What traditional Council of Elders can teach us about intergenerational solidarity

UNDP KENYA
5 min readAug 19, 2022

“Our longevity exists, has meaning, and creates value because it provides human beings with a mechanism for improving the lives of all ages. That mechanism is a pattern of reciprocal relationships that unite the generations. Far from being society’s expensive leftovers, elders and the elderhood they inhabit are crucial to the well-being of all,” Gerontologist Dr. Bill Thomas.

International Youth Day 2022, themed Intergenerational Solidarity: Creating a World for All Ages, was an opportune moment to reflect on how actors can foster collaboration and solidarity across age groups for sustainable development. The British author Charles Leadbeater posits that the values of youth are about possession, consumption, expression, and individuality; the values that underpin dignity in age and death are about relationships, connectedness, sharing and participation — far more powerful drivers for social change. Despite the benefits, many challenges remain in leveraging the full potential of all generations. So, how can we maintain relationships across generations and create a society that works for all?

Wisdom is powerful when exchanged freely across generations

The solution to exchanging wisdom freely across generations to enable intergenerational solidarity could lie in tapping into traditional knowledge. In many cultures, passing wisdom was once a prized tribal tradition. Elders were keepers of their culture and agents of its survival and communication through myths, stories and songs passed from one generation to the next. Through a programme dubbed Transcending Foundations of Peace and Security for Inclusive and Sustainable Development in Kenya, UNDP tapped into the ways of working of the Pokomo council of elders to strengthen the inclusion and participation of youth, persons with disabilities (PWDs), women and other marginalized groups in peace and security interventions. Below are some of the insights drawn from engaging the council of elders that could help bridge the connection across generations.

Understanding the traditional council of elders

Focus group discussion (FGD) with Pokomo council of elders representing different age sets in Chamwanamuma village, Kipini West ward, Tana Delta Sub County, Tana River County.

The Pokomo council of elders is composed of people of different age sets formed by adolescent men circumcised together meaning any young man who goes through this initiation becomes a member. Thus, it has a mixed representation of a generation of older and younger age sets. The council deals with solving disputes like marriage disputes, land disputes, and family conflicts. Subsequent generations rely on the experience of preceding generations to help resolve disputes. For instance, an older age set’s memory could be relied upon to determine land boundaries that might have been obscured over time and might have proven challenging to resolve by the age set in power. Furthermore, if a party feels aggrieved with the determination of a dispute, they are allowed to appeal with an age set which is much older and experienced than the one in power. Additionally, every generation benefits from the older generation’s invaluable skills such as high EQ (emotional intelligence), and good judgement born out of decades of resolving disputes. This experience is naturally passed down to subsequent generations. The age set in power usually stays in power until either most of its members have either passed on or reduced functional ability due to old age. At this point, power is handed down to the subsequent age set. The initiation ceremony involves preparing a particular age set to be members of the council for a month. In the event a dispute has been presented to the age set in power, they usually convene a meeting with all the other age sets to come up with ideas to resolve the dispute. This usually forms part of experiential learning for the new members as they are exposed to the practical aspects of how issues are resolved. How effective is this? “If we exit, then the incoming age set can resolve disputes,” says one of the elders. The practical experience and institutional knowledge remain continuously relevant to the young as elders can reflect on what they have learned and incorporate it into the legacy they offer younger generations.

Lake Shaka Babo located in Ngao location, Tana Delta Sub-County, Tana River County. Photo by Michael Kibuku

Applying the insight:

1. Considering the Council of Elders’ central role as the primary source of cultural knowledge, this calls for focusing on the strengths and resources within a community as opposed to what is wrong or what outsiders can contribute. This enables people with lived experience to be a part of decision-making. Outside support should be supplementary.

2. Maintaining relationships across generations and creating a society that works for all necessitates co-designing projects with all groups to better tap into the contributions that people with lived experience can make. This means harvesting insights from elders, religious leaders, youth, men, women, and PWDs.

3. Commit to implementation: A long-term commitment to co-design requires recognition of the evidence generated through the co-design process and respect for the contribution of co-designers. As a result, the programme has tried something different and created new evidence about what works through learning by doing.

Portfolio wheel with insights generated through the co-design process by the UNDP Accelerator Lab

4. Peace committees could adopt the Council of Elders’ process of knowledge transfer from one generation to another. Members usually serve a three-year term necessitating the need for capacity building after every three years. Rather than a complete exit, former members can commit to support new members and subsequent entrants thus building a body of experiential knowledge to be relied upon in the future.

The secret ingredient for a sustainable world

Despite the above insights, the acceleration of innovation has made elders less relevant. Literature means society can no longer solely depend upon the memory and oral traditions of elders to share wisdom. Young people are moving away from their parents to the city or urban areas, initiation events like circumcision happen in medical facilities or children undergo circumcision at tender ages thus missing out on the knowledge passed on during the initiation ceremony. These modern improvements call for innovative ideas of how elders — the world’s only growing natural resource — can be integrated into cultivating young brains. Elders have so much to offer those younger than them and could arguably be the secret ingredient to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sunset in Tana River County. Photo by Michael Kibuku

Author: Victor Apollo — Head of Solutions Mapping

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UNDP KENYA

In #Kenya, UNDP works with the Government and communities towards inclusive and sustainable socio-economic and human development. https://www.ke.undp