Elders are pillars of societal harmony. They serve as bridges of intergenerational connectivity. Their role in conflict resolution is also vital. Ethiopia is rich with traditions that accord high value to elders. Lately, however, those traditions are losing weight in the eyes of modern governance structures.
There is nothing more disheartening than to hear or read reports of community elders coming to Addis Abeba to make appeals to the Prime Minister’s Office and returning without having had any audience with him. The ordeals the elders undergo during their travel back and forth to execute their mission should not be left out from one’s thoughts.
But the most serious impact is the negative repercussions it has on the connection between the ruling party and members of that community. The role of the village elders as bridges of generations has to be carefully considered and valued with the highest respect.
A minute unit in the Ethiopian social structure, community elders have been considered as respectable social cords that bind members of communities through generations. Just like how a big tree serves as a life sustaining factor for all diverse creatures that feed on its bark and birds that build their nests on its branches, so are the elderly respected as generation sustainers through information transfer.
Among the numerous roles played by community elders, perhaps their time-tested ability to resolve conflicts stands out most. This is more critical in the countryside, where the village elders are often known as “countryside elders”. Intending to share experiences with my readers, I would like to refer to two incidents I encountered years ago; one at Dejen in Gojam and the other at a place called Degaga in Munesaworda, Arsi Zone.
In the case of the conflict in Dejen, the issue was resolving one of the trials appealed by way of a lengthy narration to the gathered elders who were attentively listening without any intervention. I was not interested in the case and I had no reason to be.
The Arsi case was about the conflict that was initiated between groups of people over the rights of a grazing land. What interested me most in both cases was the procedures adopted to transmit the information.
In the case of Gojam, the contestants were heard separately as the appealing man stood in front of the audience leaning on a stick. He was using words and phrases as if a third person was addressing the audience.
At first, I thought he was reciting some kind of script. But I soon learnt that it was customary way of presenting cases. When he finished, he was told to excuse himself until his rival was called to tell his part of the story.
Finally, both rivals were summoned after a short while and were made to listen. Some consultation took place among the elders before the most experienced mediator took over the floor so to speak.
The Arsi case was slightly different, in that the oldest member of the group stood up to narrate similar incidents of old times and recall the resolutions made. The case at hand is also resolved by precedence.
Usually agreements are reached before noon. The offending party is penalised in terms of livestock; an ox is slaughtered to crown the agreed settlement and a swearing ceremony is held to ensure that the resolution is sustainable.
In both cases, I have been able to witness that the concerned party is given full freedom to express his thoughts exhaustively without any interruption until he is satisfied.
These community elders are at times designated to convey appeals to the highest executive powers of government, when they find it important to do so after failing to find satisfactory responses at lower levels.
In a government system where modern mechanisms of accessing those living in the countryside is complex, policymakers can transmit their socio-economic development plans through the use of these traditional units. Whenever these men come to Addis Abeba to see the Prime Minister, or any official in his office, they should be given due respect and received diligently, because they represent the people at the grassroots level. The reply given may not necessarily always be affirmative. Even then, fair treatment should be accorded them.
As I have made an attempt to explain earlier on, these elders are not only factors that serve as ways of accessing the masses, but also linkages between generations through which historical heritage and valuable experiences are transferred from one generation to the next.
Turning down the requests made by these village or community elders will not only disconnect the relationships between governing bodies and the rural community, but will also jeopardise the implementation of socio-economic development plans targeted to eradicate poverty , disease or ignorance.
These social structures can be remodelled to cater for new development ideas and bring about rapid change. This could work with the objectives of the development transformation ideals, as evidenced during the embryonic stages of the 1974 Socialist Revolution in the country.
As far as eradicating illiteracy was concerned, it was possible to mobilise some 60,000 youngsters to most corners of the country to teach the rural people how to read and write. The result was a success story even by UNESCO standards, despite the ordeals faced by campaigners in many parts of the country.
Considering the rural background of the present government officials, I believe that working closely with elders is important. And there is so much that can be achieved in this way.
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