History and Demography

History has always been a fascinating topic for me. Growing up, I read all I could on a variety of topics, typically military history, although branched out in later years. Many of the posts and opinions that I have are formed by an understanding of nineteenth and (mostly) twentieth century history.

While the Western countries (and China) mostly got older on a median level (median being the age at which half the population are above and half below the line, a better metric than “average” age which is skewed by outliers), for much of the rest of the world the opposite trend occurred. The most dramatic example of this occurs in Africa.

The “African World War(s)” in the 1990’s and early 2000’s were sparked by events near Rwanda and ultimately inflamed the entire region, home to over a hundred million people and where key natural resources (coltan) were mined. For a high level synopsis of these events go to the wikipedia sites for the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, The First Congo War, and The Second Congo War.

Other than the Rwandan Genocide, which spurred a film and a bit of international soul-searching due to the inability of Western powers to inhibit the massacre, most of the rest of these events are poorly referenced in the world today given the number of deaths and the geo-political impact. I’m not aware of much discussion on this topic other than occasional articles from the BBC and / or ties to the mining of materials and sanctions on companies that violate new US laws (still being written) on “conflict minerals“.

If events such as these had happened recently in the United States, they would dominate media and the culture. Even today America is fascinated by our civil war, which occurred one hundred and fifty years ago (there is a Ken Burns’ brother documentary on death and dying in the civil war that sounds interesting).

While I haven’t researched the local culture in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to understand the impact, a brief look at the median age of countries per this wikipedia page shows some statistics that I find remarkable. The median age in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is 16.5 and for Rwanda it is 18.6. Thus about 50% of Rwanda’s population was not even born when the genocide in 1994 occurred, and a much larger population would remember it only sparingly as they were very young.

For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not only does the low median age mean that many would not remember much of the first and only some of the second wars, the country’s incredible demography in terms of child bearing resulted in the country’s population increasing massively DESPITE THE WAR (per Wikipedia):

The United Nations 2009 estimated the population at 66 million people, having increased rapidly despite the war from 39.1 million in 1992.

What is history? In the West it is a long tide, taught to millions (albeit often poorly), and to some extent linked into our daily lives. I don’t think it has the same impact on these other countries where 1) education is poor and literacy is low 2) there is a massive demography change towards the young who would be more consumed with “current” problems rather than issues that arose before their time.

I think many of these same conceptual issues toppled many of the authoritarian regimes in the middle east as the colonialist themes that propped up many of the governments withered in the face of the new generation seeing them for their entire lifetime as just brutal dictators propped up by crony economic partners. With low median ages and a limited appreciation for history (based on poor schooling and literacy), their rage was a match waiting to be struck.

Revolutions are often sparked by hordes of young, jobless males with few prospects. These are those with little to lose and the type of rage and fearlessness upon which the backbones of mobs are forged. While we may look at history on a broad scale, in a population dominated by the middle-aged and elderly, it is a completely different picture in most of the world, and our prism for viewing their perceptions and determining their actions, obsolete.

Cross posted at LITGM

6 thoughts on “History and Demography”

  1. Wars seldom have any major impact on population growth. The simple fact is that wars just aren’t that destructive and don’t affect enough of the population compared to disease or famine. The vast majority of wars are fought by a subset of males who do most of the dying. Even democides, the greatest human-origin killer, rarely stalls the population growth. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is one notable exception but that was aided by the relatively small size of the starting population 7 million.

    You also have the effect of people having more children after sudden spikes in death rates. Since wars tend to be relatively brief, their effects are easily compensated for by a minor uptick in birth rates.

    Youth and a lack of memory is a problem. Barbara Tuckman in a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Distant_Mirror””>”A Distant Mirror” hypothesized that one reason that the middle ages where so violent was that a much higher percentage of leaders were young. Death was constant from all caused and nobles were warriors and tended to in the field one way or the other. The hereditary ruler system often put teenagers in charge of entire kingdoms with only the optional advice of the older and wiser to restrain them. Trouble was bound to result.

