peeked through the holes where the sleeves once were stitched.
At an intersection, the 10-year-old beggar weaved between idling cars, his feet clapping the asphalt in mismatched flip-flops, one yellow, one red. He held out a plastic bowl and tried to lock eyes with the people behind the smudged car windows, hoping for a flash of sympathy, a rolled-down window, an outstretched arm proffering a crumpled bill.
Until a year ago, Ghaddafi Auwalu lived with his family on their small plot outside this fast-growing city in northern Nigeria. His parents sent him away, Ghaddafi said, for reasons that might be difficult for faraway people to understand: They had too many children, and they couldn’t afford to look after him.
“I’m less of a burden to my mom if I am here,” said the polite boy, the 11th child in a family of 12, not unusually large for this part of West Africa. “Now she’ll have more time for my sisters and brothers.”
Although it’s frequently portrayed as a continent decimated by epidemics, starvation and war, Africa is gripped by one of the greatest population explosions ever recorded. Over the past 60 years, while birth rates in the rest of the developing world declined by half, Africa’s population quadrupled to 1 billion, an epic baby boom that threatens to trap a generation of children in poverty and strangle economic progress across the world’s neediest continent.
Driven largely by low rates of contraception use and social pressures to have big families, sub-Saharan African women bear 5.3 children each on average, compared with 2.1 in the United States. The continent is producing a child every second, and by 2050 its population will reach 2 billion, projects the Population Reference Bureau, a demographic research center in Washington.
Nearly half of Africa’s people are 15 or younger, a youth bulge that will struggle to find jobs and support its own children, and perhaps condemn the continent to more disillusionment and violence.
In the sprawling slums of tin and mud that snake through Nairobi, the booming capital of Kenya, families of six, eight, even 10 or more children survive on one simple meal a day as jobless parents struggle to keep up with creeping food prices. Many days, they don’t eat at all.
In war-torn Somalia and Congo, which are among the fastest-growing countries in the world, millions of children are being raised in refugee camps or makeshift shelters fashioned from cloth and sticks. Schools are poor or nonexistent, and chores as simple as fetching firewood can be death sentences.
In Mozambique, a nation at peace but blighted by poverty, teenage girls are pressed into marriage, a practice that eases the burden on their large families but cuts short their education and shoves them into motherhood before they’re ready.
In parts of West Africa, overwhelmed parents are sending young boys such as Ghaddafi to fend for themselves in hostile cities. Under the guise of an Islamic education, teachers are forcing these boys to beg for their survival, a modern-day Oliver Twist story played out by the tens of thousands in the bustling streets and sinister back alleys of places such as Kano.
“It’s a sign of the disintegration of the social fabric and the huge pressure on families,” said John F. May, the World Bank’s lead population researcher for Africa.
“People are making choices they don’t want to make. It will lead to a lot of nasty things.”
No one knows what the future holds for all these new Africans.
What’s clear is that “this is the area of the world that, it’s fair to say, can least afford ... a population explosion,” said Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.
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By 2050, Nigeria is expected to vault past Bangladesh and Brazil to become the world’s sixth-most-populous nation.
In dust-choked Kano, the largest city in the predominantly Muslim north, children are everywhere. In the afternoons, following the midday Islamic prayer, they surge in the hundreds from dun-colored mosques and collect like droplets in dirt parking lots, the only adults around those who emerge from offices and storefronts to shoo them away.
The average woman here has seven children, according to national statistics. Among the Hausa, the main ethnic group, a cold-eyed reckoning of the burden that too many offspring can create hasn’t overpowered the traditional belief that children represent wealth — and a safety net for parents in old age.
“If you’re poor, the idea of having a small family doesn’t even arise,” said Adamu Kiyawa, who runs a nonprofit group for street kids.
Late one sticky afternoon, with the sun finally releasing its grip on the sky, scores of children gathered in the concrete yard of a local businessman’s charity, many of them clutching begging bowls of brightly colored plastic. They came for handouts of rice and a thick millet porridge from a local charity. For most of them, it was the only meal of the day.
The boys jostled for position, and amid the squealing ruckus stood Ghaddafi, wordlessly listing forward and back with the crowd. His arms were glazed with dust, his eyes fixed on the men in prayer caps doling out rice in palm-sized plastic bags.
In three hours of begging that day, he collected 30 naira, about 20 cents. He kept one hand in his pocket, cupped around the coins.
“I miss my parents,” he said.
