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The African e-Journals Project has digitized full text of articles of eleven social science and humanities journals.   This item is from the digital archive maintained by Michigan State University Library. Find more at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/africanjournals/

Available through a partnership with

Scroll down to read the article.

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The Structure of East AfricanAge-Set Systems:

R.F. Morton

The purpose of this paper is to examine thestructural features of four East African age-set systems.The four groups have been selected because their age-setsystems are examined in anthropological literature andbecause their varied political, social and economic ele-ments suggest many ways in which an analysis of age-setsystems may be attempted. The four groups are the Masai,Arusha, Nandi and Kikuyu.

The pastoral Masai (1lmaasai, as opposed to1loikop, or semi-pastoral Masai) of Southern Kenya andNorthern Tanzania belong to the linguistic group ofPlains Nilotes.l They are typical pastoralists in thatthey undergo seasonal transhumance, own large nurtbers ofcattle, sheep and goats and live in small, widely dis-persed settlements within the tribal area for much of theyear. They are untypical in their attempt at totalreliance on their stock for food and in their correspond-iag contempt for those who have incorporated agriculturalproduce into their diet. The Masai consist of sevenautonomous tribes, each with its own age-sets (olaji, pl.ilAjijik). Because of the close organizational similari-ties among age-sets in the seven tribes, however, it is


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possible to speak of the pastoral Masai age-set system.The system, which is the basis for political organizationin each tribe, is still functioning.

The Arusha of Northern Tanzania, are classi-fied as agricultural, or semi-pastoral, Masai and belong

?~o the Plains Nilote group.- Like the pastoral Masai. theArusha are divided into autonomous units, dubbed 'parishes~each with its own age-sets, or age-groups. The politicalrole of age-sets in each Arusha parish, unlike that ofeach pastoral Masai tribe, is important but not tanta-mount. Age-sets form part of a political structure inwhich a lineage and clan system are involved. Age-sets ineach Arusha parish are kept in line with those of otherArusha parishes, and the entire Arusha age-set system isritually dependent, for the formation and 'handing over'of its age-sets, on the ritual expert of the Kisongotribe of the pastoral Masai. As of 1960 the Arusha age-set system 'continued to flourish'.

The Nandi of western Kenya belong to theHighland Nilote linguistic group.3 Though classified aspastoralists, it would perhaps be more accurate to des-~ribe them as semi-pastoralists, or even as sedentaryagriculturists who keep a lot of cattle.4 The Nandi relyheavily on agricultural produce to supplement their diet,settle in permanent households and the cattle-to-humanratio is low in comparison with pastoral groups. Thoughthe number of cattle exceeded Nandi population by almostfive to one in 1945, present estimates show that whilethe human population is on the increase, that of cattlei. declining slowly.5 In Nandi there are three levelsof territorial organization, and one of these, thepororiet (pl. pororosiek) corresponds to the area inwhich an age-set (ipinda, pl. ipinuek) is formed. Thereare twenty-four pororosiek in Nandi and, therefore,twenty-four age-set systems. Again, correspondence ishigh in terms of age-set organization among Nandipororosiek, and they can be referred to as belonging tothe same age-set system. Nandi ipinuek are involved withpolitical matters insofar as pororosiek are involved,

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which may be termed as marginal. The basic territorialpolitical unit is the ~, or 'parish' (not to be con-fused with the Arusha parish), which is composed ofapproximately twenty to one hundred homesteads, and withother korotinwek goes to make up a pororiet. Certainfeatures of the Nandi age-set system were declared illegalin the early stages of colonial rule, but the system wasfunctioning as late as the 1940s.

The Kikuyu proper (i.e., Metume, Karura, andGaki), as separate from Embu, Heru, and Chuka, belong tothe Highland Bantu linguistic group.6 As sedentary agri-culturists the Kikuyu occupy the highlands to the southof Hount Kenya. Age-sets (~, pl. mariika) in Kikuyuare not linked to any territorial political unit, nor docorporate age-sets assume political power. Territorialdefinitions of Kikuyu age-sets are relevant only insofaras they explain from where individual members of age-setsare recruited. This unit, appearing in the literature as'district', also defines certain judicial powers of eldersin pre-colonial times and may have been of ritual impor-tance. Kikuyu political and social organization is basedon clan, lineage And ritual affiliations, societalmoieties known as generation-sets and different forms ofland ownership, all of which account for extensive frag-mentation of power within Kikuyu society. These factors,in conjunction with the incomplete literature on theKikuyu, make it difficult to define adequately the Kikuyuage-set system or to relate it to Kikuyu society, as awhole. Certain functions of the Kikuyu age-set system,however, have been described in detail, and comparisonswith the other three groups can be attempted. Owing tothe sizeable disruption of Kikuyu society by Europeansettlement and colonial labour and land policies, theKikuyy age-set system, like many other of their tradi-tional institutions, no longer exists.

In order to understand how age-sets function,it is appropriate to begin with definitions of age-setsand age-set systems. According to Radcliffe-Brown, anage-set is:

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•••• recognised and sometimes organisedgroup consisting of persons (often malepersons only) who are of the same age •••In Africa, at any rate in East and SouthAfrica, .n age-set is normally formed ofall those males who are initiated .t onetime••• Once a person enters a given age-set, whether .t birth or by initiation,he remains a member of the same age-setfor the remainder of his life ••• InEast Africa, where the age-organizationis highly elaborated, each age-set normally 7p.sses from one grade to another as a whole.

A. H. J. Prins has attempted to modify this definition inorder to make room for certain components of age-sets

8which he calls 'age-classes'. Alan Jacobs' study ofKasai political organization makes a distinction betweenan age-set (a corporate age-group recruited on the basisof biological age) and. generation-set (recruited on theb.sis of a 'man's father's group membership and, hence,on criteria of genealogical generation,.)9 Among theMas.i one may enter an age-set at birth, as Radcliffe-Brown has susgested, but only at the time of circumcision.This distinction is largely immaterial to the followingdiscussion, however, because the four groups selectedpossess age-sets for which recruitment is based on biolo-gical age. Among the Kikuyu an age-set system functions.longside a generation-set system, but the latter willnot figure into considerations here. According toHuntingford Nandi males are born into a set, and theeldest son enters the set second from and below the oneto which his father belongs, while younger sons enter theset third from and below.10 According to Jacobs' defini-tion, the Nandi would have a generation-set system, ratherthan an age-set system. Huntingford mentions, however,the case of an eldest son being too young (he was 10 atthe time) to be initiated with members of the set secondfrom and below that of his father, and who was conse-quently initiated along with the members of the set thirdfrom and below.ll This occurrence calls into questionHuntingford's assertion of genealogical determination ofset membership. Since, also, Nandi sets do not act as'

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corporate groups until initiation of their members bycircumcision is undertaken, it is perhaps more correct tocall th.m 'age-sets' as Jacobs has defined them, haviagmembers recruited at the time of their eligibility to becircumcised and which in turn is determined by biologicalage.

An 'age-set system', which applies to all age-sets in a society at anyone time, and which is themain concern of this paper, is undefined in anthropolo-gical literature. A number of excellent studies of these'systems' have been made in larger studies of EastAfrican peoples, and the relevant chapters are usuallytitled 'age organizations', 'age-grades', 'age-sets', orsomething similar. Normally, the similarity of what Ismeant by these terms emerges in the course of reading, andthe following definition relies mainly on deductions madetherefrom:

An age-set system is composed of struc-tural and social elements. Structura-lly, an age-set system is the particularmeans by which an age-set i. broughtinto being, is advanced from one gradeto another and is held responsible forperforming certain tasks as a corporategroup in a particular age-grade.Socially, an age-set system is the meansby which is defined conduct betweenmembers ot different age-sets, betweenmembers of the same age-sets and betweenthe individual member of an age-set andhis society at large.

An age-set system, therefore, incorporatesmales of approximately the same biological age for thepurpose of advancing them up a series of distinct societallevels, each of which require them to perform certainduties and to follow certain behavioural norms. Ideally,no two age-sets should occupy the same age-grade, aseach senior age-set vacates its age-grade prior to itsoccupation by the junior. Movement upwards by age-setsin the age-grade scale takes place at about the same timeand is ceremonially marked by the conclusion of the forma-tion of the youngest age-set (the close of the circumci-sion period), or by the entrance into the lowest grade of


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elder by the senior 'military' age-set, or both. Priorto their formal advancement up the scale, however, it isnot unusual for older members of an age-set to behave likemember8 of the age-set immediately senior to their ownand to usurp some of the duties and privileges associatedwith membership in the senior age-set.

As a rule, age-sets are incorporated as terri-torial units and are expected to carry out their dutiesin relation to the needs and external policies of theterritorial unit. In the ca8e of the Masai, who arecomposed of several tribes, each tribe corresponds to aterritorial unit in this respect. The operation of theage-set system in a given territorial unit, however, isoften dependent on extra-territorial considerations, thusthe age-set system of each Masai tribe consciously bringsinto line the promoting of its age-sets with the promotingof age-set8 in the other Masai tribes, to give just oneexample.

In examining the four age-set systems of theMasai, Arusha, Nandi and Kikuyu, various similaritiesamong them emerge. In terms of structure, the highestlevel of correspondence can be observed in the manner inwhich age-sets are recruited, the role of ritual figuresin certain age-set activities, the chronological regu-larity of the maturation cycle, and the role and organi-zation of the military age-set(s). Though social simi-larities of age-set systems are not under review here, itis worth noting that the highest correspondence exists inthe manner in which egalitarian behaviour among age-setcoevals is encouraged, in the definitions of behaviourfor age-sets standing in junior and senior positions toone another, and the way in which the behaviour of age-8et members is regulated with regard to society membersnot enrolled in age-set8 (espeCially females) and to the80ciety as a whole.

In all four systems, members of a newly-formed age-set are recruited from among young males ofapproximately the same biological age, during an 'open'recruitment period, and by circumcision. The age at

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which a male is circumcised during an open period andthereby recruited into an age-set varies among the foursystems and may vary from time to time within a singlesystem depending upon a number of factors. As a rule,age in the age-set most recently recruited falls between14 and 22 for the Masai,12 about 14 to 20 among theArusha,13 and between 12 and 22 among the Nandi.14 Nofigures are given for Kikuyu initiate sets, but Kenyattasays the customary age to be circumcised was '18 or 20,}5'Approximately the same age' may, therefore, be seen a.a term of casual meaning, but in regard to recruitment,it may be generally applied to those males standingbetween puberty and physical maturity.

