Being Young in East Africa: Perceptions, Expectations and Reality

by Ahmed Salim 

It has become patently obvious that the world’s youth are having a significant influence on the political, economic and social future of society. The ‘Arab Spring’ across North Africa and the Middle East was a dramatic demonstration of their power. The surge in Africa’s middle class is in no small part, driven by the consumption of the continent’s youth.

In East Africa, the population of children under the age of fifteen increased from 53 million in 2005 to 61 million in 2010. To put it in perspective, this 8 million increase is the population size of Burundi. East Africa’s youths (15-34) was estimated at 48 million (45% of the total population) in 2010. This is expected to grow in the next 20 years to 82 million people. By 2030, 75% of East Africa’s total population will be under the age of 34 in 2030. (For more see SoEAR2012). 


Defining institution or country
Youth age range
UN General Assembly
World Health Organisation (WHO)
Youngest & narrowest age range (10 years)
African Union
Oldest upper age
Shortest transition (16 years)
(National Youth Policy)
Oldest upper age and
longest transition (22 years)
(National Youth Development Policy, 2007)
Oldest upper age
(National Youth Policy, 2001)
Youngest lower age

A person leaves childhood and becomes a youth earliest in Uganda (12 years) and latest in Kenya (18 years). Youth ends earliest by the WHO definition (19 years) and UN General Assembly (24 years). The oldest youth are to be found in Rwanda and Tanzania, and by the African Union definition. The transition between childhood and adulthood is longest (22 years) in Rwanda, and shortest (10 years) by the WHO and UN General Assembly definitions.

A lot of research has been done concerning the youth in East Africa and the main focus has been on three issues: education and training, access to health services (specifically sexual and reproductive health) and jobs. These are the conventional issues, but there are others as explained by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that explore how poor and vulnerable youth in Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan view their prospects for the future, and how this is influenced by their struggle and success at transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Another survey on Uganda and Rwanda by the International Youth Foundation (IYF) expands on unconventional youth issues as well. 

Some key insights from the findings and analysis of these surveys are as follows. 


While a formal definition of youth, based on age, may be used to inform a set of official rights and entitlements from the state, such as access to health and education services and protection from harm and deprivation, the social definition is bounded by the set of family and community responsibilities expected from the individual. In Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, marital status is central to whether one is socially defined as a youth or as an adult, and this perspective is prevalent across the region. If formally one crosses into adulthood at the age of 26 (Burundi), 30 (Uganda) or 35 (Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda), socially this happens when one gets married. So one can remain a youth, in the social sense, as long as one is not married even if one is beyond the formal age range of youth.

The ability to marry and establish a household is strongly influenced by the individual’s economic and financial capacity. In Rwanda, the requirement to build a house to state-regulated specifications of location, size and roofing materials raised the ‘social price’ of adulthood. While different economic forces are at play in South Sudan, the resulting increase in the price of dowry (cattle) similarly raises the social price of adulthood in that country. Interestingly, for Burundi youth, the price of adulthood seems to be more affordable as society there has taken a pragmatic view to the considerable economic challenge of starting a family.


The IYF and USIP surveys suggest that poor youth in Rwanda are largely resigned to their fate, those in Burundi being somewhat more energised and entrepreneurial and those in South Sudan display an elevated level of entitlement. Interestingly, the authors attribute the different attitudes between Rwandan and Burundian youth to the strength of the state.

It would appear that in Rwanda’s case, a very strong state with a penchant for detailed social engineering may be having the unintended effect of severely circumscribing its young people’s opportunity space. Burundi’s weaker state apparently leaves its youth with a wider range of options to meet their objectives and aspirations. If one takes the view that poor youth who are optimistic about their life chances are preferred to peers who are despondent and resigned to their fate, then Rwanda’s strong state may, in this narrow sense, actually be counterproductive.

In this same vein, it is worth examining the extent to which the state can (or should) determine the ‘price’ of adulthood, given that this is an important determinant of young people’s sense of achievement. The example of the South Sudanese Shilluk King’s decree limiting dowry to 10 cows per marriage is instructive and may be worthy of emulation. He has set an upper limit to the ‘social price’ of adulthood and it would appear that this has allowed more women in his community to cross that all important threshold. In contrast, by requiring that new houses (and households) be established in a prescribed manner in Rwanda (in imidugudu, with a minimum size and roofing materials), the ‘official price of adulthood’ in Rwanda has been raised. This may be resulting in more ‘informal’ marriages, a form of quasi-adulthood accompanied by a hint of social disapproval. Whether the reduction of the ‘official price’ through the relaxation of the requirements (e.g., the recommended size of the new house) would lead to an expansion in the demand for socially acceptable adulthood is an interesting research question. 

Download SID Trend Monitoring Report: Being Young in the GHEA: Perceptions, Expectaitons and Reality 


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