Other Free Encyclopedias » Medicine Encyclopedia » Aging Healthy - Part 4 » Status of Older People: Tribal Societies - Longevity, The Cultural Construction Of Elders And Older Adulthood, Gender And Age, Old Age In Myth And Folklore

Status of Older People: Tribal Societies - Age And Generation As Organization

social life samburu cycle women

In some tribal societies where age is used as the most powerful organizing principle, different spans along the life cycle are sharply set apart by highly managed images involving spectacular ritual, distinct dress, specialized tasks, modes of speech, comportment, and deferential gestures. Persons move through the life cycle collectively and form tightly bound groups, or age-sets, performing specific tasks. Societies where age plays such a powerful role in ordering social life have been found in Africa, among certain Native American groups and Australian aborigines, and in Papua, New Guinea (Bernardi). The most elaborate forms of such cultural systems are found among East African nomadic herders, such as the Samburu of Kenya (Spencer). Here, age-sets of males initiated together move through the life cycle collectively. Over time and through elaborate ritual, they progressively enter, as a group, age-bounded roles of herders, warriors, and, finally, three levels of elders who exert control over the lives of younger community members. The middle-level elders, in their fifth and sixth decades, gain substantial power through maintaining large polygynous households, holding wealth in their numerous cattle and having a ritual link to their ancestors, whom they can call upon to curse younger persons who misbehave. As is the case for most such age-based societies, a Samburu woman’s social maturation is accomplished through individual life-cycle rituals and her status is much more tied to the her place in family units (see Kertzer and Madison for a description of one of the rarer cases of women’s age-sets). Societies such as the Samburu are said to be gerontocracies (from gerontes, old men), where authority and esteem cumulate in the eldest males. In reality, it is often the middle group of elders in their fifties and early sixties who typically hold the most power in such societies.

All too often such cultures have been held up as exemplars of places where a strong positive image of the elderly reaches its zenith. It is important to note that this is frequently accomplished at the expense of intense intergenerational conflict, of exploiting and repressing the young and preventing women from gaining an equitable place in the community. Among the Samburu, older women in fact do not share the very powerful image associated with old men. When they are widowed, women are not permitted to marry again and suffer both materially and socially.

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