Special Report: Africa's kids in poverty trap

Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three-part series on Africa's baby boom.

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. They had too many children and couldn't afford to look after him.

"I'm less of a burden to my mom if I am here," said the 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. In 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, according to 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 slums of tin and mud that snake through Nairobi, the 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.

In war-torn Somalia and Congo, which are among the fastest-growing countries in the world, millions of children are raised in refugee camps or makeshift shelters. Schools are poor or nonexistent, and chores as simple as fetching firewood can be death sentences.

In Mozambique, 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 send boys such as Ghaddafi to fend for themselves in hostile cities.

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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 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."

On a continent in which most people still grow the food they eat, will population growth create impossible demands on agriculture and ravage the environment as families try to extract ever more from the land? Or will nations adapt, build schools, health systems and economies to match their growing numbers and avert disaster?

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.

Will beat Bangladesh

By 2050, Nigeria is expected to vault past Bangladesh and Brazil to become the world's sixth-most populous nation.

In Kano, the largest city in the predominantly Muslim north, children are everywhere. In the afternoons, after the midday Islamic prayer, they surge in the hundreds from mosques and collect like droplets in dirt parking lots. The only adults around are those who emerge from offices and storefronts to shoo the children away.

The average woman here has seven children, according to national statistics. Among the Hausa, the main ethnic group, a reckoning of the burden of too many children hasn't overcome 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.

Many experts fear Africa's endemic corruption will prevent it from realizing 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 supplier of oil. Nuhu Ribadu, a former anti-corruption czar, estimates that from 1960 to 1999, Nigerian officials stole or wasted $440 billion in public money.

Today, the government spends 3 percent of its budget on education and 1 percent on health, among the lowest rates in the world, according to U.N. statistics.

In Kano, some public school classrooms accommodate more than 150 students, 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."

If you were Ghaddafi, what's the best you could hope for? The most successful beggars, Ghaddafi said, save enough money to open street-corner kiosks and hawk cheap goods such as soap, chewing gum and telephone calling cards. Others sometimes get work cleaning houses or washing cars.

He's been weighing whether to take a job as a houseboy for a middle-class family in Kano. It would mean missing lessons, perhaps dropping out of school, but he could get off the streets for awhile.

"Anyway," he reasoned, "the teacher has too many students. He would never come looking for me."

WEDNESDAY: U.S. has role in Africa's baby bonanza

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