Looking Backward, Looking Forward: 
African Demography in Historical Perspective

Ol Pajeta, Kenya, 30 November - 2 December 2021


 The IUSSP Scientific Panel on Historical Demography together with The British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine organized a seminar on African demography in historical perspective in Ol Pajeta, Kenya on 30 November-2 December 2021. The seminar was sponsored by the IUSSP, the Wellcome Trust, the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation, and the Galton Institute. Sarah Walters and the BIEA were the local organizers.


There is a resurgence of interest in Africa’s demographic pasts. Evidence on past population trends is essential to respond to core questions in African history, such as the human cost of the slave trade; the impacts of colonialism on health, wellbeing and the family; the effects of post-colonial policies on households and livelihoods; long-term trends in mortality and migration; and the influence of religion, education and employment on intergenerational relations and the social organisation of reproduction. Improving the evidence on Africa’s past populations will illuminate how people have managed their resilience and reproduction over time, in the face of environmental, epidemiological, political and economic change.


Understanding the historical origins of African demographic regimes may also help to influence current and future population trends. This is important given Africa is projected to account for more than half of all global population growth by 2050, with implications for both demographic dividend and migration. In particular, contemporary demographers have called for interdisciplinary and historical approaches to improve understanding of the contexts of fertility transition in the region, including its stalls, reversals and exceptional age- and parity-specific dynamics, as well as the historical context of the AIDS pandemic. 


The seminar participants at the Sweetwaters camp, Ol Pajeta, Kenya.


The aim of the seminar was to showcase the growing availability of historical demographic micro-data through new digitisation projects as well as bring together scholar from different disciplines interested in the demography and the demographic history of Africa. 


The seminar was organized under difficult circumstances, first scheduled for March 2020, but postponed due to Covid-19. Also, the final seminar was affected by various Covid-restrictions, such as mandatory mask wearing and daily testing.


The seminar brought together 26 participants from Belgium, France, Kenya, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Twenty-one participants were present in Kenya and five participated virtually. Twenty-one papers were presented dealing with different contexts in both time and space, as well as different aspects of demography and population history. Several of the papers presented research that made innovative use of new data sources to study African demographic patterns in the past. In addition to the papers presented and a separate discussion session, a special session was devoted to discussion on data, research themes and future collaborations. 


See also:


Participants at the seminar


Some of the virtual participants


Nicolai Baumert (Lund University) speaks about health care and hospital establishments


The conference venue at the Sweetwater camp


Photos by Sarah Rafferty and Jutta Bolt.