Respect for the elders

respect: verb; to admire someone or something deeply as a result of their abilities, qualities or achievements.

I have noticed a beautiful thing in Africa:  respect for the elders.  Subtle, yet obvious to those from the outside.

There is a quiet order to things.

The younger submits to the older.

Respect comes with age.


And yet with that respect comes responsibility.

The elders are expected to be wise peacemakers and problem solvers within their community.

I witnessed the depth of the respect for the first time, within the Maasai tribe.  When the children approached someone older, respectfully, the children bowed their heads toward them.  The elder would then place their hand on the head of the child. It was explained that this is an act of honor.  Toddlers who could not yet speak would wobble over and silently bow their head toward those who are older. This custom continues as the children grow when the phrase “Shikamo” (shee-kah-mo) is spoken by the younger person, meaning, “I respect you.  I honor you.  I acknowledge your rank.”  And likewise the older returns with the phrase, “Marahaba” (mah-rah-ha-ba) meaning “I accept your greeting of honor and welcome you.”  It is culture.  It is what is done.

In my travels, I use this respectful greeting phrase often.  I love their quiet order of things and have seen the joy and surprise in their faces when a Mzungu (white person) attempts to speak their language and to give honor to those who are older.  It is a wonderful experience to see communities respectfully raise their children together.  Watching over all children as if each child belongs to them personally.  Teaching, training, correcting when needed.  I have seen grandparents snap their fingers and little ones (sometimes related, sometimes not) immediately behave with no questions asked.

The term “old” carries the meaning of respected leader, wise one, honored one, etc.  It is acceptable and common to call an older man “Mzee” (Mm-zay) which literally translated means “Old Man” and just as common to speak to an older woman calling her “Bibi” (Bee-bee) or “Coco” (Ko-ko) which both mean “grandmother.”  There is no offense.  It is not an insult, but a sweet acknowledgement of who they are.

Respect carries past the greetings and is seen in actions.  If an older person enters an area where people are already seated, the younger ones get up quickly and offer their seats.  The older are always served meals first and when an elder speaks, everyone is silent and listens intently.  I once saw an entire village erupt in cheers of joy when an older man in their community was given a sleeping bag and thin cushioned mat to sleep on. Full understanding of that small gift to him did not come until their reaction to the gift was witnessed.   The gift meant the grandfather would no longer be sleeping on a thin woven grass mat laid out on the hard dirt floor of his simple mud hut.

We can learn a lot from our friends in Africa.  It would be wise to take note of this attribute of showing respect.  Our children could benefit greatly if we could teach them to do this well.  Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor.”  Let’s make it our goal to truly believe that and to pass that gift on.



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