Category Archives: Africa

As the world’s second most populous continent, Africa hosts a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and languages. It has 54 fully recognized nations, ten territories, and two de facto independent countries with limited or no recognition. Africa’s population is also the youngest among the continents.

Five Questions With HealthTech Futurist Nataša Lazarevic

Name: Nataša Lazarevic
Job: eHealth PhD Fellow, STEM Advocate, and Illustrator
Country: Germany, Serbia, Botswana, UAE, Australia
Age: 25

Nataša Lazarevic is completing a PhD in the fields of digital health, machine learning, and anatomy at the University of Sydney, where she previously obtained an Honours degree in Immunology and Infectious Diseases. She is a co-founder of Visibility STEM Africa, which promotes the visibility of Africans in STEM and provides them with opportunities to flourish. Nataša loves interdisciplinary projects, and thoroughly enjoys teaching anatomy and histology to undergraduate and medical students, sometimes creating funny memes about science and technology. She is passionate about promoting underrepresented groups in STEM, coordinating public health outreach projects, and science communication. Connect with Nataša on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Nataša’s explains her research in emojis. She uses machine learning to improve healthcare.

On her diverse background and experience:

“Hello, I am Nataša (pronounced Natasha). I have been fortunate enough to live in five different countries, but that also means that I find the concepts of nationality, identity, and sense of belonging a bit tricky. According to my passports, I am both Australian (as of recently!) and Serbian. But I was born in Germany, then lived in Serbia, grew up in Botswana for most of my childhood, the United Arab Emirates for my teenage years, and now I live in Australia. A sense of culture and identity is so much more than what our passports reveal. 

I am a PhD student at the University of Sydney, and I work on an interdisciplinary project that combines the fields of digital health, machine learning, and anatomy. The project is about applying new technologies and our understanding of the human body to create technological solutions for monitoring our bodies and health remotely. I also enjoy teaching anatomy and histology to medical and undergraduate students. Everything about the body and how it works fascinates me.

I am passionate about promoting the equality of underrepresented groups in STEM, so I co-founded Visibility STEM Africa (VSA) with my dear friend Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa. To learn more, follow VSA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn!”

A science artist and illustrator, Nataša drew the background of this photo.


On how society can make technology more inclusive:

“When I was younger, I used to pretend and behave as though I did not understand how to use technology. I believed that a girl behaved in this way, and the more I played dumb, the more attention I received from boys I liked. I found myself fitting into the stereotype, and I decided that I did not want to be that person. What helped me get past this was to believe in myself and be courageous enough to challenge stereotypes.

I realized that I often stopped challenging myself because I felt like an imposter. I’ve sometimes struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that you are not good enough or that you do not belong. Opening my mind to the idea that I can overcome my fear of failure through hard work has been helpful. Also, changing or re-framing my mindset has helped tremendously.

We are overloaded with amounts of information. To cope, our brain filters much of this information or creates short-cuts (known as heuristics) to make the world easier to understand. Forms of heuristics, particularly involving the use of emotions to assess situations, are sometimes referred to as having a ‘gut feeling.’ Heuristic learning can often be the basis for forming stereotypes. Stereotyping can, at times, be positive where the person being stereotyped is glad to be regarded in that light. For instance, older adults are wise and loving. However, I think the stereotype that older populations are incapable of using and understanding technology is widespread and can prevent older adults from trying to learn or have confidence in the things they have learned. While it is true that as we age, some people lose dexterity and cognitive flexibility, we must not blindly reinforce this stereotype. Sometimes these stereotypes prevent people from even trying.

Hear from Nataša about utilizing medical data to reshape Africa’s health sector.

Efforts should be made to promote the engagement of the older adults with technology and the use of mobile devices. Efforts should also be made to make use of technology more accessible and user-friendly. Features that could make technology or apps more user-friendly to older adults and other populations include

  • simplistic design navigation
  • use of voice activation to navigate the app
  • use of larger images and texts for easier readability
  • use of larger touchable buttons to assist with dexterity issues
  • terms and conditions related to privacy and security of user data being explained in lay terms.

The majority of these features would be helpful to the general population, and at no point should these further exclude the older community. I think what would contribute positively is to create spaces where older people can openly learn about, use, and discuss technology. After all, today’s young adults are tomorrow’s older adults.”

