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One in 7 billion

By Rukiya Makuma

An “unexpected” baby girl upsets her parent’s precarious livelihood and opens debate on whether Uganda can afford its population growth

In the small one-roomed tenement, Mary Aheebwa lies on a small bed, her parents’ most valuable possession. Born early morning on Oct. 31, Aheebwa weighed in at a relatively healthy 3 kg, in Mulago Hospital. Mother and daughter were declared healthy and shortly sent home.

But while loved, Mercy was unexpected.

“I didn’t know. I just found out that I was four months pregnant,” said the 22-year old mother, Mercy Asaba, a 3rd year student of Education at Makerere university. “We are both students, we had not even started saving or planning for the family, but it just happened.”

Mother and father, both students without a stable income save for the modest support of their parents, were already struggling to live until they complete their undergraduate degrees in May 2012 and start working. Aheebwa’s arrival further upset their already precarious situation.

“Agaba is looking for a job. He has dropped a few papers and we are hoping for the best,” Asaba says. “We make sure we utilise the pocket money we receive well so that the baby fits in our budget, because she is the priority,” Asaba added.

There’s nothing unique about an unplanned baby “surprising” her unprepared parents, especially in Uganda where pregnancy among young unmarried girls in a school is something of a norm. But Aheebwa is unique in one way. She shares her birthday with the world’s seven billionth baby, according to the United Nations Population Agency (UNFPA), a global milestone that has drawn attention to the rapid growth of the world’s population, and concern about the earth’s capacity to provide a decent living for all of them.

For now, Asaba is afraid to look too far into her child’s future. She prays that she will remain healthy and not need any more health care than Mulago can provide for free. She hopes her boyfriend will get a job quickly, but given Uganda’s high level of unemployment and the fact that he cannot work full time until he has finished school, even that is uncertain. With the rising cost of living, Asaba hopes that when her parents find out that she had a baby in school, they won’t be so angry that they cut off her allowance and leave them stranded.

However, she does think about the high cost of schooling, good food, nice clothes, and feels bad because in her dreams she had always imagined that when she had her child, she would be able to provide the best of those things.

Given the uncertainty in which they have had their first child, Asaba and Agaba do not even want to think about having more children in future. But given Uganda’s reputation as having some of the most fertile populations in the world with a 3.2% population growth rate, an average of 7 children per woman, a population projected to grow from 34.5 million in 2011 to 103.2 million in 2050, it is quite likely that the couple will have more children.

Uganda’s population has been growing rapidly over the last twenty years from 16 million people in 1991; to 33 million people. By end of 2011 an additional 1.2 million babies will be born over the year, according to the State of Uganda Population Report 2011, recently released by the Population Secretariat.

Gideon Rutaremwa, an expert on population and Director of the Statistics Department at Makerere University, says there are those who believe that a big population is good for the country as it means a bigger market for the products produced. Large populations have propelled the rapid growth of powerful countries like China, with its billion-plus people.

But Rutaremwa cautions that China’s dynamics were different, as it was able to sustain its big population and help them thrive – with employment, universal health care and education, affordable food and shelter, infrastructure, etc.

In Uganda, especially in urban areas like Kampala, most people are either underemployed or unemployed. 80% of social services – education, health, water, electricity, transport, etc – are concentrated in urban areas, with only 20% in rural areas where 80% of people live.

At the current rate of population growth, experts say the economy needs to grow at 13 percent (at least), almost double the current rate of 7 percent, to provide the services people need to be productive.

Stephen Wandera Ojimabo, a Population Studies lecturer at Makerere University, says with 50 percent of Uganda’s population below 15 years old, the level of dependency is so high it undermines the quality of life in terms of nutrition, health care, education, etc, as the few adults must split their limited incomes between many children.

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