Along with procreation, hard work and hospitality, respect for elders is a core value in the
African culture. It comes from the mentality which values the past more than the future.
Some people call it a mythical mentality that looks towards the past more than towards the
future. In this mentality, things that happened in the past are held in high esteem. The
present depends on the past as the future depends on the present. Likewise, the young
depend on elders.
The elder par excellence is God himself. In Luganda, he is called Ssewannaku, the equivalent
of the biblical ‘Ancient of Days’. The Zulu refer to God as Unkulunkulu, using the Bantu
root –kulu which means both great and old. Moreover, the duplication of –kulu points to
the fact that God is greater and older than all. The Baluba of The Democratic Republic of
Congo call God Mvidie Mukulu, the Great Spirit, the oldest of all. Greatness goes together
with age. Traditionally, Africans worship God through divinities, ancestors, and lesser spirits
because he is considered to be too great to be approached directly. He is far away from us
as some myths point out, far away in greatness, distance, and age.
After God comes the ancestors. These are the elders of humanity. They somehow share in
the ‘ancientness’ of God. It is from them that we get our land, traditions, language, political
systems, and culture in general. Although they lived long before us, we participate in their
life, i.e. we live today what they lived in the past. For a young man or woman who
undergoes initiation into adulthood, it is not enough to imitate his/her parents or
grandparents; one must participate, in a personal and ritual manner, in the life of the
ancestors by repeating what they did.
In Africa, we depend on our ancestors for many things and we owe them obedience if we
are to live well. Life and blessings come from God through the ancestors. This is why most of
African worship is directed to the ancestors. Sacrifices and libations are given to them as a
token of reverence and love. Quite often, diseases, calamities, misfortunes, and natural
disasters are interpreted as consequences of the neglect of the ancestors. The wisdom of
the ancestors evident in myths, proverbs, wise sayings, riddles, etc. is considered to be a
treasure. Through it, our ancestors continue to instruct and advise us.
Some African societies have gerontocracies, i.e., the rule of the old. Power is diffused among
the elders and no single individual can claim to have authority and power over the others.
These are societies that have a class of warriors who defend whole villages from external
aggressors under the direction of the elders. They are always armed but submit to the
elders who can punish them for wrongdoing. The power of the elders is not in weapons but
in their capacity to curse those who create disorder in the community. A curse is believed to
cause misfortunes like barrenness, sickness, failures in undertakings, and even untimely
death. While the young warriors believe in the divine power and wisdom of the elders, they
dread their curse.
The African saying that you cannot construct a new hut without using old poles points to
the importance of the presence of the elders on several occasions. People seek blessings from the elders before marriage, on long journeys, when looking for jobs, or any important
undertakings. Moreover, they are the ones who saw the last ancestors alive.
During marriages, funerals, and feasts, the elders are asked just to be there. They may be
somewhere in a hut, eating, drinking, and talking among themselves but their presence is
felt and appreciated not for practical work or economic production but presence. It is their
presence that guarantees the validity and success of every important ceremony. In this way,
they are the living ancestors. They are the pillars of society and their participation in
important occasions is not pragmatic but ontological, that is, they participate not by doing
but by being.
Now that modern life has made some people forget their history, customs, taboos, rituals,
and even the correct way of speaking their language, the elders are a great source of
information. This is why we say: When an elder dies, it is a whole library that is burnt.
Therefore, Traditional Africa does not depend on literature for wisdom; it depends on those
who have lived longest and whose experience has made them wise.
It is important to note that the living elders are not burdens to society; they are a blessing. It
will therefore take time in Africa to build houses where elderly people are kept and looked
after away from their families and relatives. Thus, the fact that they are of age shows that
they are blessed by God. They can transmit this blessing to members of their community.
By Fr. Kanyike Edward MCCJ