Nataša designed this worksheet for her first Skype a Scientist session with children aged 6 to 7 years.

On why Africans in STEM lack visibility:

“A reduced number of Africans are pursuing higher degree education in STEM fields. This is partially due to a lack of opportunities (for example, scholarships, postgraduate programs, funding), focus on non-STEM disciplines, insufficient investment by governments toward STEM education, and workforce development. It has led to the global research output of merely 1.4 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and low levels of peer-reviewed citations.

The pandemic has illustrated the importance of having research facilities and skilled individuals in local African communities to respond, to be self-sufficient, and not as reliant on international support.

Africans in STEM both in industry and academia are doing brilliant work in both Africa and the diaspora, and these contributions to STEM fields should be promoted. There is a lack of mentorship by Africans in STEM to younger generations to inspire them and make them feel as though such a career is possible at all. There is power in having mentors that look like you and come from the same region.

The pervasive stereotypes of Africans only being poverty-stricken and malnourished in many western countries has in some cases, led to the lack of representation of African contributions in STEM. Africa is often viewed as being one country, but in reality, the continent consists of a melting pot of diverse cultures, languages, and people. We must start changing the narrative surrounding Africans in STEM and provide them with opportunities to share their stories. Visibility STEM Africa aims to promote the visibility of Africans in STEM and provide opportunities for them to flourish in their scientific fields and communities.”

On practicing self-care especially during COVID-19:

“I am getting better at practicing self-care, and the pandemic forced a lot of us to reflect upon our current situation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I regularly would put myself last. For instance, a deadline is more important than my sleep. During the pandemic, I have tried to focus on getting into a better sleeping routine and on my mental well-being by practicing mindfulness and regularly meditating. I still find it difficult, but the more you do, the easier it will be to form habits. I am passionate about exercise and its effect on mental health, so I regularly do Zoom exercise sessions with friends and family. I was able to get in touch with many friends I grew up with via video call. This was both helpful and nostalgic because I appreciated my social support network.”

During the pandemic, she taught anatomy and histology using Zoom, with her science illustrations in the background. Nataša also draws scientists, especially women in STEM

On getting older in today’s world:

“I sometimes feel that people tend to treat the older population unfairly and almost as though they are a separate group. This age divide has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have heard younger people make comments like, “But it only affects older people, so it is not that big of a deal.” I feel that to some degree, such responses stem from younger people being subconsciously fearful of becoming older themselves as they inevitably will. As a society, we do everything in our power to counter the aging process, and many industries greedily profiteer from this obsession. I sometimes feel that some people view aging as an internal cell decay time bomb.

At my current age, I do not fear aging nor the existential anxiety commonly associated with the awareness that death is inevitable. I feel that it is more prudent to stop being anxious about phenomena that we cannot control. But, ask me when I am 60 and perhaps my response will change because the onset of age-related health consequences will have occurred (Like menopause! I am not looking forward to that).”

I sometimes feel that people tend to treat the older population unfairly and almost as though they are a separate group.

Nataša Lazarevic, BSc (Hons)

Five Questions With Neurobiologist Nathasia Muwanigwa

Name: Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa
Job: Neurobiology PhD Researcher and STEM Advocate
Country: Zimbabwe, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Cyprus
Age: 26

Nathasia Muwanigwa is currently pursuing a PhD in neurobiology at the University of Luxembourg. Her research focuses on stem cell based modeling of Parkinson’s disease at the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine. Nathasia has a Bachelors in Human Biology, summa cum laude, from the University of Nicosia (Cyprus) and a Research Master’s in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease from Radboud University (Netherlands). She is an early career panelist for Neuro Central, an online hub that delivers high quality content uniting neurology and neuroscience. Nathasia is a dedicated advocate for underrepresented individuals in STEM, particularly Africans in STEM who lack visibility on the global STEM landscape. She is a Co-Founder and Director of Visibility STEM Africa, an initiative changing the narrative surrounding African contributions to STEM. As a result of her advocacy, she was profiled in Forbes Science. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook

On her research about Parkinson’s disease:

“My research focuses on Parkinson’s disease (PD), the second most common neurodegenerative disorder globally. PD is characterized by the loss of a specific type of brain cell (dopaminergic neurons) from the midbrain. Symptomatically, PD patients present with tremor, muscle rigidity and slow movement amongst other symptoms. For my research, I make use of stem cell derived “minibrains” (aka organoids) that mimic human brain development. The aim of my research is to use these minibrains to model the changes that occur in the brain during the progression of PD in order to discover new molecular pathways that can be targeted for therapeutic interventions and drug discovery.”