When circumcision is opened, males of this'age' are eligible for recruiting into the forming age-sets. In all four systems, recruitment by circumcisionis carried on at relatively fixed periods of time, whichare separated by 'closed' periods. Among the Masai, the'open' period was from? to 8 years, while the 'closed'

16period ranged from 2 to 6 years; among the Arusha,6 years for both the 'open' and tloeed' periods;l? and

18for the Nandi, 4 years 'open', 11 years 'closed'.Among the Kikuyu a number of variations exist, but 'open'and 'clo.ed' period~ are usually formulated on combina-tions of the figures 4 1/2 and 9 (in years and/or seasons),and the total number of years for 'open' and 'closed'periods for recruitment of an age-set is 13.19

It would appear that 'open' and 'closed'periods are almost always ceremonially marked, and thatritual figures playa prominent role at these times, atleast for the Masai, Arusha, and Nandi. Among the Masaithe closed period is initiated when the ritual expert(oloiboni) places a curse on the circumcision knife, andthe open period begins only when he removes it.20 Amongthe Arusha, circumcision is closed when the 'black stone'is formally deposited by the ceremonial leader (olaunoni)who, at a later date, must ritually treat the stone toallow circumcision to begin again.21 Among the Nandi, nomentioD is made of how the closed period is begun, but the

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chief ritual expert (orkoiyot) must give his approval tothe resumption of circumcision, which begins in eachpororiet soon thereafter with the kikule ~ ('we bleedthe goat'). For the Kikuyu, the closed period (muhingo,lit. 'prohibition') was begun in various ways, but gene-rally dances and sacrifices were held and oaths wereadministered by selected elders. Prohibition was removedand circumcision reopened by the 'unswearing of the oat~,22At the inception of circumcision, the ~ mugo (ceremo-nial doctor) set up the circumcision alter and performedrituals for the protection of the proceedings and parti-cipants from witchcraft and evil. At the conclusion ofthe ceremonies, mundu mugo purified the initiation area.23

The presence of ritual figures not only attimes of circumcision, but on other occasions when all themembers of an age-set are corporately affected, ischaracteristic of the four systems. Among the Masai, ~there are four types of ritual figures,24 three of whombear relevance to a discussion of tribal age-set systems.Only two need concern us here. The first is the olaunoni(sometimes, olotono), who is the elected ritual leader ofthe senior military age-set in each tribal area. Thesecond is the oloiboni ~ the 'ritual expert', who mustcome from the enKidoji sub-clan of the Laiser clan andattains his influence within a tribe and sometimes outsideit on the strength of his personal reputation. The Arushamake use of two types of ritual figures, one the olaunoni,of which there are two in Arusha society and who serveas ritual leaders of their respective age-set 'streams',25

and the other being the oloiboni of the Masai living out-side the ritual area and having an Arusha-wide influence.In Nandi two orkoiik (singular orkoiyot) shared theirinfluence among the various pororosiek up to the end ofthe nineteenth century, after which there was but oneorkoiyot. The title, orkoiyot, was hereditary, its

26holders being adult male members of the Kamwauka clan.Among the Kikuyu a number of ceremonial doctors, known as~ aUKO (plural ~ aKo) were involved in age-set


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affairs, but it ia not known on what baaia the7 wereselected or how and to what extent their influence wasconstituted.

Apart from their respective roles in circumci-sion ceremonies to which partial reference has been made,ritual figures performed other roles common to the fourage-set systems. First, they sanctioned plans of war orraiding proposed by the military age-set. With theexception of the Arusha, the responsibility of the ritualexpert lay in prophesying the success or failure of thepending campaign and advising the military set according~.Second, they approved, and, in some cases, presided overthe promotion of the senior military into the grade ofelder. This probably did not apply to the Kikuyu, whosesoldiers were supposed to have entered elder statusindividually and upon the payment of fixed fees. Thirdly,the Masai oloiboni and Kisongo oloiboni for the Arushadirected the Eunoto ceremony, which promoted the juniormilitary age-set to the status of senior soldiers.27

With the exception of the Masai olaunoni ofthe Arusha, who are members of age-sets and performleadership roles in conducting their constituent sets inritual matters, the ritual figures of the Masai, Arusha,Nandi and Kikuyu are not part of the age-set system ~ ~.Indeed they appear to function largely outside the secularaffairs of the society. This is most obvious for theArusha, whose oloiboni belongs to the Kisongo tribe of theMasai. Among the Masai themselves, however, the oloiboniconstitute an isolated group. They are all members of thesame sub-clan, are avoided by the members of the othersub-clans (out of fear of their supernatural powers), donot belong to age-sets, and are felt to owe allegiance tono particular tribe. Furthermore, their sub-clan(engidoji) is distinguished from other sub-clans by itssegmentary lineage system and long geneaological tradi-tions, and was supposedly founded by a boy of unspecifiedorigin (though non-Masai), whose ability to find waterled to his adoption by the Masai. This mythical explana-tion of oloiboni origins is symbolically related to the

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position of the oloiboni in Masai society. According to28Jacobs,Masai commonly compare their (oloiboni)status to that of an adopted orphan boyalthough the latter are treated kindly andgenerously by a family because of the.ervices they perform a8 herd boys, theyare seldom permitted to take part intheir age-set's affairs and possess noauthority within the family.

