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Age as a (Literal) Badge of Honor
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Age as a (Literal) Badge of Honor

Image credit: Denis Mwangi, Kenyans.co.ke


In one Kenyan county, elders wear uniforms and badges so that they can be more easily identified...and deferred to.

Many older adults in America don’t like being singled out based on their age. By dyeing their hair, dressing sharply, exercising, or even investing in plastic surgery, many try to conceal their age for as long as possible—believing, perhaps, that the younger they appear the more seriously they’ll be taken.

In the Uasin Gishu county in Kenya, however, it’s just the opposite. All the elders—well, all the male ones—are given uniforms and badges to make them stand out as authority figures in the community.  

In Kenya’s pre-colonial times, tribal elders served as the center of local justice systems and wielded expansive governing powers.

For example, the Meru people had a Council of Elders whose responsibility was “to make and execute customary law, listen and settle disputes and pass on customary knowledge from one generation to another. The knowledge emphasized acceptable behaviour in the community. The council of elders also had the role of the custodian of the indigenous law and culture.”

Under colonial rule, however, these justice systems were forcibly replaced. The British appointed local, “paramount chiefs,” whom they propped up and controlled. This was part of a strategy of indirect colonial rule—in Kenya and other colonies, they selected and used local leaders to enforce their authority rather than bring in foreign colonial officers.

Now, elders continue to command respect—and play important, if informal, roles in governance—in many communities. 

In one town, there has been a push to begin compensating elders for the contributions they make to aspects of governance such as dispute resolution, the promotion of education, and public safety. While not necessarily elected or formally appointed in today’s postcolonial system, these village elders still act as important leaders and mentors much as they have done throughout history. 

Another report explained that Kenya’s national government was at one point considering granting the tribal Councils of Elders formal authority to advise the state. Looking to the model that Botswana’s Council of Elders uses as a guide, these talks stressed the importance of incorporating elder advice on a more regular and systematic basis; as it stands, elders’ influence often spikes around an election as they weigh in and give their endorsements, but does not extend to routine government decision-making.

Although elder councils have at times been accused of undermining democracy, and have traditionally reinforced strict patriarchal systems of rule, others see reinstating their power as a meaningful part of reclaiming pre-colonial cultural practices.

Just last week, Kenya’s President attended an event in which a group of elders publicly declared their support for ending female genital mutilation (FGM)—a landmark moment for elders’ evolving societal role. While the national government outlawed the practice eight years ago, some communities still practice it out of deference to tradition—and in these cases, elders alone often hold the unique power to discredit the practice. 

Hopefully, Kenya’s future will continue to see respect for elders serving as a force for good.

Do you wish older adults in your region received more cultural respect or political authority? How often do you see older members of your community deferred to as local leaders? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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