In traditional African societies, elders have always played an important role in maintaining peace and fostering reconciliation among the communities. We look at two ethnic groups: the Agìkùyù and the Samburu of Kenya.
To become an elder one must pass through all rites of passage from birth to old age. Among the Agìkùyù of Kenya an elder (Muthuri) should have the wisdom to distinguish right from wrong. He should be mature, able to discern, reflect, choose, reason, and think critically. Moral qualities are an important criterion in an individual’s initiation into elderhood.
African elderhood is not a single event. It goes through stages. For instance, among the Agìkùyù, after marriage one is promoted to a stage of Githiga. One is recognized as a full person. With his own land and homestead, one enters the “council of spears” (Kiama kia kamatimu) to become a true warrior who protects the community from enemies. However, he will fight only with orders from the ‘Higher council of elders’. Keeping discipline allows one to join the “council of peace” (Kiama, kia mataathi). This occurs when one of his children is admitted to the “council of spears.” He stops carrying the spear and as symbol of peace he receives muthigi and mataathi. He is now a peacekeeper. With integrity and high moral standing and peace, a person at this level is admitted into the ‘Highest council of elders’ known as kiama kia maturanguru. All three stages of elderhood entail responsibilities and roles. It is clear that by being installed as an elder in an African community one is given significant responsibilities, roles, and duties towards his community.
Elders make sure that community customs and practices that foster harmony, order, and peace are passed on to new generations. They are the teachers during initiation ceremonies where they teach young initiates moral values such as peace and justice, humility, gentleness, truthfulness, cooperation, and unity. They also teach their family members how to keep peace and harmony among themselves.
Peace is understood also in relation to nature and thus to God. Elders use their reconciliatory and mediatory powers to unite people with their ancestors. They rule with reverence to God. They preserve God’s creation. They offer sacrifices and prayers to God on behalf of their community. Elders are instrumental in creating harmonious relationships between people and God. The Agìkùyù elders rule with reverence to God knowing that God (Ngai) is the greatest divider and provider, Mwathani is the eminent ruler of all, mwene-nyaga is the owner of all mysteries.
Elders also make sure that people are united with God by making sure that they do not destroy his creation. Among the Agìkùyù for example they make sure that sacrificial trees such as mugumo and mukuyu are preserved. The Agìkùyù call these trees “Miti mihoro ya kuhorohia” (reconciliatory trees). During reconciliation meetings or sacrifices, elders sit under mugumo or mukuyu trees. Sitting under these trees means that they are under God’s shelter; God is regarded by them as a judge and protector of the weak. The Agìkùyù believe that under a mugumo tree, peace must be restored.
The Samburu are a northern pastoral community located mainly in the Samburu District of the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. Pastoralism is their main occupation although small-scale cultivation is now practiced as well. Peace is a key concept in the Samburu community. In order to understand this, one needs to look at how the word is used in everyday language. An elder, for example, who wakes up at the crack of dawn and goes out to pray will most certainly ask God to grant the community peace. The same is also true as he escorts his animals out of the Kraal. As he escorts each herd (cattle, goats, or camels) he always concludes his instructions with a prayer wishing the herdboy a peaceful day. In the traditional structure of the Samburu people, the elders are charged with the responsibility of not only leading but also of judging.
Smaller conflicts and differences are usually handled at lower ranks or at an individual level. However, conflicts that could potentially multiply – maybe involving warriors, especially from different clans – may warrant the intervention of the elders.
Serious issues are usually discussed under a Loip tree, far from home interference. Word is sent around inviting all the elders to the meeting. Those who for very clear and understandable reasons cannot attend the meeting must apologise. Unexcused absenteeism is not expected, and is not taken lightly.
The first people to arrive usually wait and discuss general issues until most of the invited are present. To mark the beginning of the meeting an elder stands and says the opening prayers. It is interesting to note that during the meeting itself only one man can be standing at a time.
There is no chairman, yet the coordination and flow of events is classic. This shows that all members are at the same level – contributions are therefore possible from all. The final decision is made at the end of the meeting after having reached a consensus. One good thing about such meetings is that all members have a roughly equal opportunity to contribute.
In most cases, the decision of the elders is final. If the offence was serious, the offender is asked to give a cow (heifer) to the offended party. Normal relationships are expected to resume after this. It is important to mention that elders do not usually expect a compensation to participate in such meetings.
Every meeting concludes with a Mayian prayer. There is a general belief that acting contrary to what was agreed in the meeting might bring a bad omen or a curse. People take the elders’ resolutions very seriously.
In present day Africa, the traditional system of elderhood has undergone drastic changes due to the introduction of western education, western style governments and legal systems, and new religions. However, in many parts of the African continent, elders are still consulted in matters pertaining to customary law – these often concern marriage or land matters. In villages and rural areas in general, problems and disputes are taken to the elders before they are taken to the police or other legal bodies. Many political leaders recognize the importance of the elders. They realize that the current political system must borrow from the old ones. Elders should be allowed to play a bigger role in building the society as far as peace and reconciliation are concerned.
Anthony F. Mutua