The account of the appearance of the orkoiyotia Nandi society contains much the same theme of a younglad coming from the outside and in possession of magicalpowers. The first orkoiyot was the child of a python,who gave it to a barren Nandi woman to suckle,whereupon the child manifested the power to bring waterfrom the ground during a famine and to kill people andanimals with his eyes. In Nandi the orkoiyot belongs tothe Kwamwauke clan (all clansmen are referred to by otherNandi as orkoiyot, plural orkoiik), and the orkoiyot ofthe Nandi may come only from this clan. The orkoiyot ofthe Nandi is feared by all non-Kamwauke clan members forhis magical powers, and he lives by himself with hiswives. Non-Kamwauke provide the labour necessary to tillhis land, call upon him to mediate between the peopleand the Nandi diety, and to practice rainmaking when'local practitioners' have failed. He may also use hispowers against the people, when he so chooses, and he maynot be harmed or killed without disastrous results to thepeople.29

Among the Kikuyu the mundu mugo is a personselected by the diety to perform the services of a doctor,ritual expert, diviner, prophet and specialist in magicalprotection. Unlike the select group of ritual specialistsamong the Arusha, Masai and Nandi, the ~ ago werenumerous and scattered throught Kikuyu territory. Powerand knowledge of ugo was often passed from father to son,but non-relatives could be found deserving of initiation.What set the ~ ago apart from other Kikuyu was their

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special powers (ugo) and exclusive claims over lion andleopard skins. No ~ mugo acted as member of any age-set council in the military or elder age_grade.30

The positioa of the ritual figure within theage-set system is seen most clearly perhaps as one thatvalidates the machinery of the system. When the ritualfigure opens circumcision, a new set is brought intoexistence thereby obligating the other sets to make roomfor the new set by advancing up the age-grade scale. Byclosing circumcision, the ritual figure prevents the sizeof the newly-formed age-set from exceeding that of theothers and thereby preserving the balance of power andauthority between sets and the established means oforganizing individual sets themselves. By promoting seta,he insures that the various levels of power and authorityshall be shared by all the age-sets in the course of thematuration cycle, that no one corporate group shall retainand consolidate its power, but shall relinquish it to theset taking over. By his sanction of action on the partof the military set, the ritual figure acts to insuretheir success as a corporate group, which in turn acts toinsure the well-being of the society as a whole. In noway does the ritual figure act on his own in these ins-tances, but instead he responds to the requests of age-set representatives and the society at larse. His role,in effect, is to formalize and validate processes whichare underway or have already taken place. But this in nosense means his role is extraneous. By virtue of hismagical and ritual authority and by his exclusion fromparticipating in the secular systems of his society, theritual expert is a figure beyond which there is no appeal.His ritual acts are free from the interference andintrigues of others, and are therefore seen as the actsof himself. Because he alone of the male members ofsociety functions outside age-sets, the ritual figure isabove suspicion in administering ritually the developmentof anyone age-set in the maturation cycle.

Because age-sets are recruited and promotedon the basis of biological age, their corporate ascent up


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the various levels of age-grades is kept in line by arelatively fixed cycle of age-set ceremonies, and thei.portant age-set ceremonies are validated by ritualfigures whose authority originates from outside the age-set syste. itself, the age-set system may be characte-rized as a self-perpetuating system tqat is highly regu-larized and difficult to alter in its operation. As longas the young male population resides within the age-setarea and their biological age advances, sufficientpressure within the society is created for the formationof • new set and the promotion of the sets in existence.

That the age-set system is capable of func-tioniag over a long period of time without noticeablechanges in its structure is born out bj Jacobs' study ofthe Masai. In his chapter on Masai history in the nine-teenth century, Jacobs points out that the Masai recallpast events and activities of renowned personalities inrelation to the name of the contemporary age-set occupy-ing the grade of soldier. By constructing a.hypotheticalchronological table for Masai age-sets in the nineteenthcentury based on the age-set system as observed in the195Os, it was possible to ascribe general time periods tothe events and personalities mentioned. In order to testthe reliability of these, which had been postulated onthe assumption that the Masai age-set system has operatedin much the same way for the past 150 years, it wasnecessary to examine European travel accounts, dictiona-ries, and other forms of written documentation forreferences to the events and personalities mentioned inMasai oral traditions. In all instances where corrobora-tion between written and oral evidence was possible,agreement in time proved extremely cloae.3l

For anthropological purposes, the age-setsystem of the pastoral Maaai may therefore be studied witha mind to examining the historical forces that gave birthto or reinforced prese.'-day social structures and rela-tiona. For the historian, the Masai age-set system is areminder that age-set systems in other societies may

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provide potentially reliable means with which problems ofchronology and the provision of narrative detail may beapproached.

Were the historical methods of Jacobs appliedto the age-set systems of the Arusha, Nandi and Kikuyu,perhaps more could be said about the capacity of age-setsystems to exist in essentially unaltered form for longperiods of time.32 Despite the difficulties attendingsuch proofs, it is fairly clear that, at least for theArusha and Nandi, age-sets belong to an old and well-established system, perhaps, if one accepts the testimo-nies of elders, as old as the society itself.

These age-set systems are old because theyare durable. In the histories of the four groups examinedhere, three retained the system in the face of a numberof socially disruptive factors that for other forms ofsocial organization would probably have led to substantialchange. Over many years, famine, disease and rapiddeclines in human and stock population all afflicted theMasai, but their system continued to operate as usual.The Nandi and their age-set system successfully endured.ome of the same calamitous experiences, and the banningof the saket ~ ~ ceremony by the colonial administra-tion did not lead to any .erious disruptions in thematuration of its age-set •• Relatively mild interferenceby the colonial administration and the fertile, well-watered and defensible nature of their land made theArusha and their social institutions relatively immune tothe sort of strains placed on the Masai and the Nandi.On the other hand, portions of Arusha society were trans-formed in the nineteenth century in the wake of large-scale absorption of Bantu-speaking settlers in Arush.area, most coming from the Meru and Chagga. The presentlineage system of the Arusha along with their forms ofancestor worshi~ and political leadership are results ofthis immigration.33 It is therefore significant thatthe age-set system of the Arusha, whose society originallystemmed from the Iloikop Masai on the plains below,

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continued to operate in the midst of internal changesprecipitated by a large influx of socially alien peoples:4

Why the Kikuyu age-set system should not haveendured, at least in some form, in the face of disruptiveEuropean administration and land policies, is uncertain.Most likely the age-set system did not operate dynamicallyin the nineteenth century, when the Kikuyu constantlyseparated and regrouped as they colonised new lands south-ward from Mt. Kenya. The Kikuyu proper, no matter howdetermined to preserve any level of their social unity,would have been hard put to operate a system involvinga cross-section of its male members on the basis of age,when Kikuyu families preferred to settle on ridges, amongwhich communication was necessarily difficult and propor-tionately limited as distances increased. However weakthe age-set system may have been among the Kikuyu at thetime of European settlement, the crucial factor in itsdemise was probably related to large numbers of malestravelling out of the Kikuyu Reserve to live as squatterson European farms or to work as urban or farm labourers.For a system that eorporately organized its male memberson the basis of age and within a territorial unit, thiswould have been a crippling blow even to age-set systemsmore firmly established than among the Kikuyu.

If an established age-set system proveddurable in the face of depopulation by widespread calamity,colonial disruptions and the intrusions of alien forms ofsocial institutions, it also provided its parent societythe means with which certain threats to the society couldbe dealt with and with which the welfare of the societycould be served.

In each of the four groups, the age-setsystem represents the principal means for organizing man-power for the purpose of protecting the group againstforcible intrusions from the outside and conductingoffensive warfare against neighbouring groups, often inthe form of stock raids. In some cases, services to thecommunity in the form of policing, carrying of messages,herding and building were also provided. The age-set


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system also increased the likelihood that only males ofoptimum age and experience and with minimum domestic obli-gations be called upon to perform these tasks.

The means by which this was accomplished wasby the recruitment of males, generally between fourteenand twenty years of age, into an age-set occupying themilitary or junior military grade.35 Roughly speaking, _a man was a soldier for approximately fifteen years,though many variations occurred, depending on the groupin question, the point in the 'open' recruitment perioda male was circumcised and the length of time his age-setoccupied the grade(s) of the military. Whether or notboth junior and senior military divisions existed withinan age-set system, systems in each of the four groupsdivided their fighting men into two groups with separatefunctions, privileges and uniforms. As military men,however, both groups were often required to assist oneanother in the interests of society. In times of war orraiding, for example, the junior murran of the Masai wererequired to act as suppliers and carriers for theirseniors, who did the fighting. The seniors, on the otherhand, were responsible for the proper military trainingof their juniors.36

By and large, however, the junior group ofsoldiers were given few responsibilities, either inconnection with the military organization or the societyat large. Their activities tended to focus on participa-ting with their age-set coevals in dances and games, bothof which often had military overtones. Normally thejuniors acted as a group, occupied communal quarters andtravelled about the tribal area displaying their costumes,voices and camaraderie. In the case of the Kikuyu andMasai, the juniors were allowed to participate in a minorway in the planning and execution of raids. But here, aain all other instances, the juniors were expected to playvery much a subordinate role. All powers and decisionsrested ultimately with the senior group and their age-set leaders in conjunction with certain elders renownedfor their military experience and the advice and endorse-ments of the ritual expert. To the junior soldiers,


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anticipation of advancing into the position of the seniorsoldiers was high, and their time was spent preparing forthe eventual takeover.

To the senior soldiers went the responsibilityfor the defence of the group, the increase of the group'swealth in stock through raiding, and all the honours andprivileges that came with it. As an age-set, the seniorsoldiers had their own military organization, composed offighting units with their leaders and a senior command.In military activity, the senior army was made up fromthe territorial unit from which age-sets were recruited.In the case of the Masai, each tribe had its own fightingforce, which could, and usually did, act independentlyof the others. Among the Arusha, the senior murranof one or more parishes might join together for purposesof raiding or defending, but the parish closely corres-ponded to the tribe of the Masai in terms of its fightingautonomy. Among the Nandi, each of its pororosiek wasresponsible for its own defence, also for the recruitmentof its own age-sets. Like the Masai tribe and Arushaparish, Nandi pororosiek could join together for fighting,but pororosiek were not known for fighting against oneanother, as sometimes happened among Masai tribes andArusha parishes.

Aside from the honours attained throughmilitary prowess, a senior military age-set was normallyentitled to privileges exclusive to the grade. Generally,senior fighting men were permitted sexual access to un-married girls, could demand food from any household inthe territorial unit and, with the exception of theMasai, could marry. Marriage for the senior soldier,however, was not synonymous with the establishment of ahomestead, and other obligations that restricted thesoldier's ability to participate in the activities of hisage-set were discouraged. Senior soldiers were alsoforbidden to take beer and, at certain times, meat.These items were reserved for the elders and, in the caseof beer, were thought to reduce one's ability to carryout military duties.