On whether people with Parkinson’s can have good quality of life:

“One of the most challenging aspects of Parkinson’s is it is a progressive disorder, meaning symptoms worsen over time. This can make maintaining a good quality of life challenging as the condition progresses. Some PD patients are responsive to drugs that slow the progression of the disease, but for many, these drugs may not have any effect. There are lifestyle changes that PD patients can make that can prolong their mobility. Regular exercise at early diagnosis is important in maintaining mobility and balance. Maintaining a healthy diet and staying hydrated can be helpful particularly in avoiding some of the gastrointestinal issues associated with PD. There is substantial research going into improving early detection of PD and researchers are exploring various therapies, which will help in slowing down the progression of the disease.”

On how Zimbabwe treats older adults:

Generally, in my experience, Zimbabweans hold family to high importance. Family is at the backbone of Zimbabwean culture. When family members get older, it is quite common that they may move in with their adult children. Otherwise, in some cases people will hire caregivers for their parents when they are unable to care for themselves. However, given the current economic challenges in the country, much of the older population is not receiving sufficient medical care and support, despite their family’s efforts. Limited resources and a poor healthcare system has rendered the older populations quite vulnerable.

On her thoughts about aging gracefully versus cosmetic treatments:

“To me aging gracefully is entering your older years with confidence. How you achieve that is entirely up to an individual. I think there is nothing wrong with getting cosmetic treatments if that is what you want and it makes you feel good. I am a big believer in people having autonomy over their own bodies and making informed decisions that suit them. I think what is most important is having a good understanding of what the cosmetic treatments do and have realistic expectations. There are steps people can take to “age gracefully” without cosmetic procedures too. For example, starting a good skincare routine in your 20’s and 30’s is beneficial for healthy skin as well as eating well, exercising and self-care.”

On her future goals:

I definitely want to continue in science, although time will tell whether I will remain in academia or pursue other avenues, such as science communication. I am excited about the future of Visibility STEM Africa (VSA). The initiative aims to give visibility to Africans in STEM both on the continent and in the diaspora in order to provide visible role models for young Africans interested in pursuing STEM careers. To learn more, follow VSA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn! I also serve on a board of directors the Biotech Institute (Zimbabwe), a private hybrid academic-biotechnology research institution that focuses on both basic and translational research in the areas of biomedicine and agriculture.

Aging gracefully is entering your older years with confidence. How you achieve that is entirely up to an individual.

Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa, MSc, PhD Candidate

Five Questions With Development Practitioner Sachi Shah

Name: Sachi Shah
Job: International Development Practitioner
Country: Malawi and India
Age: 28

Sachi Shah serves as founder/director of Truss Group, a multi-faceted social enterprise that works towards environmental sustainability and human health improvement in low-income urban areas in Malawi. She has worked as a Global Health Corps fellow and Communications and Programs Associate at the Boys & Girls Club of Newark. Previously, Sachi wrote and edited for Global Health Aging and has interned with The Rockefeller Foundation among other organizations. Find Shah on LinkedIn and Truss Group on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.  

On her job description:
“I run a social enterprise in Blantyre, Malawi that focuses on waste management, and plastic recycling. We create cement substitutes from recycled plastic and focus on high-impact building projects such as disaster-resistant housing and pit latrines.

We are aiming to come up with a model for disaster resistant housing before the end of the year. We are also looking at how we can move into exploring other infrastructure that can support better health and environments beyond waste management. Outside of work, I like to watch spend time in nature and with friends, watch movies, and read.”

On why she started the Truss Group
“Truss is an extension of a project I started with high-school students four years ago in Blantyre. I believe that if spaces are freed of waste, and more sustainable construction is encouraged in urban areas, then human and environmental health will benefit exponentially. I wanted to return to do more than just volunteer work for a couple of months.”

Truss Group is 1 of the 11 ventures that will go through the first cohort of the Grow Malawi Growth Accelerator Entrepreneurship Challenge. Truss Group will grow and scale their venture through technical assistance, mentorship and funding provided by MHub, GrowthAfrica – Growth Frontiers, Accesserator and Kweza, with support from UNDP Malawi and the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

On how environmental sustainability affects human health:
“Mismanaged waste is known to breed diseases and negatively affect both human and environmental health and productivity. A healthy environment benefits everyone, especially children and vulnerable older adults who live at risk in the community.

On her experience as a fellow with Global Health Corps:
“I did communications, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and health program development for the Boys & Girls Club of Newark in the USA during my fellowship year. Global Health Corps is a wonderful world-wide community of dedicated professionals working to develop better health care for all. It is also a very supportive community invested in peer learning.”

On her proudest moment(s):
“I think my ability to be resilient and resourceful. Entrepreneurship requires you to learn this and quickly. I serve on the board of Renew’N’Able Malawi (RENAMA), a Malawian non-governmental organization (NGO) for sustainable energy and manages the Blantyre Farmer’s Market. I have also pursued research and fieldwork in various subjects including, water, sanitation, and hygiene 9(WASH), sustainable energy, child development, urban design 10 and policy, environmental policy, and movement building.”

Plastic waste is a growing and increasingly detrimental problem in Malawi. Learn more.

Better health infrastructure, decreased corruption, and waste management are top three needs in Malawi.

Sachi Shah

Government Response to Tackling Elder Abuse in South Africa

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on elder abuse in South Africa. In Part 1, the main focus was raising awareness of elder abuse. In Part 2, societal responses from both public and private sectors are stressed.

As a result of recent news reports on elder abuse, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) visited KwaZulu-Natal from Aug. 15-19 to examine human rights matters impacting older adults and individuals with disabilities. The five-day visit was led by Commissioner Bokankatla Malatji who manages the portfolio on disability and older persons.

The government’s prompt response to elder abuse suggests that this problem is not being taken lightly. Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to an older person. It is one of many challenges faced by older people in South Africa. In fact, elder abuse is expected to rise as the population ages. This is not necessarily the case but societies that have no regard for elders will need to anticipate elder mistreatment if it is not tackled beforehand. Much like other nations around the world, the silver tsunami has left many nations ill-prepared; even the most developed countries are struggling to find solutions for the foreseeable challenges of the future. It is therefore the responsibility of both public and private sectors to make dignified and healthy aging a leading priority.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director (RD) for Africa, states that “only with full, strong political will and commitment by governments, participation of communities, families and individuals can we achieve the vision of a continent in which everyone can live a long and healthy life.” Hence societies must hold governments accountable to ensure expedient and beneficial outcomes.

As the global population continues to age, reaching an estimated 2 billion by 2050, it is imperative that nations take a multifaceted approach to ensure the protection of older adults. Elder abuse is not reserved exclusively for citizens of developing countries. It is a public health problem that goes beyond regions, languages and ethnicities.

WHO believes that in order to adequately address the issue of elder abuse across continents, citizens must utilize approaches that are “placed within a cultural context and considered alongside culturally specific risk factors.” Such methods, with the collaboration of “both primary care and social service sectors,” can enhance the comprehensiveness of future programs, policies and legislation.

Andria Reta-Henke is a Credentialed Professional Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

Under-Diagnosed and Often Overlooked: Elder Abuse in South Africa

This article is the first part of a two-part series on elder abuse in South Africa. Click here to read Part 2.


This year marks the tenth anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The United Nations established WEAAD to bring communities around the globe together in raising awareness about elder abuse. Although this problem is considered a public health issue, the World Health Organization has recognized that elder abuse remains a taboo which is often underestimated and ignored by many societies. This problem is perpetuated by societal attitudes and a lack of public knowledge about elder abuse. The abuse of older people is often viewed as a personal matter – it is not openly discussed. As a result, the prevalence of elder abuse is under-reported worldwide.

In South Africa, organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre in Cape Town are helping those affected by elder abuse.  Dorothy Gertse the head Social Worker at the center reports that a growing number of elderly women are seeking assistance due to abuse by younger relatives. Elder abuse is a broad term that is comprised of various acts such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment, and financial/economic abuse.

South Africa is currently experiencing a rise in economic abuse– individuals are seeking access to financial resources such as pensions and the homes of vulnerable older adults. Gertse states that family members are escorting the elderly to pension pay points and confiscating their finances. The rate of abuse has increased within the last 6 years; Femada Shamam, Chief Operating Officer for the Association for the Aged reports that in the 2010-2011 there were 1458 reported cases; this rose to 2497 cases in the 2012-2013 financial year.