Ghaddafi grew up a few miles away, down the pocked ribbon of asphalt that leads north out of Kano, on a plot of mud-walled huts half-shaded by a large acacia tree.
His father, who repairs motorcycle tires by the roadside, had three wives. Ghaddafi spent his days sweeping the huts, and his nights on the hard earth alongside his siblings, curled up on a thin sheet that got damp when it rained.
There was no money to send the children to school. The women tended to a meager farm, planting beans, groundnuts and millet and praying for rains that had become increasingly erratic.
Some weeks, Ghaddafi recalled, they had only a cup of weak tea in the mornings and a handful of bland, gummy porridge before bed.
One day about a year ago, Ghaddafi’s father introduced him to a gentle-looking man in his 70s with wispy gray hairs on his chin. Husseini Adamu was the teacher at an Islamic school in Kano, and he’d come to take some village boys as students.
“How would you like to join them?” Ghaddafi’s father asked.
“I never went to school before,” the boy recalled. “I wanted to be with my friends.”
For centuries in West Africa, boys as young as 7 have been sent away to school. The young pupils are known as “almajiri,” from an Arabic word that means seeker of Islamic knowledge.
Critics say the teachers are little more than agents of destitution.
Customarily unpaid, they live off their students, fanning boys out to beg for alms or work as servants in middle-class homes. In Kano, tens of thousands of children, wearing grimy clothes and hungry faces, huddle at street corners and clog intersections, begging for their educations.
Kano government officials said there was little they could do to curb the practice, which was rooted in local traditions and supported by parents such as Ghaddafi’s.
“When children go begging, they learn discipline,” said Ghaddafi’s father, Auwalu Mohammed, a slight man with watery eyes and palms coated with tire grease.
“When you allow a child to fend for himself at that age, he learns to be on his own. He won’t be a daddy’s boy or stuck to his mother’s apron. He won’t be lazy, or self-indulgent, or wayward.”
Certainly not lazy.
Ghaddafi’s days start before dawn, when he wriggles awake amid dozens of boys sleeping shoulder to shoulder under a tin roof outside Adamu’s dilapidated brick schoolhouse. After the morning prayer, the boys sit for a few hours of lessons. There’s no math, science or composition, just Adamu, the stooped old teacher, reading aloud long passages from the Quran with the boys’ unruly recitations echoing through the dirt alleyways.
“I am not a wealthy man,” Adamu said. “I have 250 students, and the parents don’t give me anything. I’m just doing the work of God.”
At midmorning, the boys head into the streets.
Ghaddafi worked alone, kicking the dirt listlessly when an hour passed with no money, then lighting up when a middle-aged driver in dark sunglasses dropped a few coins into his bowl.
Ghaddafi gave the coins to Adamu’s wife. In a few months he’ll ask for bus fare back to his village, where he’ll stand outside his father’s hut and show him what he’s learned.
“He’s an intelligent boy,” the father said, suddenly filled with pride. “He comes home and recites from the Quran perfectly. When I look at how he’s doing, I’m impressed.”
Many experts fear that Africa’s endemic corruption and mismanagement will prevent it from realizing what’s called the “demographic dividend,” the economic surge that Asian countries, for example, enjoyed in the late 20th century when more of their people came of working age.
Graft and political violence batter Nigeria, the United States’ fifth-largest oil supplier. Nuhu Ribadu, a respected former anti-corruption czar, estimates that from 1960 to 1999, Nigerian officials stole or wasted $440 billion in public money.
Today the government spends just 3 percent of its oil-drenched budget on education and 1 percent on health, among the lowest rates in the world, according to United Nations statistics.
In Kano, some public school classrooms accommodate more than 150 students, four times as many as they did 30 years ago, said Yusuf Adamu, a demographics expert at Bayero University in Kano.
“It’s simply because we don’t plan,” he said. “We have a huge increase in people who could be economically productive, but because the state doesn’t provide adequate health care and education, the only likely outcome is more poverty.”
Indeed, if you were Ghaddafi, what’s the best you could hope for?
The most successful almajiri graduates, Ghaddafi said, save enough money to open street-corner kiosks at which they hawk cheap goods such as soap, chewing gum and telephone calling cards. Other young boys sometimes get work cleaning houses or washing cars.
Lately he’s been weighing whether to take a job as a houseboy for a middle-class family in Kano. It would mean missing lessons, and perhaps dropping out of school, but he could get off the streets for a while.
“Anyway,” he reasoned, “the teacher has too many students. He would never come looking for me.”