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The age-set systems of the four group~therefore, made possible a standing army 01 able-bodiedmales who wer~ highly organized and trained. And juniorsoldiers, who were corporately organized and trained forthe role of senior soldiers, constituted a ready replace-ment for the senior military when they advanced on to thegrade of elders.37

In conclusion, it should be said that, anydiscussion of age-set systems such as this, which focusseson structural similarities among several groups, isnecessarily limited in its application, not only to othergroups possessing age-sets, but also to the groups andsystems here examined. In the first place, emphasis onsimilarities of structure tells us little or nothingabout dissimilarities, which hold equal, if not greater,importance to the analysis of societies. Secondly,looking at a structure per se rather than at a structureas related to its parent society, is to disregard factorsoperating outside the structure that are affected by andaffect it, in turn. The single society, in which an age-set system may be observed to function, will ultimatelyreveal the meaning of its age-set system.

The weakness in the structural approach maybe demonstrated in attempting to answer certain questionsconcerning the four age-set systems just examined. What,for example, is the purpose for these groups having anage-set system? Why is it that among the pastoral Masai,the age-set system is equivalent to the political system,whereas among the closely related Arusha, lineages and,to a lesser extent, clans are important factors involvedalong with age-sets in the resolution of conflictsbetween groups and individuals? Among the Nandi, age-sets are only marginally connected with the politicalsystem. Here, the function of the age-set system wouldappear to be purely military, with the largest share ofpolitical power vested in the ~, the elders' councilof the parish (koret). The council of the territorialunit of the age-set, the pororiet, has political autho-rity over a group of korotinwek, but only on matters

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affecting war, circumcision and planting. Among theKikuyu the age-set system appears to be mainly restrictedto the recruiting of fighting men. The political struc-ture is built around its councils (kiama), into which oneenters through the payment of fees, and the generation-set system, which removes approximately half of the malepopulation from positions of political privilege andinstalls the other half, at about thirty-year intervals.

All four groups have relied historically onthe age-set system to further their military interests,and possibly the s!stem came into use for that purpose.Yet, Gulliver asserts that the Arusha were not aggressiveuntil the 1880s, as much as half a century beyond theirarrival at Mt. Meru. Furthermore, Jacobs has demonstratedthat the stereotype of the pastoral Masai as being'warlike' is a myth which stems from Masai hostility tocolonial intrusion and the reports of nineteenth centuryEuropean travellers who incorrectly labelled the aggre-ssive and semi-pastoral 'Kwavi' (i.e., Arusha, Baraguyu,!i!l) as being 'Masai'. Jacobs argues that the so-called'fierce' pastoral Masai have little in their history todistinguish them in this respect from other East Africangroups.

Apart from leaving us in the dark as to thefunction of age-sets, the structural approach proves un-satisfactory elsewhere. How does one explain why theage-set system is more firmly established among theMasai, Arusha, and Nandi, classified as either plains orhighland Nilotes, than among the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu?The answer cannot lie in divisions according to liveli-hood or settlement patterns with the concordant assump-tion that age-sets fit best into pastoral modes ofliving. The Arusha and, to a lesser extent, the Nandi,are sedentary agriculturists for whom the age-set systemhaa proved workable. To say that the Kikuyu along withother Bantu-speakers in Kenya and Tanzania, have had theage-set system for a shorter time than the Nilotes, andtherefore have had difficulty grafting it on to older and

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more firmly established social and political systems, con-forms with present historical theory, but it cannot besupported by historical method. There are grounds forbelieving, for instance, that the Kikuyu are historicallyrelated to the Giriama, who claim to have operated a formof age-set system since their settlement on the coast nolater than the early seventeenth century. The Kikuyu andGiriama share some age-set terminology and, unlike Niloticgroups, combine fee-paying in the promotion of age-setmembers. It is possible, therefore, that by the earlyseventeenth century the Kikuyu had an age-set system

t. t 38opera 1ng 00.

Nor can the study of age-set structuresexplain why it is that age-set systems, despite theircomparatively rigid structural features, are often charac-terized by much flexibility in their implementation.Mention has already been made of members of one set havingleave to participate in the affairs of another, and thatage-set ceremonies may often be seen as occuring ~the movement upwards of age-sets in the age-grade scale,rather than~. Perhaps the explanation here relatesnot to the structure of age-sets so much as to a society'swishes to make the age-set take into account factorsoperating outside the system.

Given the limitations of the structuralapproach, certain conclusions of importance are possible.What it can do with regard to the four systems examinedhere is to isolate those structural elements that havethe widest application. This may in part explain what itis that makes an age-set system attractive to groups whodo not possess one, and thereby favours its adoption asa form of social, political and/or military organization.

An age-set system would seem to be mostappealing as an effective means of having a militarygroup at all times prepared for both offensive anddefensive activity; of controlling this form of manpowerin the absence of a central political authority, orchief; of preventing the permanent acquisition of powerby an elite group or an individual; of combining magico-


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ritual authorities with political and social organiza-tion; of encouraging, if not always enforcing, standard-ized behaviour between males of different ages; and, ofrotating positions of authority on a group-wide basis.Though these may explain why a group would be induced toabsorb a form of age-set organization, it cannot nece-ssarily explain who absorbed an age-set system from whom.Conversely, it may cast doubts on certain disseminationtheories. A comparison of age-set structures, forexample, discounts Huntingford's hypothesis that the gadasystem of the Galla was given in the sixteenth century tothe Nilo-Hamites who in turn gave it to the North-EasternBantu as some of the Ni10-Hamites migrated southwards intoKenya and Tanzania.39 The gada system is, in effect, ageneration-set system, because a son enters the firstgada-grade (Daballa) only when his father has left thefifth (~). Further contrast between the gada-setsystem and the age-set systems examined here may be seenin the time and functions of circumcision. Among theGalla, circumcision is performed on those gada-set memberswho have just completed their occupation of the fourthgada-grade or ~, as contrasted to circumcision at thetime of recruitment in the first age-set of an age-setsystem. In Huntingford's words, the Galla '•••rite istherefore not the entry into manhood, but signals the

40departure from the government grade (Luba)'. It may beadded that for the Galla, circumcision is neither themeans of recruiting males into age-sets, as it is amongthe plains and highland Nilotes and highland and coastalBantu. It is therefore difficult to say that the Gallaoriginated the age-set system among the Nilotic group,because of fundamental differences in the structures ofthe Galla and Nilotic and Bantu age-set systems.

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F 0 0 T NOT E S

lReferences to the Masai are almost exclusively drawn fro.A. H. Jacobs, 'The Traditional Political Organizationof the Pastoral Masai', D. Phil. Thesis, Oxford 1965.J. E. G. Sutton argues that a strictly linguisticclassification is preferrable to previously acceptedclassifications based on cultural differences andsimilarities. On the latter basis the Masai, Arushaand Nandi fall under the heading of 'Southern Nilo-Hamites' and the Kikuyu under the 'Central Tribes ofthe Northern-Eastern Bantu'. 'The Settlement of EastAfrica', in B. A. Ogot and J. A. Kieran (ed.), ZamanilA Survey of East African History, Nairobi 1968.

2References to the Arusha are drawn mainly from P. H.Gulliver, Social Control in an African Society,London 1961

3principle sources for the Nandi are G. W. B. Huntingford,Nandi Work and Culture, London 1950; and The Nandi ofKenya I Tribal Control 'in a Pastoral Society, London1953

4See Sutton, 'Settlement of East Africa', pp. 71-72

5Based on-personal information supplied by J. Davis,Animal Husbandry Officer, Dairy, Kenya Ministry ofAgriculture, 14 November 1969

6principle sourc~s for the Kikuyu are H. E. Lambert,The Systems of Land Tenure in the Kikuyu Land Unit,Cape Town 1950; J. Kenyatta, FacinK Mount Kenya,London 1961; J. Middleton and G. Kershaw, The Kikuyuand Kamba of Kenya, London 1965; G. Muriuki,A History of the Kikuyu, 1500-1900, Nairobi 1974;and L. S. B. Leakey, The Southern Kikuyu before 1900,3 vols., London 1977

7Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., 'Age Organization - Terminology',~, XXIX (1929)

8prins, A. H. J., East African Age-Class Systems,Gronigen 1953. p. 10

9Jacobs, 'Pastoral Masai', p. 241 and footnote

10Huntingford, Nandi of Kenya, pp. 60-62


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l2Jacobs. 'Pastoral Masai'. p. 245

l3No mention is made of what age a boy may be circumcised.but Gulliyer states that the 'closed' period lastsfor six years and that many youths awaitingcircumcision 'are about twenty years old'.GUlliver. Social Control. pp. 27. 42

l4Huntingford. Nandi Work and Culture. p. 61

l5xenyatta. Facing Mount Kenya. p. 107 and confirmedby Leakey. Southern Kikuyu. II. pp. 587-588

16Jacobs. 'Pastoral Hasai'. p. 240

l7Gulliver. Social Control. p. 27

l8HuntingfOrd. Nandi of Kenya. p. 54. 66 footnote

19Lambert. Systems of Land Tenure. pp. 8. 22.Leakey argues that a closed period of nine plantingseasons (4 1/2 years) followed the recruitment ofnine groups initiated in successive years. Theopen period, however. could be longer than nineyears if in any given year eligible males wereinsufficient in number to warrant initiation.Southern Kikuyu. II. pp. 707-712

20Jacobs. 'Pastoral Masai'. 258. 267

21Gulliver. Social Control. p. 2722Lambert. Systems of Land Tenure, pp. 58-59

23Kenyatta. Facing Hount Kenya. pp. 139. 143;C. W. Robley. Bantu Beliefs and Magic. London 1938;pp. 80-81; Leakey. Southern Kikuyu. IIp. 608 andIII p. 1156

~4Jacobs, 'Pastoral Masai'. pp. 317-328

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25The Arusha olaunoni should not be confused with theMasai figure of the same name, as the Arushaolaunoni is an hereditary office and is taken upwhen one's age set is approaching circumcision andis relinquished when eldership status is achieved.Gulliver, Social Control, 32-34. Gulliverdefines 'streams'as '•••moieties of the total ofinitiated men', moiety here being used outsideits normal application to descent groups. Thus,a stream would be composed of all alternateage-sets, living and dead. The 'active' setsof one stream would be the junior military setand its linked junior elder set, the lattersupporting and guiding the former on itsjourney through the maturation cycle. Gulliverrefers to the latter senior group as the'patrons' of the senior military set, their 'wards'.Upon the approach of circumcision and therecruitment of a new age-set, the senior military'wards' would take on the responsibility of beingthe 'patrons' of the newly-forming age-set,soon to enter the status of junior soldiers.Ibid., 30-31

26Huntingford, Nandi of Kenya, 38-39

27Both Ilmurran. The Nandi have but one military age-set, and thus no eunoto-type ceremony is possible.The Kikuyu have two military age-sets, andKenyatta mentions that the junior set is promoted,through the payment of fees, from the nama a anakea mumo ('national council of junior warriors' tothe njama ya ita ('war council'), but he makes nomention of the figures involved in the proclamationceremony occuring at this time or of how the timefor promotion was deemed auspicious, twooccasions at which ritual figures might be expectedto play important roles. Kenyatta, FacinK Mount Kenya,p. 199

28Jacobs, 'Pastoral Masai', 320-327

29Huntingford, Nandi of Kenya, 38-51

30Leakey, Southern Kikuyu, III 1120-1210

31Jacobs, 'Pastoral Masai', 48-54, as well as thehistorical introduction to the thesis.

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}2Buntingford, Nandi Work and Culture, sections 23-}9,in which is constructed a skeletal outline of Nandifor the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries onthe aasu.ption that the age-set system he observedhad been in existence since the early seventeenthcentury and that age-sets occupied anyone grade orits subdivision for fifteen years, but Huntingfordhas put this to no historical test. Gulliver usesage-set lists to make assorted references toparticular points in the past, especially in thelate nineteenth century, and he postulates thearrival of the Arusha on Mt. Meru by the samemethod. Gulliver has compiled a chronologicaltable of Arusha age-sets extending back to 1811,but he has not attempted to test its reliability.Lambert has made a number of chronological tablesbased on his observations of age-set $ystems inKikuyu and among relat~d groups like Embu and Meru,some of which extend back to the early nineteenthcentury, but they have neither been tested norput to historical use. It is unlikely that anysatisfactory test could, at the moment, be appliedto age-set chronologies derived from the Kikuyu andNandi, owing to the absence of written corroborativeevidence for these groups prior to 1880-1890. It isnot unreasonable to expect, however, that thehistories of certain groups with whom the Kikuyu andNandi frequently came into touch (e.g., the Masai)could eventually prove reliable enough to serve ascorroborative evidence where written sources arelacking.

33Gulliver, Social Control, 12

34prObably crucial to the absorption was not so much thepresence of an age-set system among the Arusha, butrather the Arusha, Chagga, and Meru were allagriculturists. That an essentially uncentralisedArusha political system, based in part on an age-setsystem, was capable of absorbing diverse populationsalong with some of their institutions tends tomodify the argument that 'centralised authority andan administrative organization seem to be necessaryto accommodate culturally diverse groups within asingle political system, especially if they havedifferent modes of livelihood'. M. Fortes andE. E. Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems,London 1940, 9


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35The Nandi have a single military grade; the Kikuyuhave two councils for a single military grade, one acouncil of junior soldiers into which one automati-cally enters after recruitment by circumcision, theother a council of senior soldiers into which oneenters with his age-set coevals after a fixed numberof years and upon the payment of fees; the Masai andArusha both have junior and senior murran grades,which are occupied successively by age-sets. In thecase of the Nandi, again, the age-set of recentlycircumcised youths belongs to the grade of 'initiate'from which it is advanced, eight years after theclose of recruitment, into the grade of 'soldier'.Owing to the similarities between functions andactivities of the Nandi 'initiate' and the 'juniorsoldier' among the Masai, Arusha and Kikuyu, theNandi 'initiate will be treated in the followingdiscussion as belonging to the 'junior soldier' grade

36It is because the juniors aspired to the position heldby the seniors, for reasons for prestige and privi-lege, and because the seniors were reluctant to seethe juniors replace them, that a fundamental tensionand resentment was usually present between the twogroups. This is one example of the 'dichotomy of men'which Gulliver has so aptly described in 4isdiscussion of Arusha age-sets. Jacobs' study of theMasai affords a number of comparisons

37It should be noted th~t junior and senior military dienot necessarily act out the roles associated with theage-grade occupied by their age-set. It would not beuncommon, for example, for older members of the juniorage-set to act as if they were members of the seniorand move into the lower echelons of the senior mili-tary organization, with their seniors' approval.Likewise, one may find older members of a senior setforsaking their military obligations and setting uphomesteads, having children and sitting in on thecouncil of junior elders. In order to make adjust-ments for those individuals who became old enough toadvance up the scale of aFe-grades before their age-Bet was due for promotion, members of age-sets insenior positions were usually willing to allow theolder members of the immediate junior age-set limitedparticipation in their age-set activities. Thisunofficial opening of doors by the senior set toolder members of the junior was indicative of theapproaching time for promotion, though th~ differencein time was as long as several years.

38Lambert, Systems of Land Tenure, reckons th0t thetwelve remembered generation sets, corresponding toroughly thirty years each, would originate theKikuyu in the fifteenth century


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39Beckingham, C. F., and G. W. B. Huntingford, SomeSome Records of Ethiopia, 1593-1646, London 19541xxiii

40For Huntingford's discussion of the gada-system seeG. W. B. Huntingford, The Galla of Ethiopia, London1955, 40 fr. See also A. Legesse, Gada : ThreeApproaches to the Study of African Society, New York1973