The Older Person’s Act exists within South Africa’s Constitution and outlines the government’s obligation to protect the rights and uphold the safety of older persons. However, Shamam reports that many are unfamiliar with the act, and their role in upholding it. He states, “If you go to the police to report an incident, they wouldn’t know they have the authority to remove the alleged perpetrators.” Thankfully organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre and The Go Turquoise for the Elderly are creating awareness surrounding issues faced by older persons in South Africa.

Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

A Snapshot of Violence Against Elderly Women in Tanzania

Photo Credit: Andrea Moroni
Photo Credit: Andrea Moroni

The African Union has proclaimed 2016 African Year of Human Rights, with a special focus on the rights of women. As the continent celebrated International Women’s Day this past March, it not only took the time to commemorate African women, but also to remind and encourage its citizens to address the obstinate gender inequalities that inhibit women from actualizing their human rights.

However, despite Africa’s attempts to reconcile women’s issues, abuse against elderly women remains a serious problem. Violence against elderly women takes many forms that range from sexual violence to property grabbing and other such financial rights abuses. Additionally, extreme violence increases against older women if they are accused of witchcraft.

According to the United Nations, witchcraft accusations are used to warrant extreme violence against older women in 41 African and Asian countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania. HelpAge International, an organization that works to help senior citizens live a more dignified and healthy life, reports that disabled, poor, vulnerable or widowed older women are often faced with allegations of witchcraft for reason such as:

  • Surviving a husband
  • Being seen as having little economic value or biological productivity
  • Possessing certain characteristics like red eyes or eccentric behavior
  • Miscarrying or losing a child
  • Living alone

HelpAge International has prioritized this issue by implementing projects that seek to challenge norms that are detrimental to the elderly in these societies. The organization has seen a 99 percent success rate and decline in the killing of older women in these areas. However, the killings continue to climb outside of such project areas.

For example, Nyamizi, a 73 year old widow from Sukumaland, Tanzania, was attacked by a man with a machete as she was returning home from work one night. The attacker chopped off her hand and lacerated her head, leaving her unconscious. Nyamizi believes she was targeted by a neighbor whose child had died, and who was told by a traditional healer that she was responsible for the death using witchcraft.

Nyamizi’s story is not unique. The Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre reports that between 2004 and 2009, more than 2,585 older women were killed in eight different regions of Tanzania due to allegations of witchcraft. A follow-up report published by The Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) estimated that 765 people accused of practicing witchcraft were killed in the east African nation in 2013, 505 of whom were women. This figure has only increased from 630 in 2012.

The LHRC explains that the belief in witchcraft cuts through all strata of society, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old. Therefore, unless this entrenched cultural belief is effectively addressed, allegations of witchcraft will remain a serious threat to the lives of elderly women. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “As long as one woman’s human rights are violated, our struggle is not over…”.

Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

Laughter is the Way to Good Health

“Laughter is a form of internal jogging. It moves your internal organs around. It enhances respiration. It is an igniter of great expectations. So let us laugh our way into good health, into happiness, and a brighter day.” Norman Cousins

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – The old saying, ‘Laughter is the best medicine’, has withstood the test of time. Laughter is good for one’s health and soul. In fact, holistic interpretations of health and wellness would agree that people may well hold the key to good health.

Over the past 20 years, an international movement has erupted in the holistic wellness sphere – Laughter Yoga. Laughter yoga is a simple yet effective technique that combines laughter with yogic breathing techniques to improve quality of life. This revolution is no laughing matter, (pun intended!) and is currently practiced in more than sixty countries with thousands of laughter clubs across the globe.

