Last November I entered the ESRC "Making sense of society" writing competition, where ESRC funded PhD students were challenged to write about their research in 800 words to a lay audience. I didn't win or get shortlisted, although I did receive an automated receipt of entry email - so I suppose that's something right? For those interested in my attempt to sell African historical demography to the masses, you can find my attempt reproduced below.
What if I told you that much of the UN’s population statistics for the developing world were made up? Have you ever wondered what goes into the production of a demographic statistic? Something which provides vital information on the size, age and health of us, the key agents of our society.
The UN’s Population Division knows full well that when they publish their annual revision of worldwide demographic data – which is widely regarded as the authority of past, present and future population patterns – they are showcasing to the world a set of numbers that, for at least 40% of the world’s countries, are false.
Should we be angry? Absolutely not. Alas, it’s the best that the world’s leading demographers can do given the circumstances. For us in the UK, we have a relatively good record of the size and shape of our historic and modern day populations, given our first nationwide census was conducted in 1801 and we have had civil registration since 1837. From a statistical perspective, developing countries are not so lucky. The countries of Western Sahara and the Democratic Republic of Congo have never had a census of any validity conducted within their territories. The West African country of Guinea-Bissau has only held two censuses since 1991. Even where a census has taken place, it’s often the case that the data collected is limited and of little use. Given the absence of a centralised system of death registration in Guinea-Bissau, it’s not even possible to calculate an indicator as fundamental as death rates with any confidence.
I’m a historical demographer. My scientific concern is to understand the populations of the past. I am forever amazed by the wealth of information publicly available detailing the historic numbers of people, dating from the present day to well before the birth of Christ. However what is less widely known, is the thin empirical basis that these numbers have been calculated from. Extrapolations, interpolations and a vast array of statistical wizardry have all been used on ecclesiastical records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. But at any given point in time, a set of church records can only represent a tiny sample of the total population of an area. Additionally, the biases contained within the data (indeed, only Christians go to church) are enough to make any statisticians stomach churn.
Despite these methodological problems, much work has been done in Europe using parish records to reconstruct historical populations. The Cambridge Group for the History of Population have managed, with reasonable precision, to calculate England’s population back to the medieval period. However eccentric this type of research my seem, the benefits are of huge consequence to British society. Because of this work we know where we’ve come from as a people. We know how patterns of fertility and childbearing have changed over time. We know which diseases have been a burden on our population and how disease risk has ebbed and waned throughout history. All of which give real historical context to contemporary policy makers in areas such as family life, healthcare and migration.
How lucky we are. The reverse is true for much of Sub-Saharan Africa. A few censuses for each African state and the odd survey here and there give demographers a murky snapshot of the size of Africa’s populations. It beggar’s belief, given today’s high scientific standards, that Africa’s colonial era censuses were conducted by Europeans, often inebriated, conducting head counts of families on the scruffiest of notepads, with children running around their feet. And yet, for most countries in Africa pre-1990, this is all the information we have.
Conducting a full census on an African nation is well beyond the scope of my PhD, but an effort to reconstruct the historical population of a small corner of Africa is not. The Catholic parish of Navrongo in Northern Ghana, founded by French-Canadian missionaries in 1906, is my own field site. When their church records are digitised from dusty ant-eaten notebooks to a statistically analysable dataset, my vision is to make sense and to tell a chapter from the story of African demographic history as it really was, using real empirical data.
I’ve often referred to Ghana, and many other African nations, as ‘countries without histories’. Not because nothing happened (on the contrary), but because their histories have only been partially told. Thanks to Christian conversion efforts, traces of demographic history are lying everywhere waiting for souls to ‘reawaken’ them. I often hear from colleagues working in the physical sciences that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deep oceans. A similar analogy can be made for the social sciences, for we know much more about the relatively static populations of the West than we do about the fastest growing continent on earth.