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An extremely young Africa, the elderly are a precious resource.

In Novusumzi Masala’s life, there are 13 copies of everything – 13 pairs of used shoes strewn about her tiny two-bedroom house, 13 bowls stacked above her sink, and 13 piles of homework to do every night. ShareFacebookTwitter _ _

But the 13 little lives orbiting his are not his children. Instead, 78-year-old Ms Masala is busy raising a dozen grandchildren at a bakery, struggling to keep up with the cadence of rap beats, from their cellphone speakers in going through their antiretroviral medication schedule and doctor visits.

“It’s not how I imagined my old age,” she laughs, as a pair of toddlers scramble to her feet. “But I continue. They are my family – I could never say no to them. “

Sub-Saharan Africa is, by global standards, an extremely young region: 60 percent of its population is under the age of 25, and there are 12.9 million people on the continent between the ages of 20 and 64 for each person over 65 years old. (Compare that with Europe, where there are four young adults for every elderly person, or Japan, where there are only two). Africa’s population, meanwhile, is growing faster than any other region on Earth and by 2100, the UN predicts that one in four people on the planet will live here.

Depending on who you ask, the continent’s so-called “youth wave” is either a spectacular opportunity – with the potential to be an engine of massive economic growth – or a ticking time bomb. If the continent’s vast pool of young people becomes a vast pool of unemployed adults, after all, it could spell social and political disaster across the continent.

But one solution to creating opportunities for the continent’s young people could be, ironically, to look in another direction, at the elderly – and especially men and women like Masala.

“Older people are often seen as vulnerable, fragile and irrelevant to what happens to younger people, but we know that in reality the lives of older and younger people are intertwined – there is a transfer of skills and knowledge that needs to happen for society to work,” said Isabella Aboderin, senior researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in Nairobi.

Helping young people by helping the elderly

In South Africa, where almost 1 in 5 people are HIV-positive, the bond between old and young people is particularly close. The country has around 3.7 million orphans – half of whom have lost their parents to AIDS – and 8 percent of all children here are being raised by their grandparents, according to Statistics South Africa . (Continent-wide, UNICEF estimates that half of Africa’s 132 million orphans live with their grandparents.)

For Joey Manane, who runs a Soweto-based youth organization called Ikusasa Lethu (“Tomorrow is ours”), this connection is essential. He came to see supporting the elderly in his community as an essential part of his work supporting young people.

Three mornings a week, when the children are finishing their breakfast and heading out of her center on their way to school, the local grannies begin to arrive, ready for a day of crafts, support groups and sports.

“We have a very good grannies football team,” he says.

The logic behind programs for older people in a youth center is simple, he says. “It makes our work with kids so much easier if their ‘gogos’ feel supported.” He estimates that around 60 percent of the young people he works with, from HIV-affected households in the surrounding community, are being raised by grandparents.

At the Masalas’ house, Angelina Majoro, a lively young counselor from Ikusasa Lethu, also comes once a week to watch over Novusumzi and her grandchildren, aged 2 to 17. Sometimes she helps with their homework, preparing their meals or setting up a family budget. Other times she sits and listens to her grandmother’s frustrations – raising 13 children when your only source of income is a small government grant isn’t easy, she vents her worries and says her wish that they can move to a bigger place.

“It helps to talk so you don’t bottle things up,” says Masala.

The need to prepare

Although the African population remains youth oriented, the population of Masala is also growing. Africans, like everywhere in the world, are starting to live longer, and over the next 35 years the percentage of the population over the age of 65 is expected to triple to around 10%, according to the UN.

But the continent’s demography also gives it a unique position on a global scale. Unlike parts of the world where understanding how to support a rapidly aging population is already putting policy makers in check, Africa has the time. Although some early signs suggest that regional bodies such as the African Union recognize the challenge ahead, overall, however, the region remains unprepared, Ms. Aboderin said.

“Unlike what is happening in other regions where there is very explicit recognition that population aging is a very serious development problem that requires planning and action, this has not yet been the case in Sub-Saharan Africa,” she said. “Overall, I think it’s fair to say that nationally, issues related to aging remain marginal to non-existent.”

For the Masalas, however, little is said about the essential bond that exists between its youngest and oldest members. Recently, some older children presented their grandmother with a song they had written about their lives. It was a haunting rap ballad, and unsurprisingly, it charted high.

“It’s a song about what we went through and how we moved on, with the help of our grandmother,” said Ongezwa Masala, 15. “We sing to tell him why we love him.”

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