Understanding African demographics through missionary archives

Europe, Asia, Latin America – fertility has fallen everywhere as mortality rates have decreased and incomes have gone up. But not in Africa. Jutta Bolt is trying to understand why. To do so, she is studying missionary archives from different parts of the huge continent. Maybe history will provide answers about the present and the future.

Jutta Bolt

Associate professor in demographics

Wallenberg Academy Fellow, prolongation grant 2021

Lund University

Research field:
Economic history and development

Population growth in Africa is at unprecedented levels. Some estimates suggest the population will double within 35 years, with a fourfold increase by 2100.

Falling mortality rates in Europe, Asia and Latin America has led to people having fewer children. But in African countries women are still having four–five children on average.

“The question is why. My research aims to understand the mechanisms underlying Africa’s earlier population growth,” Bolt says.

As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow at the Department of Economic History at Lund University, she is exploring a new source of information. That source is missionary archives, which often include everything from baptisms and deaths to the size of harvests, droughts, floods and epidemics.

“Missionaries visited the interior of the continent earlier than the colonizers did, and their archives provide much more information for the 19th century than our previous sources. We want to understand regional differences better by comparing information from different places.”

Material from European archives and African churches

For the period before the colonial period, there are very few written records on Africa. Later, there are colonial sources – but often not covering the whole colony. The colonial powers conducted a number of censuses, but they are often misleading. Census takers remained at the coast and made very rough approximations of the population further inland. People also sometimes tried to avoid being registered, for taxation or forced labor.

Bolt is combining information gathered by colonial powers with missionary archives, which she and her colleagues will be digitizing for the first time. Many of the archives are in the U.K., Italy, France and Belgium, but she will also be obtaining information from churches in Africa. And she wants to discuss her work with African researchers, and involve them in the work.

“Most research on African economic history is still done by Europeans. This really needs to change, and I think our team can help to do that.”

By comparing information on hard times and good times with how many children were born, Bolt will be able to see the impact of this on population trends. But she thinks there is more to explore. She explains how, to date, researchers have usually argued that nativity in Africa follows Malthusian ideas – a nineteenth-century population theory. Simply put, the theory says that a population will increase as much as it can, given the limitations to which it is subject, e.g. availability of food.

“I’m convinced it’s more complicated than that. A shift in the trend can already be seen in many African cities. People are having fewer children even though they are better off. This shows that nativity is not merely a response to ‘external shocks’ and availability of resources – it’s also a matter of personal choice,” Bolt explains.

Culture may be one factor. It may be that many African men want large families on traditional grounds. This would suggest that nativity only falls when women have the power to decide. Increased education of women usually leads to reduced nativity – something that Bolt will also be studying. Missionaries opened many schools that often only accepted boys, but sometimes girls as well. Perhaps that had an impact on the number of children born.

Research findings useful to the authorities

Bolt hopes that the results of her research will help to provide a basis for better decisions and strategies for authorities and others attempting to influence population growth. But the strategies are unlikely to be universal.

“I want to delve deeper into this, because there’s really not simply a single driving force, and a single population trend for the entire continent. This is a very exploratory project. I may discover something quite unexpected.”

The rapid population growth poses enormous challenges, for example in the strain it is placing on the environment. Yet there are advantages, as Bolt points out. Africa’s low population density has made it difficult to create proper markets and to build infrastructure. These problems recede as numbers of people grow, and they move to live together in cities.

“Researchers work in a highly competitive environment. Failures are commonplace. Receiving such a large and prestigious grant as a Wallenberg Academy Fellowship is a real game changer. It boosts confidence, and provides security for five years. I can read and think without constantly feeling stressed by a need to identify new funding opportunities.”

Bolt was born and raised in the Netherlands, where she began studying economics after her mother had suggested it on an impulse. Jutta soon became fascinated by the phenomenon of economic growth, and why countries have developed so differently. The subject of her first project was development economics. She met a Swedish fellow researcher, Ellen Hillbom, at a conference, and they began to collaborate. A few years later Lund University suggested that she apply to become one of their Wallenberg Academy Fellows.

“I think one of my greatest strengths as a researcher is that I’m so persistent. And I’m convinced that anyone is capable of learning anything if they only spend enough time on it. I couldn’t imagine a better job – I feel like I work on my hobby all the time.”

Text Lisa Kirsebom
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström