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The case of Sidama
by John HAMER
Years ago Clyde Kluckholm published a book titled 'Mirror for Man". In it he explained how studies of nonwestern societies '... show the great variety of solutions ...' that have been developed, as well as '...the variety of meanings ...' that have been conceived to resolve human problems (ibid:15). This world panorama of differing life styles became a way of learning '... what works and what doesn't ...' Since then, and specially now with the popularization of 'cultural diversity,' the discovery has focused, for the average person, on such peripheral aspects of difference as tasting foods and musical forms. Seldom, however, have westerners been willing to look seriously at the possibility of experimenting with different forms of authority, social, and economic practices observed in the cultures of other peoples.
In this essay, I wish to suggest how western commitment to the ideals of democracy could become a reality, and at the same time help solve a coming problem of social existence, by a consideration of the values and structures of gerontocracy. This is a practice which has been highly developed in some societies in Eastern Africa, such as the Sidama , Samburu, and Ormo. I will focus upon the Sidama since these are the people with whom I am most familiar and who continue to have a most highly elaborated form of gerontocracy. My purpose is to suggest that experimentation and learning about gerontocracy could be a means of accommodating to the aging population which would appear to be a looming problem for westerners in the twenty-first century.
Specifically, it seems impossible that westerners, especially Americans, with their stress on public involvement mediated by electronic media and emphasis on the priority of individual rights, could ever be concerned with a seemingly hierarchical rule by old men and women. Paradoxical, however, gerontocracies, like the Sidama in the Eastern Horn of Africa, with their emphasis on decentralised decision making and consensual rule, practice far more community participation and rational discourse than the people of nation-states. In this paper I want to review briefly the pervasive gerontocracy of the Sidama, as to how older generations have served the people for centuries in preserving the moral order. For the last several hundred years, the Sidama have subsisted by mixed horticulture and cattle herding, only recently becoming involved in the cash cropping of coffee.
Elsewhere, I have described in detail, the structure of gerontocracy as a means of securing moral and social continuity (Hamer 1970; 1987; 1994; 1996). Basic to this structure is the overarching moral code of halaale I have translated this term broadly as 'the true way of life'. It subsumes, however, more specific values such as the importance of generosity, commitment to truth in issues of conflict, fairness in apportioning blame and punishment, avoiding disruptive gossip, responsible use of money, respect for property boundaries, avoidance of adultery and sexual promiscuity. Not a part of the code, but complementing generosity, is the importance the Sidama have traditionally attached to the acquisition of wealth. It is not the accumulation of land, crops, animals, or money that is important, but the esteem one gains through acquiring a reputation for generosity by redistributing these gains in hospitality and support of one's kin.
The expression of this ideology is structured in practice by linking household to community, different generations, and the two genders on a complementary basis. In effect public authority and household production are conjoined in supporting hospitality and maintaining the peace. The formal expression of this structure is the generational class system (Luwa) relating elderhood authority to the production activities of youth and the sexual division of labour. Female managed household production is used to reproduce the household and support the public affairs of the community.
In the Luwa, there are five rotating classes that change every seven years, with each class consisting of three sets of elders, initiates, and pre-initiates. All five classes are intricately articulated with one another in the rotation system. Consequently, sons who are never initiated into the same class as their father initially become pre-initiate members of the third class, and gradually, as they move in the cycle, become foster-fathers to youth who will ultimately become initiates in their father's class. The significance of this system is that all men become linked to one another in a junior-senior relationship throughout the life cycle. This means that regardless of wealth obtained by personal initiative, all males, during the life cycle will shift from a youthful status of providing deference and service for elders to the position of the latter in redistributing wealth and knowledge. The movements within and between classes continue from birth until death.
The most important shift in this journey is that of a son becoming an initiate in the class just being the father, as the latter's class begins its elderhood cycle. Consequently, the son will not be promoted to elderhood until completion of his father's cycle. The paramount role of the elders is that of guardians of the moral code of halaale In a structural sense this guardianship is played out in the Luwa as the generosity and wealth attributed to elders cannot occur without the production forces and deference of youth. Moreover, without the ever present authority of the elders truth and fairness in social relations and the equitable allocation of property cannot be implemented. This system is considered as transcending time and space. Thus elderhood does not end in death, but the dead elders continue to influence by reappearing in dreams to remind the living elders of failing to uphold halaale and negligence in 'feeding' them through animal sacrifice at appropriate shrines. Indeed, all phases of the cyclical changes are marked by elaborate rituals and symbols.
Though women are not formally members of the generational class system they are integral to its survival. This is because they are responsible for the reproduction of the household and the management of much of its subsistence labour. Women may assist men in the actual production of food, but only they can prepare it for consumption. They can make or break their husband's status within the community by preparing appropriate food for his cooperative work groups and on occasions when elders' councils, assembled for making policy, meet within vicinity of the household. Women do not participate directly in councils, but whenever having a grievance they must be represented before the elders by any spokesman they choose. And just as aging accords a positron of honour for men, so it does for women. Old women partake of food with elders and acquire authority among women in the continuity.
There is, however, no such thing as a perfect social system in which the authority responsible for protecting the moral order, and resolving problems arising out of the dynamics of change, can articulate harmoniously with the variable desires of all the members. There are always contradictions arising out of dispute settlement which create further conditions for disharmony in the community. Perhaps much of this problem arises from a fundamental value contradiction idealising the accumulation of wealth, but only in so far as it can be redistributed in support of the ideals of generosity, expressed in the moral code. Tensions arising out of this contradiction are not simply due to the political conflicts of the 70s and 80s, increasing entanglements created by cash cropping in coffee, or the more recent attempts to turn cattle into a commodity.
Mythology concerning the founding fathers, indicates deep seated conflicts over boundaries and the acquisition of land.  Certainly, in the 1960s, before the age of political revolution and the cash economy was in its early stages, it was land conflicts which exercised the wisdom of the elders in their day to day struggle to maintain community harmony. For example, in the thirty-six disputes observed in council sessions in 1965-66, sixty-one percent dealt with theft, property boundaries, and sorcery (Hamer 1972:236). All of these disputes, including sorcery, exhibited both continuity and discontinuity. The latter aspect was the result of the dynamics of change, such as increasing population and the new emphasis on cash accumulation, as opposed to the generous redistribution of wealth. Sorcery issue came before the councils in requests for the elders to curse sorcerers. Since the Sidama have traditionally associated sorcery with irrational jealousy there was no basis for rational discourse, hence resort to supernatural sanctions.
The new causes of disharmony continued to need reinterpretation by the elders to fit the old moral code of halaale. At the same time a new form of council emerged in the voluntary self-help associations (mahibar). In these new organisations, consensual authority was transferred from elders' councils to executive committees, but the emphasis remained upon rational discourse in resolving every day conflicts of living. Economic self-gain at the expense of community obligations, that historic tension in Sidama values continued in disputes over zoning rules for developing new communities, the building of feeder roads that infringed perceived property rights, costly new rules for managing health and safety, neglect of work commitment, and unfairness in trade transactions. These were all problems in the 1970s schemes for community development. (Hamer 1980:95-104) Still, the system connecting elders and youth, despite a certain amount of cynicism and the perpetual complaint that nothing worked as well as in the 'good old days', continued to be the basis for resolving disputes and making public policy. This negative side was balanced by the optimism that Sidama were changing their life style, in their own way, through the voluntary associations. Even if the new cooperative stores, coffee collecting centres and other enterprises did not always work efficiently, the mistakes were made by Sidamas and not by outsiders. All of this seemed to support the pride, sense of achievements, and hence the identity of the people.
The revolution of 1974 and the subsequent post-revolutionary period of the 1980s have done much to undermine the social complementarity between elders and youth, as well s between genders. Consensual authority of elders, unless practiced clandestinely, virtually ceased to exist except in conformity with government edicts. Officially, however, the government encouraged the self-help associations to take over local judicial and administrative functions, but were actually recentrallizing control and eliminating all creative autonomy (Hamer 1996:548-49). Gradually, taxation and marketing controls become more oppressive and attempts were made to impose collective farming. These oppressive measures led to the rustiness and the formation of the Sidama Liberation Movement. At the same time the government sought to draft youth into the army to fight in Eritrea.
The regime that followed a Marxist government in 1991 was less than enthusiastic in supporting elders' councils, for fear they might undermine the fragile national authority. Therefore, considering the experiences of youth in being removed from the land, impressed into conflicting military organisations, and losing the authority and instruction of the elders it was not surprising that a condition of cynicism, even nihilism, engulfed much of the young generation  All of this constituted a threat to halaale and the future of the Sidama.
Nevertheless, as Irene and I have suggested elsewhere, there are certain realities of the dominant industrial world that bind elders and the youth, as well as men and women together for purposes of survival (1994:200). To simply accept the dominance of an Ethiopian state, in thrall to the so called 'global economy', is to negate Sidama culture. Just as in the past, conflicting ideas must be negotiated and compromised to avoid chaos. And since cash cropping is unlikely to replace subsistence agriculture in the foreseeable future, cooperation remains a necessity. Alternatives, such as utopian schemes, or migration, leads to unknowns, whereas halaale and the Luwa constitute a cultural framework which all know and understand.