    Human memory is quite shallow without literacy. As much as we like to think of pre-literacy humans preserving information down the ages through oral traditions, careful research shows that any break in the transmission chain causes cultural amnesia. The Blackhills Sioux, for example in the late-1800 honestly and firmly believed that their people had always lived in the blackhills of South Dakota but literate history records they migrated to the area from somewhere in Ohio in the early to mid-1700s. It appears that over the course of 5-6 generations, they simply forgot. It’s easy to see why. There was no practical reason for them to remember where they came from.

    The major problem with sub-sahara africa is a powerfully family based mode of social organization that forces individuals to morally care for those most related to them at the expense of everyone else. (Basically, the default natural human condition.) This translates into like-clinging to like. That wouldn’t be such a problem except that the modern national boundaries were drawn by European interest with no regard to the distribution of ethnic groups, clans, tribes etc. This often leads to groups being discriminated against minorities in one country and the discriminating majority just across the border.

    That is what happened in Rwanda. I don’t remember the details but either Hutus or the Tutsi had a little empire before the Belgians came in which one (IIRC, the Hutu) enslaved and en-serfed the other (Tutsi). Owing to colonial wakyness, the empire got split into two post-colonial states Rwanda and Burundi. The Hutus were the majority in Rwanda and the Tutsi the majority in Burundi. Both groups still felt strong emotional ties to their brethren right across the border. A series of conflict eventually terminated in the Rwanda genocide when the majority of Hutus apparently tired to exterminate the Rwanda Tutsi once or for all. The Tutsi invasion from Burundi ended the genocide, but not the struggle.

    Sub-Saharan Africa has always had a built-in disadvatage because of its chaotic terrain. That terrain frustrated most attempts at large scale organization so the Africans simply don’t have any cultural experience to draw on. The functional necessity of relying on and taking care of family at all cost makes it almost impossible for them to create evenhanded and meritocratic economic and political systems.

    It doesn’t help that Left in the 20th century just used Africans as stage props in their little psycho-drama titled, “Every bad thing in the world is the fault of western non-leftists so Leftist should be in charge of everything.” Beyond a few missionaries and Peace Corp volunteers, I don’t think anyone else on the international stage really cares enough about what happens to africans to admit to admit that they are wrong.

  2. Shannon, I think you have the Hutu-Tutsi story reversed. The Tutsis were depicted in the 1950s movie, “King Solomon’s Mines.” They were very tall and had been rulers of the shorter Hutus. Another picture of the Congo is in several of WEB Griffin’s novels, which are pretty well researched. The main one is “The New Breed” and “Special Ops” of the Brotherhood of War series. They are about US Special Forces in the Congo in the 60s when the Cubans tried to take over the Congo. I had some doubts about Griffin’s poetic license until I read the story of Rick Rescorla, Heart of a Soldier. He was a British soldier in Rhodesia before Mugabe and befriended a US Green Beret who was in the Congo. Griffin’s story is true.

    Another interesting story about the area is Dinner with Mugabe which is more sympathetic to Mugabe than anything else I’ve read and, if true (The book is by an obvious sympathizer), tells of a missed opportunity to change the history of that country. It should be a rich country but has been wrecked by the Mugabe crowd. There is worrisome speculation that South Africa will go the same way after the death of Mandela. The rest of the ANC is a blood thirsty crowd.

  3. “Revolutions are often sparked by hordes of young, jobless males with few prospects.” Which do you have in mind?

  4. You’re continuing to overestimate the value of education. Germans were the most educated nation on earth at the time of the Russian and NAZI revolutions, and they staffed and led both. And Jews conceived staffed and led the Russian Revolution, and the Jews are the most educated people on earth. AND YET…

    We’re pretty literate in America and our History has only been in the grip of Leftists for about 40 years. AND YET…

  5. People who write histories are expected to answer the questions of who? what? when? where? why?

    The writers of history usually twist the answers to these questions to support a cherished political, philosophical or religious belief.

    They base their histories on the accounts of others who also let their political, philosophical or religious beliefs shape their writings.

    Some historians believe in answering these questions as honestly as possible and try to separate fact from opinion when evaluating sources.

    If you study history it is best to study a time period and a society that no one cares about in a language few can read. Histories of the events during the past 500 yerars should be treated with extreme caution. The same is true of the Ancients from any part of the world.

    Today we have a President who relies on the wrong historians and who seeks to redress wrongs that never happened. But, then, I might be relying on the wrong historians.

    On the whole avoid sweeping generalities.

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