Age Groups

Among many African peoples, members of the society are grouped according to age. Although the practice is not universal, it is widespread throughout the continent and impacts the social and religious attitudes of the people. In fact, the age group organization is woven into the fabric of the sacred lineage of some East African communities. Age group sets are the keys to establishing solid foundations for respect for elders.
Such a system is normally cyclical. Names are given to the age sets and may reappear in cycles of 100 or so years when the last person of that group is deceased. The initiation into an age set usually happens every 5 years and is dependent on the willingness to participate, rather than descent lineage. Young people are not normally accepted into the age group organization until they have reached puberty; then they may join any of the age group sets that apply to their ages. Where age group sets exist, by the time a person is 15 years old, he or she has usually been accepted into an age group set.
There are a number of theories about age group organizations. Some believe that they were developed to deal with military situations. In fact, the Zulu military organization under Chaka was based on age group sets. Most East African societies that have age group sets also use them as military group and military organization. Among the Maasai and Nandi, the age group sets provided ready sources of military troops.
Of course, there are some people who do not tie their age group sets to military or legal systems; they are tied to social constructions. Another theory says that age groups reflect the way humans move into the ancestral realm, that is, with their age group cohorts. Because all members of an age group are close in age, this is a logical conclusion because the group creates a common approach to society, life, and ancestors. The age group set may provide the basis for community loyalty. The participation in the age group is at the core of the community's sense of purpose. Those who are in an age set work within a structure where age group loyalty trumps all others.
Normally if the particularly ethnic group practices circumcision, all the boys who are circumcised at the same time form an age set. Some groups practice female circumcision also, and girls who are circumcised at the same time are members of the same set.
Usually age set creation is accompanied by ritual ceremonies of initiation. Only those people who have been initiated can participate in certain age set activities. If someone violates the rules of the age set, then that person might be cursed or expelled from the age group.
The Tiriki age sets, for example, are given names according to age and responsibilities. Thus, you have elders who are deceased or senile (Kabalach), ritual elders (Golongolo), judicial elders (Jiminigayi), elder warriors (Nyonje), warriors (Mayina), initiated (Juma), uninitiated (Juma), and small boys (Sawe). One remains with an age group until all members are deceased; then the next group becomes the oldest and wisest.



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Further Reading

  • Ehret, C. (1971). Southern Nilotic History. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • LeVine R., and Sangree W. H. The Diffusion of Age Group Organization in East Africa: A Controlled Comparison Africa 32 (2) (1962). 107–110.