Photo Credit: Oxfam International
Photo Credit: Oxfam International

The benefits of laughter yoga go beyond just emotional and mental health; scientific research indicates that the human body can also benefit from this exercise. A Vanderbilt University study reported that 10-15 minutes of laughter a day can burn up to 40 calories. Another study from Loma Linda University showed that a sense of humor can protect against heart disease. According to Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of Laughter Yoga University and the laughter yoga movement, some other benefits of the practice include:

  • Good Mood and More Laughter: Laughter yoga helps to change your mood within minutes by releasing positive endorphins, which will keep you cheerful throughout the day and make you laugh more than you normally do.
  • Healthy Exercise to Beat Stress: Laughter yoga is like a cardio workout that brings more oxygen to the body and brain, making one feel more energized and relaxed.
  • Health Benefits: Laughter yoga reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. You will not fall sick easily, and if you suffer from chronic health conditions you will heal faster.
  • Quality of Life: Laughter fosters positive energy, which improves relationships. If you laugh more, your vitality will invite more people into your life.
  • Positive Attitude in Challenging Times: Laughter creates a positive mental state that gives hope and optimism to cope with difficult times.

Many countries have picked up on this international trend, including Ethiopia where laughter yoga has achieved such popularity that October 31 is declared National Ethiopian Laughter Day. Laughter yoga was first introduced to the Ethiopian health and wellness space in 2002 by world laughter master Belachew Girma. Girma opened the first laughter yoga school in Addis Ababa called Laughter for All Association -Ethiopia. The school provides laughter yoga trainings in “Indigenous Laughter”, which focus on helping people hone their innate, natural laughter through Team Bonding, Stress Management, Positive Thinking, and Peace Building exercises. In addition to traveling around the world sharing his message, Girma visits old age homes in Ethiopia with professional laughter therapists as part of the school’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the elderly through laughter.

While the laughter yoga movement has been greatly successful across borders, it has had a unique impact in the African context. Health care accessibility in most African countries has seen significant improvements over the past ten years although mental health has not received enough attention. According to a study published in International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 79 percent of African countries spent less than one percent of their total health budget to mental health. Therefore, alternative self-treatments like laughter yoga can provide essential support in fighting mental illness.

Although the absence of laughter is not the root cause of all health issues, laughter yoga is a potential solution to the ailments of an increasingly sedentary and isolating lifestyle. The Social Care Institute for Excellence in the UK states that “The range of interventions for alleviating loneliness and social isolation can be grouped into one-to-one interventions, group services and wider community engagement. Those that look most effective include befriending, social group schemes and Community Navigators”. To sum up, social interaction is key to dealing with mental and physiological illnesses that stem from loneliness, and laughter yoga is a tool that facilitates such interaction.

Andria Reta is a Gerontologist and Health Administration Professor.

The African Age Wave – The Future is Now

Photo Credit: Pixabay
Photo Credit: Pixabay

“As we get older, our rights do not change. As we get older, we are no less human and should not become invisible.” These powerful words by 84-year-old South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu illustrate the necessary social, economic, and political shift that needs to occur in order for global sustainability to be achieved. He is in fact a living testament of what the world can expect to see, as the age wave extends itself far beyond geographical borders. In the foreword of the 2015 Global AgeWatch Index, Tutu goes on to say that “No future development goals can be legitimate or sustainable unless they include people of all ages and leave no one behind.” According to the National Institute on Health, “In 2010, an estimated 524 million people were aged 65 or older – eight percent of the world’s population. By 2050, this number is expected to nearly triple to about 1.5 billion, representing 16 percent of the world’s population.” This phenomenon is unprecedented, pervasive, enduring, and has profound implications around the world, especially in Africa where the age wave has gone virtually unnoticed.

The Global AgeWatch Index provides insight on the state of older people in various regions around the world. The Index measures four key domains that affect the welfare of older adults which include, income security, health status, capability and the enabling environment. According to the report, “Despite Africa’s rapid economic growth, poor social and economic wellbeing for older people means most countries continue to rank in the bottom quarter of the Index.” Mauritius ranked 42nd, which was the highest ranking of the region. This was followed by South Africa which ranked 78th, Ghana 81st, Tanzania 91st, Mozambique 94th and Malawi 95th. Although the index sheds light on the disparities that older adults are faced with, it does not tell the entire story for the African continent. Due to lack of data, only 11 of the 54 countries were evaluated.

While this report offers an empirical snapshot of the challenges faced by older adults in Africa, 65-year-old Dominic Ologi of Nairobi, Kenya personifies the plight of income security, one of the four key domains. His story parallels others throughout Africa. Ologi spent 30 years working in both private and public sectors, and when he retired nearly 10 years ago, he was faced with a harsh realization – he could not afford to remain without employment. His circumstance required that he goes back to work, and now at 65, Ologi is running a tap water kiosk. He is unable to enjoy his golden years just yet. Analogous to many Kenyans, Ologi is without savings and receives 7,500 shillings ($75) a month from his state pension. According to the South African financial services firm, Alexander Forbes, more than 40 percent of Kenyans cannot afford to retire and must continue working, and another 40 percent rely on family for support. Ologi’s story is not the exception, but in fact the rule. Based on this data, eight out of 10 Kenyans will experience similar hardships.

