Write the future with young adults

(John McCann)

(John McCann)

There is a trivia game called Africa Trumps that every African should be aware of. Each card has the name of an African country, the average age of the population, exports and other pertinent details about the country. The data is from the United Nations agencies.

One soon finds out through this game that most of the continent’s population are teenagers.
The 10 youngest populations in the world are all in Africa and the median age for the continent is 19.4 years. (South Africa is slightly older with a median age of 26.)

And yet this demographic is often ignored when political, social and economic decisions are made. Literature is no exception.

Africa is writing and publishing but there seems to be a greater focus on adults and children and too little available for the young adults in the 13 to 19 age group. Indeed, even some of the best literary festivals appear to ignore this demographic but this possibly because too little material is available.

In an attempt to change this the Goethe-Institut last year provided funds for a short story anthology. My literary friends from across the continent got together 17 stories. I have mentioned work on this anthology in a previous column, but I have not talked about the stories themselves, which will be published in Africa by African publishers in English, French and kiSwahili and available continent wide.

Each of the stories captures, in one way or the other, the voice of young adults.

Mauritian writer Sabah Carrim’s Tara’s Hair has a Muslim protagonist who asks poignant questions of her faith after a schoolmate is involved in an accident. In Almost the First Time, Cameroonian writer Raoul Djimeli’s main character is almost an outside observer of the world she inhabits because of a terrible past experience — until she meets a kindred spirit.

In Oubliette, a story by another Cameroonian writer, Howard Meh-Buh, best friends who thought their relationship was solid are torn apart by war. Assumptions make another best friend lose a friend in My Year of Failure by South African writer Shamin Chibba.

From Botswana, a young woman’s eyes are opened to the master-servant relationship between her mother and her domestic employer in Priscillar Matara’s Last Places. The protagonist in Malawian writer Tamanda Kanjaye’s A Change in Sleeping Arrangements must deal with the uncertainties in her family when her parents separate.

An ill thought-out statement by an elder brother destroys the confidence of a young man to the point of suicide in Congolese Merdi Mukore’s Cornee Noire, Iris Blanc. The title story, Water Birds on the Lakeshore, by Ugandan Precious Kemigisha, explores a fantastical future Africa, while Nigerian Chinelo Enemuo’s The Hunter opens up a young Christian to traditional religion and possible superpowers.

These are but half the stories in the anthology but they ably show a cross-section of what can be expected when the book is launched in October in Lagos and made available to shops on the continent.

I couldn’t help but think while going through the stories, that I wish I had such stories when I was growing up. And yet, too, I am glad that I and all those who were and are involved managed, in some small way, to undo this and make some stories available for the majority of our continent’s population. Further, it has been delightful to note that the project inspired Amalion Publishing, based in Dakar, Senegal, to call for stories in English, French and Hausa.

As worthwhile as the project has been, perhaps the saddest thing has been that despite the talent that exists and the need for such a project, the funding for it has not come from Africa. It makes me believe that there is some truth to the assertion that the leaders of this continent do not want a population that questions. For what other reason can there be to ignore the intellectual need of the majority of the population unless it’s perhaps plain ignorance?

If that is the case, perhaps there is a case to be made for leaders in all spheres to play Africa Trumps as part of their team building exercises. It may be an interesting spectacle to see political leaders at the African Union or economic leaders in Stellenbosch do this to centre the people who should matter most.

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