In African traditional society, elders are treasured for whom and what they are. They are respected and honoured by their communities for their spirituality, wisdom, high intelligence, knowledge, life experiences and teachings. They have a deep understanding of people and communities. They are recognized for their gifts, for their love and knowledge of the land and the language and for their knowledge of traditions.
Elders are the carriers and emblems of communally generated and mediated knowledge. In the western paradigm, such relations and processes of knowledge transmission are considered “informal”. Yet, these same processes are at the heart and soul of what is ‘formal” to Indigenous knowledge. Elders are first and foremost teachers and role models. They are vital in the teaching process, from infanthood to adulthood.
Without the Elders therefore, life is meaningless and has no purpose. Because of this, people revere and honour elders across the globe. However, the respect given to elders vary from one society to another, community to community and tribe to tribe. There are those who see in them (elders) treasures that are hard to find while, there are those who see no value in them because, they are old fashioned: They say the elderly are not important at all to society. The elderly don’t work to support society.
The elderly don’t have fun or entertain people like children do. The elderly are a cantankerous burdensome group to society that have nothing to live for and are better off dead.
Others even say the elderly are old, boring, stupid, evil and stubborn. They contribute nothing to civilized society and they have nothing to teach young people that they couldn’t learn themselves or from someone younger. In the Lango ethic group, most of the communities accord great respect to the elders because of whom and what they are.
In the tradition of Lango, education centres around games, folk stories, myths, proverbs, and riddles. The elders are responsible for educating young people, especially in forms of songs, riddles and stories. Children are taught (by their mother or siblings) morality and how to address their relatives and respect other people. When they get older, boys are taught by their father or male relatives and girls by their mother or female relatives.
Elders also play a great role in conflict resolution. According to Ogwari Maureen Achieng, former chief of Mission of IOM in Ethiopia, before Africa was colonised it was the task of traditional leaders or elders to solve and manage conflicts when they arose. Most of the African societies still prefer the use of traditional and informal justice and reconciliation forums to help in conflict resolution.
This is because most of the populations still live in the rural areas, limited infrastructures in the state justice systems and the unfair justice systems provided at the formal courts which tend to favour the rich in society hence it cannot be trusted. The traditional elders and chiefs mediate in violent conflicts where they give penalties which focus on compensation and restitution in order to restore status quo.
These leaders also act as facilitators in conflict resolution whereby they reconcile parties by helping them negotiate in a peaceful manner so as to live harmoniously in the community. African societies also have a preference for traditional institutions because it deals with reconciliation well embedded in the African culture, allows flexibility in its proceedings and re-establishes social harmony.
Traditional Lango elders have been involved in solving conflicts in the society for many decades. These elders are still highly respected and useful in conflict management in Lango. Therefore, their input in conflict management and resolution should not be overlooked, instead it should be encouraged, facilitated and included, especially in mediation processes.
Maintaining peace is among the main roles played by traditional elders in many African societies especially in Lango. Their influence goes a long way in resolving disputes between family members, within and among communities and occasionally across state lines. Elders give counsel to those in need; listen to the problems of the group; help shed light on difficult situations; advise and guide the young and in return, they are revered, nurtured, respected and cared for until they pass on to the spirit world.
These and many other roles played by elders warrants them respect for what they have done and for keeping our world and culture moving. We must accept that even in this world of technology, we still don’t know more than our elders. Hence the old saying; “what an elder sees while seated, the young man cannot see even if he climbs a tree. Let us treasure elders for Old is Gold.”