It is not unusual for gerontocracies to come under threat from powerful external forces. For example, the Masai speaking Samburu of Northern Kenya, though they have traditionally lacked the consensual dispute settlement and policy formulation of the Sidama, were gerontocracy imperiled by outside forces (Spencer 1965). When Spencer was doing field research with the Samburu in 1957-60, there were pressures from the British Colonial administration to improve grazing restrictions on the pastoralists, to control their dispute settlement processes, to impose taxes and require the sale of cattle through 'official channels'. At that time, however, the influence of an imposed administration was limited and Spencer could only perceive the Samburu continuing, as they desired to do, their traditional gerontocratic authority over herding and community life, since there was no other environmentally appropriate means of survival.
What could happen if cattle became a commodity is illustrated by Ensminger in her study of the Orma of Kenya (1990:662-75; 1996). She found that as the result of commodification, the consensual authority of the elders was undermined. The taking control by the state of marketing and trade led to a stratification of social life, favouring wealthy individuals, and a decline in the redistribution process. Competing interests were no longer negotiated through consensual agreement and the Orma increasingly came to rely on the sanctioning force of the state.
I don't wish to suggest that gerontocratic systems are utopian. The most glaring problems for the Sidama include the suppression of youthful vigour, the threat of greed and jealousy, and the competition from western styles of learning. In the past, and in the present, there can be no doubt that youth often chafe under the demands of the elders for service and respect. This is indicated in mythology, the complaints of disregard by contemporary elders, and periodic rebellions by youth at inter-clan dances and rituals. The latter problem has been resolved in the past by the fact that the youthful rebels of the present are soon to become the respected elders of the future. The greed of individuals is evident in the numerous elopements of young men, as fathers seek to maintain their wealth, rather than redistribute it, when their sons are ready for marriage. These are individuals so obsessed with accumulation that they refuse to purchase clothing and household necessities needed by their wives, sometimes even sending the latter away to avoid obligations. And with the coming of western style educators some youth considered literacy and learning superior to the wisdom of the elders. Nevertheless, greed and arrogance invite jealousy and fear, which the Sidama have traditionally equated with sorcery. To be suspected of the later risks the ultimate sanction, the curse of the elders. The curse is essentially a metaphor of being totally rejected by both the social and supernatural worlds. Western education is associated in the minds of many with the power of technology, but the latter is fleeting and unstable, compared with the ideal, circumspect, negotiated compromise of the elders which holds people together. This is the essence of the lesson westerners may learn from the Sidama. Clever thinking and technological expertise will not preserve social relationships.
The continuity of this gerontocratic system has been based on the fact that human conflict and the problems of people living together is never ending. Indeed, conflicts among the Sidama are often only temporarily solved and may be anticipated to recur, even if in a slightly different form. The commitment of the elders to this work must be never ending, for without their support of the moral code, in a rational discourse, leading to compromise, there can be no chance for a modicum of social harmony.
For westerners, the problems of making policy and settling conflict have become highly specialised, hierarchical, and impersonal. Many people have come to believe the authority of the nation state is devoid of justice. The technology that has led to this condition may, however, be used to reverse it. The alternative could be a personalised, decentralised form of gerontocracy modelled on the system of the Sidama.
Using the American population as an example, we can see that more people than before are staying alive, long after retirement from the labour force. Thus in 1995 approximately 34 million Americans had lived past their 66th birthday, but by the middle of the 21st century, there will be 80 million persons 65 or older, or approximately one in six Americans (Treas, 1995:4-5). Already, in the 1990s there is evidence that most older people in good health and with the requisite economic support, devote much of their time to social, recreational, and civic activities (ibid:19-20).
Moreover, their increasing numbers and their greater likelihood of their voting than younger members of the population, has made them an important political force. It would seem a waste to continue to devote a large portion of national wealth and technology to their well-being, while ignoring the importance of heir long experience and cumulative expertise. Instead one may propose that the youth of the nation, those under 56, translate their vigour into production to support the authority of these elders. This is not to bar the latter from participation, as they have time and inclination, in debating the issues of policy and conflict. This is analogous to the position of Sidama youth in participation in elders' councils. Like their Sidama counterparts, the American elders would be expected to take responsibility for injecting moral order and making the final decisions.
