The 19-year-olds who will shape Africa’s future
As a 12-year-old boy growing up in the slums of Kampala, to get money for internet time Stanley Ollo used to sell scrap metal or break stones in the local quarry. “I used to go to the internet café, I listened to Eminem, I googled who is this Eminem. The next day I had information,” he says of his hunt for digital street cred.
Armed with knowledge — in this case that the American rapper had recorded a song with someone called Rihanna — he felt ready to face his peers. “So, once they started talking about Eminem, I had data,” he says, talking at breakneck speed during a gap in the radio programme he now hosts. “That’s how I kept on progressing. That’s how I became the cool guy around here who was hustling.”
The day I meet Ollo, in a park in Kampala, Uganda’s lush green, fume-enveloped capital, he is dressed in a silent disco T-shirt with tight canary yellow trousers. Now a 19-year-old television and radio presenter brimming with self-confidence, these days he uses the internet for more serious research.
Styling himself a youth motivator and social activist — he runs a programme called “Ollo Experience Uganda” with campaigns such as the “Ollo Green Teen Experience” — he scours the web for the latest information on reusable sanitary pads, entrepreneurship and climate change.
“I am too much on the internet,” he says with a wide grin, clutching his iPhone 6-plus. “And I see a lot of things.”
The median age in Africa, the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, is 19.4. That is about half the equivalent in Europe. The generation born at the turn of the century has approached adulthood in a world transformed by technology and in a continent that, for all its deep-rooted problems and daily tragedies, is not predominantly the Africa of wars and famines that has such a hold on the western imagination.
These days coups are almost as rare as the Nubian giraffe (sadly near extinction) and you can criss-cross the continent — immigration officials permitting — without ever leaving a Chinese road. Most African economies are not growing nearly fast enough to lift their majorities out of poverty. But a few have mustered almost Asian-miracle speeds of economic lift-off.
Villages are dotted with solar panels, meaning most people live within reasonable access of a mobile-charging station. Internet access, though expensive, is increasingly the norm — especially in cities, where more than four in 10 Africans live. Smartphones, some assembled in Africa, are suddenly ubiquitous.
Connectivity and the sniff of progress collides with the reality, for many, of grinding poverty and chronic unemployment. While previous generations looked back nostalgically to the liberation heroes who freed them from colonialism, today’s young people are discontent with their crop of mostly geriatric leaders. This year, youth and professionals — particularly women — led a revolution in Sudan, ousting 75-year-old Omar al-Bashir, who for 30 years had run a nasty dictatorship held together by a joyless form of Islam.
In Kampala, where I interviewed three 19-year-olds for this piece, the politician of choice is no longer the septuagenarian Yoweri Museveni. Rather, it is Bobi Wine, a 37-year-old red-beret-wearing, fist-pumping reggae star who is gearing up for a challenge on the presidency.
The cities of this new generation are expanding ever outwards, like water on blotting paper. Most are chaotic, thick with building-site dust and thin on public services. Though they contain increasing numbers of what management consultants call a “consuming middle class”, in reality many urbanites scrape a living in slums or on the city periphery. There — fetching water and even tending animals — life may not be so different from that in the villages their parents and grandparents left behind.
Daphine Atugonza, a fashion-conscious kindergarten teacher from what she calls a Kampala “ghetto”, is a case in point. She lives with her family in a couple of cramped rooms partitioned with hanging blankets, down a muddy alleyway strewn with litter. There are buckets of washing outside and toddlers scampering around in plastic flip flops. The house has sporadic electricity but no running water. “We have to go out and fetch water in a jerry can,” she says. Her family shares an outside toilet and shower with numerous neighbours, a reality she acknowledges with a shrug.
Like many her age, Atugonza is caught between the receding village life of older generations and the promise of a more prosperous urban existence that has not yet materialised. An amateur rap singer and one-time Miss Teen with so-far thwarted ambitions to study hotel management, her attitudes reflect this transition. While she thinks it is appropriate to kneel before her elders — and even her boyfriend — as a sign of respect, she is unhappy with the current state of male-female relations.
“I don’t want to depend on a man all my life,” she says, adding that she wants a proper job — unlike her mother who used to work as a seamstress but now, in her phrase, “sits down and cooks”.
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“I don’t want to depend on a man because most guys here in Uganda don’t value their ladies,” she says, sat on one of the small benches designed for her kindergarten-sized charges. “Women are taken as nothing in my country. You can see a woman struggle. She has four kids. The man runs away. She puts food on the table and then he comes back after five years and wants to take over the household.
“I want to be independent. I want to have my money. So, if I want to bleach my hair,” she says, “I can simply reach into my own wallet.”
Nor does she approve of her father’s having two wives, the second of whom is not much older than Atugonza herself. “It kind of tortured me mentally. I was like, why are African guys so polygamous,” she says, acknowledging that at least hers always ensured his children could attend school.
When Atugonza finds a reliable man — she briefly used the Afrointroductions dating app with this in mind — she would like four or five children. That is fewer than her parents, but still high by international standards. In some cities, such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, women have on average fewer than two children, but in others the birth rate has confounded demographers by remaining high.
