How do you treat age in Africa?
Africans, do not fear age as is the case in other cultures where people do all to look young. To Africans, aging is a natural process that must come, and when it begins manifesting itself, they are not troubled; instead, it is well received and the individual makes the best use of this newly acquired wand of authority. In Africa, because of the world of experience elders have by virtue of their ages, they are expected to behave accordingly: mature, respectful, and disciplined. Because these elders are usually parents also, although not a sine qua non for one to be considered an elder, they are the role models in society, and everyone looks up to them for guidance in virtually every aspect of life. In the words of Michael Ba Banutu-Gomez:
Age is important in Africa because one is valued and respected in society according to one's age and performance as an example to those younger. Age is a sign of dignity, prestige, respect, and status in the society. Someone who has gray hair is in a special class: a class of respect, of consultation, of advisement, of positive example. Such people will have the respect of the community and be supported and valued. (12)
Beyond just being role models, they are the custodians of culture, the ways of the community which they hand down from generation to generation; hence, the respect and authority they command and wield in society. Within Somalian communities, for example, Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi points out about respect for parents, the aged, and their authority:
Somalis are brought up to respect their parents and to seek advice and blessings (du o) from them. Lack of deference for parents brings forth habaar (curse). To secure blessings from parents, a sixty-year-old Somali may be seen asking an aged parent for blessings and even advice on how to deal with certain matters. Old parents whose own offspring have started their own households are viewed as the center of the extended family. They are asked to arbitrate in disputes between brothers and sisters. At other times, the old parents may ask for contribution from their grown offspring to help a member of the family who is not doing well. In other words, parents in their senior years never retire from family management. (126-127)
It is this respect for age, the elders and their ways of doing things that led to gerontocracy as an established pattern within African communities.
I hear you have age-groups in Africa?
Yes, because of the importance of age as a social factor, there are age-groups in African societies. These age-groups help with the structuring and running of traditional African societies, as people will meddle only in the affairs of members of their own age groups, unless otherwise authorized. This age group affair is somewhat more flexible than it might sound. According to Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan,
Age-sets provided for a somewhat higher degree of political organization. Age-sets consisted of men born at about the same time, who were formally initiated into a kind of all male corporation. Each age-set had its own name, insignia, songs, and dances. The members residing in one particular district formed a local chapter. Men remained in the same age-set throughout their lives, but graduated successively from initiate to warrior, and finally from warrior to elder. The chapters regulated most day-to-day activities, and the chapters in turn formed part of a wider hierarchy of age grades. The younger warriors raided cattle from hostile neighbors and also provided a readily available reserve for defense. The senior men acted as the executive arm of the elders. The elders in turn exercised ritual powers, adjudicated in difficult matters, and decided general policy. Under the age-set system political office, so to speak, was collectivized. There were political distinctions, but each man would rise successively from a relatively low station to the position of elder, together with his age-mates. Social life was thus strictly regulated; the community could mobilize relatively large military forces; but no man had hereditary claim to rank or office, and none could call himself a ruler. (486)
Although Gann and Duignan overlook it, women's groups too exist, and it was seen as an index of ignorance not to know female counterparts. In any case, a good example of an effective age-group system is found among the Massai of Kenya, in East Africa, where the duty of the moran age-set is to keep cattle and community safe. The overall control of this age-set, like with any other, rests with the elders—men who had been moran themselves at an earlier stage of their lives and now had the authority to impose their moral and political judgment upon the actions of incumbent members of the moran (John Reader).