There would, of course, have to be a significant changes in the way Americans view the polity and economy. For example, a gerontocracy would necessitate decentralisation of authority to to the local community. In the late twentieth century, this would seem almost impossible, and yet there is presently a considerable movement in devolving authority from the national to the states. An even greater issue would be the switch from accumulative consumerism to conservation and redistribution of wealth. And yet there is increasing evidence that the world cannot continue to support the production of luxury goods for a small percentage of world's population without egregious harm to the environment.
Perhaps the most difficult change will require a new conception of participatory democracy. This will involve movement away from a definition based on competitive elections, orchestrated by powerful interest groups, to decentralised, rational discourse leading to negotiated policies and settlement of disputes. Elsewhere, I have suggested that the philosopher Habermas's hope for a democracy based on rational discourse as part of the modern nation state, and impossible in pre-modern states, is not empirically valid (Hamer 1998). In fact it is people like the Sidama, with the authority of the elders in council, who most clearly exhibit the use of rational communication in their consensual deliberations. Since the elders are released from the labour of production, largely allocated to the youth, they have the unlimited time that is required for discourse and reflection. It is time and patience factors that are critical in debating the intricacies of evidence and enduring the long negotiation process necessary to reach consensus.
In like manner, the retired persons in America, freed from the existence of long hours of labour production, could emerge in the prolonged discourse necessary to maintain social well-being. Youthful producers need not be excluded from the debates, but will not have the responsibility of decision-making until reaching retirement status. The equalitarianism, so important in American ideology, is made real in this system through the engagement of all in productive labour in the early part of the life cycle, to be followed by the responsibilities of authority in the retirement years. Nor need this system infringes upon differences in individual abilities and ambitions, any more than it has among the Sidama. There should be nothing to prevent specialisation according to individual abilities, or even the accumulation of wealth. But power will reside with the retired elders and wealth may be taxed for purposes of redistribution, according to consensual decisions. And the performance and skills of youth in production will give them an opportunity to develop leadership qualities. These qualities should be recognised in the esteem accorded by peers, to be fully developed as leadership authority in retirement.
In addition to changes in the concept of democracy, Americans will have the problem of developing a basic moral code. Perhaps the genesis of such a code is to be found in the broad categories of the Ten Commandments and the United Nations human rights declaration. Like halaale, however, such a code must be made explicit by being a part of the nurturing and formal education of children and continually reinforced through the everyday discourse of adults. The retired elders must be able to relate the broad generalisations of this moral charter to the particulars of changing practices as a guide to maintaining justice and fairness in deliberations.
Just as there are imperfections and failings in the Sidama gerontocracy, so one would anticipate shortcomings in an American system. Nevertheless, as long as the populations believes in the moral code, it should be possible for the elders through the continuous struggle of rational discourse to make adjustments. Such a process will be time consuming, emotionally and intellectually challenging, as well as never ending.
 Sidama is the term the people use to identify themselves. I use the term Sidamo as an adjective, as in Sidamoland, as this term is widely used in the literature.
 See Hamer, 1987, pp. 23-29; 35
 Personal communication from Seyoum Hameso.
Ensiminger, J. 1990. Co-Opting the elders: The political economy of state incorporation in Africa. American Anthropologist 92:662-675
-----1996. Making a market: The institutional transformation of an African society. Cambridge University Press.
Hamer, J. 1970. Sidamo generational class cycles. A political gerontocracy'. Africa 40, 50-70.
---- 1972. Dispute settlement and sanctity. Anthropological Quarterly, 45:232-247
----1980. 'Preference, principle, precedent: Dispute settle me and changing norms in Sidamo Associations', Ethnology XIX: 89-109
----1987. Humane development: Participation and change among the Sadama of Ethiopia. Tuscaloosa: The university of Alabama press.
---- 1998. The Sidama of Ethiopia and rational communication Action in policy and dispute settlement. Anthropology 93: 137-153
----and Irene Hamer, 1994. 'Impact of cash economy on complimentary relations among the Sidama of Ethiopia'. Anthropological Quarterly 67: 187-202
Kluckholm, C. 1949. Mirror of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Spencer, P. 1965. The Samburu: A study of gerontocracy in a nomadic tribe. Berkeley: University of California.
Treas, J. 1995. Older Americans in the 1990s and beyond. Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau.
*Professor John Hamer, Department of Anthropology, The University of the South, Sewannee, Tennessee, USA.This article appears in The Sidama Concern, Vol.3 No. 3, 1998 (pp.5-10)
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