Conclusions about the Index can be drawn from what it states as well as from what it is missing. On the one hand, Africa is on its way to ratifying a charter on human rights that will outline specific obligations to older people. This effort signifies a more serious commitment to the urgent need for improvement that Africa now seeks to address. On the other hand, I could not help but think about the unquantifiable elements that would show Africa and the treatment of its elders in a more positive light. From firsthand experience, I have witnessed the level of respect given to elders in Africa remains unmatched. Elders continue to be the nucleus of entire communities, and are often sought after for wisdom and guidance. The African proverb, “A village without the elderly is like a well without water” illustrates the value placed on their contributions. Although Africa has a long journey towards developing an infrastructure that supports the needs of its older people, in some ways, it is miles ahead of the rest.

Andria Reta is a Gerontologist and Health Administration Professor.

 

Is Gogo the New Mama? How HIV/AIDS and globalization are increasing the role of older caregivers

Precious, a woman who looks well beyond her sixty-six years of age, sits in her yard in rural Zimbabwe watching over her three grandchildren, ages four, six and seven. “Gogo, gogo!” the youngest one beckons his grandmother, as he chases after his older siblings who are in search of guava fruits. Precious’ son, Michael, left for South Africa for work shortly after he married Mary, a girl from the same village. Michael contracted HIV in South Africa and transmitted it to Mary during one of his visits back home. While Michael was able to access antiretroviral drugs and continues to generate a small livelihood – a portion of which he sends from South Africa to Zimbabwe every few months – Mary died from AIDS shortly after the birth of her third child. Michael and Mary’s three children are now under the full-time care of Precious. [1]

Photo Credit: Blue Skyz Studios
Photo Credit: Blue Skyz Studios

Precious’ story is similar to those of many other grandmothers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya and other parts of the region are suffering from an Orphan Crisis is a topic of much debate internationally. The new systems of care that transnational economic structures are creating, and the pressing problem of HIV/ AIDS, continues to garner growing attention. For example, 2007 saw the first United Nations-led Global Summit on Grandparents and Kinship Caregivers. Sub-Saharan Africa currently has 17.9 million orphans, a large number of whom are being brought up by elderly grandparents.

A study conducted among the Luo ethnic group in Kenya demonstrates that older caregivers face severe strain while taking on parental roles in the lives of their grandchildren. For instance, grandmothers have noted going hungry on a regular basis to help feed the 1-9 orphans they care for. Many cannot sleep through the night as they have to nurse young infants. There is also the perpetually looming stress of being unable to provide financially for the children. This is especially hard when the children are HIV positive and require medical attention.

Another study in rural Uganda shows that caring for young children creates both physical and mental stressors, negatively impacting older caregivers’ health. The inability to participate in a livelihood livelihood generating activity causes grandparents to borrow from other households, which stigmatizes them in the societies they live in. In addition, children in the care of elderly are more likely to be victims of abuse as the elderly are often unable to protect them from these negative influences. All these factors culminate in weight loss, poor health and depression among the aging.

The preferred method of care for orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa is community-based as opposed to institutional. Keeping the child in a familial environment, and the village or tribe they come from, is key. While this method is certainly ideal, given the strain it places on the bulk of caregivers – grandmothers – there needs to be stronger social nets, such as feeding programs and free education, in place to help both caregivers and orphans live relatively successful lives. While certain NGOs provide stipends for food and education to such families, they do not have nearly enough capacity to address the issue of caregiver strain at the pace at which it is growing. It is important, thus, to consider the larger picture and understand how globalization and national policy can mitigate rather than exacerbate the issues that older caregivers face.

[1] This particular story is fictional. It is based on the lives of many women living in the rural Zimbabwe.

Sachi Shah is a recent graduate with a degree in International Development and Economics from Sarah Lawrence College, New York. She currently works as a grassroots campaign organizer, and is actively seeking opportunities in the international public health sector.