As a result, Africa’s population will double to more than 2bn by 2050 as today’s 19-year-olds have families of their own. In some countries, two-thirds of the population is under 25.
Atugonza is not blasé about the resulting economic challenges. “There are so many unemployed people. There are very few industries. Kampala is really a very small city. It’s a few buildings surrounded by ghettos,” she says dismissively. “It’s not going so well. I think it’s trying. It’s 50-50.”
Yet like many of her generation, she is far from despair. In much of the continent, there is an energy and can-do-inventiveness that shades into optimism. “I’m filled with hope. The last thing I should be doing is losing hope right now in my own country,” she says. “I still hope that Uganda will reach somewhere technologically, politically, socially. I don’t know why, but I’m optimistic.”
Janapher Nahalamba, a shy 19-year-old economics student at Kampala’s well-respected Makerere University, also looks on the bright side. “I think we have more opportunity than our parents,” she says, talking in the student canteen where she has brought her boyfriend as chaperone. When she graduates, she hopes to get a job in a bank, or perhaps open a cake shop or perhaps export food from a patch of land her mother owns on the outskirts of Kampala. She’s not quite sure.
Not long after this interview took place, the pleasant green Makerere campus was raided by Uganda’s military after students protested about rising fees. At least 11 were hospitalised.
When I meet her, Nahalamba is wearing a teal-coloured one-piece with pink-bowed flip-flops and a faux black leather handbag slung over shoulder. She contrasts her own prospects with those of her mother, who works as a midwife in a government hospital. “She had a tough background. She had problems with her fees and she used to have to walk miles to school,” she says.
Nahalamba’s father died when she was about 10. Neighbours blamed witchcraft. “She’s amazing. She’s my role model,” she says of her mother, who is raising five children on her own. “By God’s grace, she built a house, she provides everything, all our tuition, school fees, our clothing, everything.”
Her other idol is Oprah Winfrey. “She’s a strong lady. I want to be like her. I want to be a person who is able to put food on the table for my family and who can contribute to the growth of our nation,” she says of the American billionaire.
Winfrey’s wealth may be hard to imagine, but it is easy to observe. Instagram and Facebook have brought once unimaginable lives just a few bytes of data away. Nahalamba uses a Tecno smartphone, a model made by the Chinese company Transsion, which pitches to the African market with special features such as cameras adapted to darker skin tones. She uses apps including Boomplay, Transsion’s music streaming service, as well as WhatsApp, a continent-wide method of communication.
Like Atugonza — who proclaims, “Oh my gosh, I love the Chinese” — Nahalamba has a mostly positive view of China, whose presence is keenly felt in much of Africa. I once met a teenager in rural Liberia, a poor west African country, who stated his life’s ambition as visiting the country that had built the Great Wall of China.
“China is developing fast,” says Nahalamba. “It is using every small opportunity to make sure it goes higher and higher.” Asked how a country that only a few generations ago was as poor as Uganda had achieved such success, she responds without hesitation: “I think through hard work.”
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Ollo’s success has not come easily either. He arrived in Kampala as a baby with his mother after she fled the Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous religious group that was terrorising Uganda’s north. In Kampala, they lived on the street. As a child, Ollo and his siblings collected scrap metal or broke stones for a pittance. “It was hustle, hustle, hustle,” he says. “We had no money. We fed on birds that we shot with catapults,” he says, adding that for Christmas they ate one of the giant storks that roam Kampala’s rubbish tips.
His mother had contracted HIV from her husband, who had already died, but she struggled to work each day. “She was so malnourished you could see her bones,” Ollo says. “You could really imagine she was going tomorrow.”
Eventually, they ended up in the Acholi Quarter, what Ollo calls a “deep, deep slum”. Although conditions were notoriously bad, his mother’s health stabilised after she gained access to antiretroviral medicines through a charity. She got a better job as support staff in an international school and Ollo started attending school where he began to excel, especially in English. “The whole school could come to assembly just to listen to me talk,” he says, recalling his early glory days. “I was brilliant.”
Once when he was giving a speech about Ugandan history to visiting dignitaries, he says, he was captured on film by a local TV crew. One thing led to another. He now presents Youth Voice on NBS TV and hosts a programme on Nxt Radio. He runs a self-branded motivational programme and owns a small store selling household items. He has moved out of the slum and helps support his mother.
Ollo, Atugonza and Nahalamba are Uganda’s next generation, but they all pay tribute to the previous one — especially their mothers. “She was like, you just do what you want to do. I will hustle for you guys,” says Ollo.
On Facebook, where he goes by the name of MC Ollo, he recently posted a photograph of his mother attending his graduation ceremony where he was awarded a diploma in journalism. He is wearing a natty purple-checked suit, graduation gown and mortarboard. Standing by his side is his mother in a blue dress with a yellow ribbon around her waist.
In the post, Ollo thanks God “for all my hustles”. To me, he thanks his mum. “She saw the future,” he says.
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor