Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNouvelle série47The new frontier of age limits, o...

The new frontier of age limits, or youthoods among the Meru (Kenya)

Anne-Marie Peatrik
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham
Cet article est une traduction de :
La nouvelle frontière des limites d’âge, ou les jeunesses selon les Meru (Kenya) [fr]


In the much-changed context of the present-day lives of the Tigania-Igembe Meru (agro-herders living north-east of Mount Kenya who once had a political generation-set system), the article examines the differentiation of categories of youth and the modalities of age limits. Contrary to common perceptions, the transition to the next grade was neither automatic nor devoid of strong tensions, and youth was something other than that intermediate phase between childhood and adulthood, as the society and culture under consideration testifies to, through narratives, rules and a special vocabulary for the purpose. Nowadays, under the effect of widespread schooling, new youth classifications have appeared, overlapping or replacing old ones. The still-significant key question of initiations has shifted, causing a major de-synchronisation between the paths of girls and boys. The article offers a contribution to an anthropology of youth, viewed here from the perspective of its limits, and aims to put the rite of passage back in its rightful place within processes that concern both complex trajectories and the crucial junctions of existence.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Only a few episodes are presented here in a condensed form. For the sources and for other episodes (...)

1The scene takes place in the bygone days of Kenya’s Meru people. Mbugi, a somewhat simpleminded hunter and a clumsy magician—one of the protagonists of this story—is a key character in the narratives of origin of this population of agropastoralists, who live on the north-east of Mount Kenya and were, until the 1950s, structured by an age and generation system typical of East African polities. In these introductory episodes that comically relate their laborious first steps in life as a society, the story presents Mbugi’s groping solutions as he tries to marshal the energy of the first brood, consisting of young people tormented by the desire to do battle and fight enemies.1

Mbugi did not quite know what to do about that large, quarrelsome brood, born of two seductive women he had met during his wanderings over wooded hills, whom he had unintentionally impregnated one after the other. The portliness that had made the first one become ill-proportioned ended up being reabsorbed in the form of a child, and then this also happened with the second woman. Having regained her attractiveness, the first woman started to swell again, with the same cycle of unpleasantness. Mbugi ended up understanding that the attraction he felt for these people turned into swelling, but he was unable to resist their charms. The children multiplied, forming the oldest generation.

As the growing, active boys gained strength, they asked Mbugi where they could find enemies to fight with. Sceptical, but eager to contain the brawls and mortal blows that attracted hyenas greedy for injured and dead bodies, Mbugi got the idea to organise wrestling: he separated the boys into two groups according to their physical strength, then designated a third group to intervene. However, the fights went on and on, without any winners emerging. To try to stop the wrestling, Mbugi used his magic needles. In vain. The situation deteriorated. The boys who were supposed to intervene ended up teaming up with their youngest brothers. One of the sons was killed and the hyenas grabbed him.

A large mugumo [a variety of fig tree that produces suckers] dominated in the area where they lived. The tree had three branches. Mbugi pointed to each of the three groups [nthuki] in turn and said: “Take this axe and fell the mugumo; when that branch is cut, it will be yours, when the other is cut it will be yours, and the last will be yours.” He added: “This branch will fight the other one, and the last one, the largest, will make peace between them. When you have felled the tree you can start wrestling.” They spent the whole day working on cutting down the tree, but every time it was on the point of falling, Mbugi pulled out a magic needle [from his bag] and the tree stood up again. But the magic eventually stopped working, and the wrestling began. When the sons were worn out, they sat down, each on his own side in the company of his nthuki. To show they were fully-fledged “adults”, the oldest boys from the two wrestling groups started to “circumcise” themselves, but not by cutting. They pulled their foreskin back and tied it behind the glans. The one who had come up with this idea helped the others using bark string, but his own foreskin remined untied. The name of this first circumcision-set was Kibiringwa. When the youngest saw what their eldest brothers had done, they wanted to do the same. Their brothers agreed to help them, but they deceived them, because they cut their foreskins instead of simply tying them with a string.

Mbugi first formed two groups of wrestlers and a third one to intervene, thereby establishing the first age divisions among the boys, who were divided up according to their physical strength, and designated by a key term in the vocabulary of the Meru’s political institutions: nthuki. Depending on the context, this word refers to the three ordinal grades of initiation or to the generation, in the sense of either the political generation-set or the line of descent, or both at the same time. But these original delimitations were porous, and the poorly-separated boys started fighting again. Mbugi then attempted to calm them down by wearing them out, showing them a tree to fell, each group in turn cutting one of its three branches. But the tree—a species symbolising permanence, an object that is revered because its branches take root—stands back up every time it is on the point of falling. The possibility of wrestling recedes, until the boys realise they have been fooled and resume their battles. To put an end to this lack of differentiation, perhaps because they are weary of those wrestling matches causing their young brothers to mobilise, the eldest brothers invent another way of distinguishing themselves: they pull back their foreskins—tied back with a string by the one who had initiated this gesture—and then without warning they cut the foreskins of the youngest, thus inventing a form of circumcision.

2In the course of these episodes, the categorisation of the boys became more complex. The self-referential gesture of pulling back the foreskin was pivotal in this case, producing the initiator/novice relationship, as well as the separation between circumcised and uncircumcised boys: it is the root of the first initiatory ritual. And according to the Meru, this is how age sets were gradually established, as subsets of the generation. But the worries of Mbugi, that explorer of delimitations, did not stop there. Other episodes followed. With its inevitable dose of arbitrariness, a limit only just drawn was doomed to being crossed, requiring another delimitation and an additional system. The now-circumcised sons once again found a way to fight. Confined to a house of warriors, they devoured each other during a brawl provoked by meat-sharing. To avoid a repetition of this confusion, two houses of warriors were established, alternatively grouping the circumcised grades for fifteen to twenty years after they emerged from the long reclusion imposed on novices after their operation.

3How can the children of one single generation, born at different times and having different heights and builds, be organised on a long-term basis? How can one age be distinguished from the next when growth is a process that does not have clear limits, and signs of age appear in a discontinuous and variable way from one individual to another? Mbugi’s misadventures immediately plunge us into the dilemmas faced by societies governed by age and generation systems. How can discrete units be delimited in a process produced by the flow of time (Straight, 2005a and b)? How can an internal consistency be ensured within the generation on which the organisation of powers depends? And what is the best way to prepare the smooth succession of the generations that are required to hold authority one after the other?

  • 2 Another of the Meru’s so-called Mbwaa narratives, a more famous one that has been subject to conten (...)
  • 3 In these systems, power is transferred between male sets of fathers and sons: exactly every eight y (...)

4This brief essay in political sociology examining the Meru2 could shed light on many other societies in East Africa organised into age and generation systems, those whose principles are derived from the ages of life, and whose powers were (and still are, in some cases) based on the transmission of authority between successive male generation sets, at variable and distinctive intervals.3 A number of them (but not all, it must be stressed), those characterised as age-grading societies, inspired interpretations that became oversimplified by dint of repetition: the series of age grades, in other words the succession of ascribed statuses, are said to involve an automatic transition from one stage to the next within an age set, unlike so-called achieved statuses, which are reached as a result of the play of probability in individual trajectories. These differential dynamics more broadly establish an opposition between two models of advancement over time: a mechanical one in which the individuals concerned advance in one same movement, and a statistical one, in which the observed regularities result from the convergence of progressions, leaving open the possibility of drops in status and failures or forks during access trajectories; but the latter point, though well-known, has often been left in the shadows.

5Without any doubt, ethnologists studying these societies have contributed to these sorts of simplifications, because it is difficult to describe and analyse their institutions without at some point resorting to an overall representation. They did this all the more insofar as they also had to counter colonial prejudices that view these leaderless societies with diffuse powers as anarchic and weakly structured. Furthermore, local models like those revealed by Mbugi’s misadventures certainly do exist, testifying to a holistic reflexivity in relation to institutions considered as a whole.

  • 4 In a register similar to that of Johnson-Hanks, with slight differences in terms of the understandi (...)

6In reality, progressions are complex, mixing a variety of criteria and temporalities. I would like to return to these aspects, particularly in dialogue with the very stimulating article that has inspired me to do so, by Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2002), entitled “On the Limits of Life Stages in Ethnography: Towards a Theory of Vital Conjunctures”. The author questions the analytical relevance of the cycle of life conceived in terms of stages reached one after another, like grades leading from birth to death. According to the author, this “stagist” conception of human existence, and the series of rites of passage that punctuate it—expounded upon more than enough and taken up again in textbooks—have ended up overshadowing other principles of advancement. Based on a record of the life-events of 185 town-dwelling women in Cameroon (bearing their first child, completing school, getting a paid job and getting married), Johnson-Hanks observes that these four events are not correlated, and that no identical path from the end of adolescence to adulthood stands out, and she incidentally questions the validity of that age characterised as “youth”. The trajectories are multifarious; other considerations like the valorisation of access to an honourable status carry weight in their choices, guiding their forward movements. These various motivations constitute tangles of factors that Johnson-Hanks proposes to call “vital conjunctures” (Johnson-Hanks, 2002, 2006), therefore something different from the conception of the stages of the cycle of life, and more subtle than the “life crises” of sociology textbooks.4

  • 5 The various elements characterising an individual’s position could be consistent (harmonious, compl (...)

7Stated in these terms, it is clear that there is well and truly a contrast with age-grade societies: thus the local episteme of the ages of life—in this case that of the Meru—characterises the succession of grades as a set of “measured steps” (etaalia, pl. mataalia) that need to be taken, in the right order and at the right time, and in the number prescribed for men and for women. After their initiation, men are (were) required to go through four successive grades, and there were three for women. However, the same episteme contains a range of terms and rules that designate and attempt to contain various inconsistencies and tensions experienced by individuals in advancement crises who are either late or early (that is to say precocious) with regard to fulfilment in due form, potential exceptions who would signal the end of the system if they were to increase in number. The situation turned out to be such that I made the consistency or inconsistency of the elements of individuals’ trajectories—in other words status consistency—one of the key points in the analysis of East African systems.5

8By this means, I would like to contribute to reviving questions on age limits, and show the contemporary manifestations of the perplexities that Mbugi confronted with his growing boys. This phase of existence—which we call youth, a term that has spread in contemporary Africa to the point of subsuming or reflecting all of the evils afflicting the continent—lends itself particularly to this argument and illustration. It is distinguished by a particular flow of time, as if accelerated by the growth and development of the human person-body, which furthermore appears marked nowadays, here and elsewhere, by growing disorder: increasingly early signs of puberty, increasingly restrictive “chronological” (calendrical) age limits, delayed entry to adulthood (Antoine et al., 2001; Honwana, 2012). The span of youth is widening, echoing the other end of the journey (in a reduced way in Africa of course) with its longer lifespans and segmentation into new ages of old age (Golaz and Sajoux [eds], 2018).

Youth and its ages among the old Meru of Kenya

  • 6 Western sociologists of youth have distinguished several phases of youth (pre-adolescent, adolescen (...)
  • 7 “Precolonial”, and “bygone days” in the introduction, refer to the historicity of this society and (...)
  • 8 For a detailed description, see Peatrik, 1999 and 2019: chap. 1.

9In the West, what one commonly understands by “child” and “young person”6 corresponds to five age categories among the Meru in Kenya. Their presentation—obviously succinct—is based on the traditional, precolonial state of their society,7 some features of which are still active, though they have greatly changed.8 I will conjugate the verbs in the past tense sometimes (occasionally indicated in parentheses), and in the present tense at other times, following a somewhat acrobatic style-exercise that ethnographers can hardly escape if they want to avoid the deceptive effects of the ethnographic present.

10Mwana (pl. aana) is the generic term designating the child (boy or girl), and kaana (pl. twana), constructed by adding a diminutive prefix to the radical ana, means “little child”. Childhood is (was) a prolonged state, punctuated by various rituals, the most important of which is performed when the survival of the child appears to be certain; then the giving of the personal name takes place, which is that of the grandfather or grandmother whose turn it is to transmit their own childhood name to this grandson or granddaughter. Weaning concludes this period, but this used to happen late (according to Western puericulture criteria), at the moment when the girl or boy was considered capable of taking part in household tasks: bringing water in a calabash, lighting a fire, taking care of a few goats or calves. This corresponds with the abilities of a child who has reached the (calendar) age of 4–5 years, or is even a little older. They explain that the child must have become strong enough to be able to manage on their own and to give up the mother’s milk, to which other foods were added very early in any case. Behind this is (was) the idea that the growth of the small child requires all of the mother’s attention and care, and that another child must not be conceived as long as the most recent one has not grown enough, meaning there significant spacing between births, something that is also explained by a concomitant disapproval of having too many children, and by the husband keeping his distance for a long period. The wife who is first pregnant and then monopolised by the child upon whom she is lavishing care becomes unattractive, something that Mbugi alludes to.

On the way to initiation

11Leaving the nurseling state when he or she is considered to be solidly planted on his or her feet, the child completes a first stage and becomes a “little uninitiated boy” (kaijî, pl. iwîjî) or “little uninitiated girl” (gakenye, pl. tûkenye). Boys and girls of those ages divide their daily time between the company of the neighbourhood’s children and the life of the family kraal, within which they very often live in the grandparents’ hut. The generic term “child” (mwana) still applies, but the new “uninitiated boy / uninitiated girl” status signals the beginning of a sexual identity and implicitly designates their entry into an initiatory countdown process that, among the Meru of Kenya, unfolds until the final age. This just shows how—with a great economy of means—the term “uninitiated boy / uninitiated girl” sets in motion a long-range ontogenetic dynamic. But obviously the children are not aware of this.

12Little uninitiated boys’ or girls’ participation in the tasks of the household economy keeps increasing; and as the family grows, they become party to rituals that mark (marked) the progression and accomplishment of their parents and grandparents. From the point of view of personal development, the arrival of permanent teeth (around the calendar age of 12 or 13 years) is a marker of the growth of boys and girls: it indicates that the time has (had) come to proceed with the removal of their two lower middle incisors. This commonplace operation, performed by the father or a neighbour who knows how to do it, contributes (contributed) to shaping their locutionary ability to utter blessings or curses, in short to produce fertile or deadly words, an ability that every human being possesses to varying degrees depending on their age.

  • 9 This was mentioned in the introductory essay (Peatrik, present volume: note 20): the first period u (...)

13A clear change of age category occurs for girls when they have their first period: after being a “little uninitiated girl”, the pubescent girl turns into an “big uninitiated girl”.9 By adding an augmentative prefix, the term mûkenye (pl. nkenye) indicates a progression in the countdown to the girl’s key moment of initiation. Now pubescent but still uninitiated, she begins a more protracted period of ambiguity. The growing uninitiated girl joins the group of neighbourhood girls who wash themselves downstream. By joining the local company of age, she is thereby included in a hierarchy for big uninitiated girls. Within it, she received a second name, which in principle was only known by the group. The big uninitiated girls organised themselves into pseudo-grades, at the head of which the most matures girls formed a council considered secret (nkilion). The girls now had to avoid their previous friends whether girls or boys, particularly pubescent boys. Their attention turned to the “Bushmen/warriors”—initiated, unmarried young men who formed the official warrior class. Sexual relations were not prohibited between nkenye and Bushmen. These young men even thought that these girls were intended for them, contrary to the aspirations of big uninitiated boys, and of married men searching for another wife. The “big uninitiated girl” status lasted a long time. Girls very often did not marry before the calendar age of 20 to 25. Pregnancies that occurred ended in either abortion or infanticide, because a child conceived by an uninitiated girl (kitheega) was considered deformed, non-viable and dangerous to the community.

14Be that as it may, all big uninitiated boys and big girls actively participated in the household economy. They were even its lifeblood, given all of the care they lavished on the cattle and the time they devoted to farming. This is one of the reasons why parents delayed their children’s initiation.

15As for the growing boys, puberty has no clear boundaries; it is perceived from the breaking of their voice, within the calendar age range of approximately 12 to 16 years. The voice was heard as an indication of sexual maturity and a new ability to be fertile: then the pubescent boy stopped sleeping in the family kraal because he could no longer share the environment where his parents were still endeavouring to bring more children into the world. He always took his meals there, and got even more involved in the household economy, but he slept in the dormitory for the neighbourhood’s big uninitiated boys, joining his local age society, in which his new peers secretly assigned him a second name.

  • 10 Peatrik, 1999: 72–74, 2019: 64–66.

16The big uninitiated boys (mwîjî, pl. ijîîjî) self-organised under the leadership of the oldest and most settled boys. Subcategories formed, giving shape to initiatory pseudo-grades, like a propaedeutic to the system,10 designated by terms that varied from place to place. The most recent arrivals had to respect their predecessors, and even serve as their slaves. In the case of unfitting behaviour, blows rained down, something that elders remember with bitterness, often saying that this phase was the most painful of their existence. As they busily worked, uninitiated boys were subject to relentless supervision. They were exposed on the one hand to the harassment and ragging of their own hierarchy, and on the other hand to the supervision of warriors who had the right to thrash them if they considered their behaviour unacceptable. To channel their overflowing energy or resentment, wrestling matches were held between the big uninitiated boys from neighbouring territories—peaceful, very popular sparring that echoed the story of Mbugi. The “uninitiated boy” state lasted a long time. The wait for initiation, which spread over several years, bred impatience. Uninitiated boys ended up threatening to leave, to break away and live elsewhere with the corresponding group of growing uninitiated girls (nkilion).

17Before the process of leaving the uninitiated state could begin, one had to wait until an initiation set was open to recruitment, something that happened every four to five years on average. This tempo and this stipulation bring us to the heart of generation-set systems and political institutions. In short, in the olden days, it was necessary for recruitment to be authorised by the generation set of the Fathers of the “Country”, and for initiation candidates’ own parents be in the appropriate generation set, and finally for these parents to decide to initiate their own big uninitiated boys, some of whom were getting older and could have been plotting to flee. In Meru country, and more specifically among the Tigania and the Igembe, tensions peaked every fifteen to twenty years, at the conclusion of the sequence of three subsets within a set, at the time of so-called ntuiko (“break”, “rupture”): a set of aspiring young Fathers, driven by the increasing impatience of big uninitiated boys, had to force the set of aging Fathers to cede power. After protracted confrontations and various transgressions, the newly promoted Fathers of the Country asserted their authority over the succession of generations by deciding to open the first initiation session for the new generation of sons.

18The initiation of a girl was also modulated by this tempo of four to five years; however, the decision was directly linked to her marriage, usually to a Bushman-warrior looking to abandon his status. The bridewealth was not substantial, but matrimonial negotiations mobilised complex alliance networks that had to be appealed to. It was during this extended process that the uninitiated girl, jointly with age peers also engaged to be married, was excised on the public grounds under the responsibility of the wife-sets forming a hierarchy among the women, and in the presence of warriors whose chants encouraged them to do their “first battle”.

19Every girl recovered in a special hut within the family kraal, where she transformed from “one who has been operated on” (ntaanî) into ngutu, and remained secluded until a certain portion of the bridewealth had been paid. During this reclusion, she could receive her fiancé, and the conception of a child under those conditions was a good omen. When she emerged, her own father allocated her wife-name. Escorted by her husband’s companions in arms, she left to join him in the territorial section where the local Fathers were already working on tracing the foundational circle of their new family kraal. In short, well after the first period, what took place—through the two successive states of “one who has been operated on” and ngutu—was emergence from the uninitiated state that was considered unsuitable for childbirth, then the transition to the status of a woman capable of begetting children (muka), with her concomitant inclusion in the connected wife-set.

20As for the big uninitiated boys, a split took place between the bitter ones whose turn to be initiated had not yet come, and the others who began an extended process of transformation. Circumcised with alongside peers on the public grounds, each boy who had been operated on (designated by the same term as for girls, ntaanî) began a nine-month convalescence and reclusion phase, living in a basic hut at the edge of the family kraal. When they emerged, the novices embarked on their first raid in search of an enemy to kill, before joining their territorial section’s house of warriors, on the threshold of which each of them received a new proper name. Having become a member of his generation set, the new circumcised one was thereby promoted to the grade of Bushman/warrior.

21The warriors’ physical appearance intentionally stood out from that of others. “Bushmen”—a literal translation of the term muthaka (pl. nthaka), which designates warriors—spent much of their time adorning themselves, coating themselves with ochre mixed with fat, plaiting their hair, organising dance sessions. Handsome, seductive, fed by the local families, they were supposed to be the pride of their territorial section. Under the control of the Fathers, whom the Bushmen were tempted to escape, the warriors embarked on raids, in which they won as many trophy-names as possible through their exploits—something that was supposed increase their future reproductive abilities—and brought back herds that the Fathers shared, and sometimes brought captives, children and young women intended to be adopted by local families, increasing the population. Day to day, the warriors relentlessly watched over the big uninitiated boys, whom they always suspected of wanting to seduce the big uninitiated girls.

22After a few years of service as warriors, when a new class of initiates joined the house of warriors, the warriors of the previous class were authorised to get married, something some of them endeavoured to do as quickly as possible, whereas others tried to prolong their life as an “irresponsible” unmarried Bushman (as the elders often playfully called them). Thus the end of life as a warrior marked access to the status of “man capable of begetting a child” (mûrumî), a status that was not fully attained until the birth of the first child. The idea of adulthood, as the age that follows youth in the sense in which it is understood in the West, is ineffective in this case, because other grades must be crossed before achieving the state of “accomplishment”.

  • 11 It is said that the inhabitants of Mûciî Mûkûrû (“Ancient Settlement”), located high on the Nyamben (...)

23Be that as it may, for both girls and boys, access to marriage was often late. To emphasise this fact, elders explain with some hyperbole that certain women could no longer have children, and that certain men had white hair at the time of their marriage, that is to say they had the corporeal emblems of someone who had surpassed “youth”. The subtext of their words reveals a “Mbugian” reflexivity on the modalities of existence of age categories.11

First assessment

24Here one notices that, beyond the very general traits that can be found throughout the world’s societies and cultures, youth among the Meru unfolded in accordance with a very particular system. In the phase of human development and growth covered by childhood and youth (a phase sometimes slowed down and sometimes precipitated), the old Meru’s ways of perceiving the transformation of bodies and personhood and establishing limits appear diverse and highly pragmatic: they mobilised ways of doing things ranging from the most trivial gesture belonging to everyday interactions to the particularly elaborate rite requiring all of the society’s energy. To various degrees, the delimitations combined a categorial principle, a relational principle and the individual point of view. Gradually “gendered”, age categories placed the progression of boys alongside that of girls, and they advanced in parallel until they separated at the beginning of their reproductive life: the girl’s initiation led to her marriage and access to the first female age grade, and that of the boy led to the state of unmarried warrior. When acceding to that first male age grade, the young man’s reproductive energy, considered insufficient and unsuitable for reproduction, was encouraged to develop through raids and confrontations with enemies (Peatrik, 2013a and b; Straight, present volume), as Mbugi’s sons’ search for enemies alludes to.

25Underlying these practices is a special theory of the “person-body”, an ad hoc concept of the anthropology of ages that I should explain. The separation that Marcel Mauss (in articles published in 1936 and 1938) established in a way that was fortuitous but in tune with the Western body/person duality, is not only ineffective here, but creates an obstacle in any analysis of the ages of life. It is biased by the analytical dualism of biological age and social age and the addition of the so-called chronological age to which sociologists resorted for a time (Peatrik, present volume: part 3). I will endeavour to re-shuffle the cards. One cannot explore the age of the body without talking about the person it incarnates, and reciprocally, a person’s age is inseparable from the state of their body. The individual person, whoever it might be, is wrought by the development of their body over time, a development that is itself conditioned by the concrete existential modalities at work in a society and culture at a particular moment in a given place. What is therefore necessary is to define new analytical units based on the “person-body”, like the concept of “ontogenesis” (Peatrik, 2003a).

  • 12 Remember that the Meru practiced divination on entrails (they had a very precise idea of animal ana (...)

26The old Meru consider that at birth, the human being is a potential being, proceeding from a maternal contribution and a paternal contribution that one hopes will be beneficial and complementary. This potential being is expected to be realised by passing through various stages, sometimes individually, sometimes as part of a group or set. The human being will not really be “accomplished” until after having succeeded in attaining the final grade. Those who die before that point are ill-omened dead, from whom one must protect oneself (Peatrik, 1991). Human fate is fulfilled while individuals are alive. Apart from grandchildren who testify to the person’s perpetuity, there is no post-mortem existence. The Meru have forefathers but not ancestors. Life, conceived over time as an ontogenesis based on an interpretation of the physiological datum,12 proceeds from the energy flow of an abstract acting entity, in this case called Ngaï or Murungu. The flow is curbed by men’s loose living, and rituals are supposed to restore it. In metaphysical and sociological terms, the principle of generational precedence prevails over others principles, in the political system and within the family, in line with a model that ideally stamps a common tempo on the reproduction of political generations and household generations. The stop represented by the opening and closing of initiation classes is therefore a real constraint. It was not possible to perform initiations outside of these seasons and without the consent of the Fathers. The prohibition led to waiting phenomena (I will return to this), but when it was lifted, the uninitiated were not immediately brought in all at once, in the sense of everyone being automatically promoted.

27From childhood, physiological marks of development, signs of harmonious growth—like the timely appearance of baby teeth and permanent teeth—and proofs of skill-acquisition were recognised as varying from one individual to another. Their progression through categories and their individual position within one same category was perceptible. The various groups of children and the age societies of the uninitiated were where they learned rivalry and cooperation, and experienced the reversibility of relations between peers, and practiced the games of equality and hierarchy found in all of those societies (Marmone, present volume).

28Within families, among siblings, birth order was taken into consideration for access to initiation, but it was also rearranged when necessary. When a child was underdeveloped in terms of physical or intellectual growth, a system mixing play and ritual miming their disappearance and reappearance made it possible for a lagger to advance: the underdeveloped child was placed in a large bag that other laggers straddled, then he or she was made to come out, thereby simulating his or her new birth, this time in the position of youngest child. In certain polygynous families, sometimes the birth order of boys was separated from that of girls, but this did not prevent them from classifying siblings according to their respective mothers on other occasions. In still other families, a common order of all births was established, with the usual adjustments if necessary.

  • 13 The father could take another wife, but monogamy was predominant. Some practices evoking polyandry (...)

29By and large, the initiation of girls and boys was delayed until well after puberty. Big uninitiated girls were often (but not always) fully developed young women, and many boys were strapping fellows who had made up their minds to skedaddle. The reason (which alone contains all the other reasons), is that as soon as the eldest boy or girl was initiated, the parents had to stop procreating.13 It was thought that initiation had the property of activating the novice’s reproductive capabilities in accordance with the Meru’s own ontogenesis: the ability to bring children into the world, and therefore the possibility of producing a new generation, started to be activated without being immediate. And within one family, representatives of two adjacent generations could not procreate simultaneously. This interweaving of generations was considered dangerous and deadly, not only for family generations (because it caused defective births and poor growth) but for generation sets: the same applied to the reproduction of the political system.

30In the system of sets, the first class of initiates in any new generation set is called ndinguri, a substantive constructed from the verbs “to close” and “to wait”. “Those who had to wait because it was closed” were very often “big uninitiated boys” who had aged while waiting their turn and had become young men in terms of their physical growth. Conversely, the class concluding every generation set is called kaberia “the children who are in front” because in this case, the fathers sought to initiate as many sons as possible before that generation set closed to recruitment (the one they viewed as most favourable to the inclusion of their male offspring). Recruited alongside boys who had become young men were newly pubescent boys who were immature from the perspective of what one might expect from a future warrior.

  • 14 The men of one same generation A do not all procreate at the same time. Their sons in generation B (...)
  • 15 A comparable phenomenon occurred at the other end of the journey, at the moment of the competitive, (...)

31This heterogeneity of the ages in each of the sets (countered but ever-returning) and these phases of waiting or acceleration (moving in fits and starts) observed in the deployment of generation sets in East Africa stem from the so-called “overageing” and “underageing”14 demographic drifts at the root of “overaged” and “underaged” individuals. These status inconsistencies, or the dissimilar elements in their physical state and in the expectations of their age category, were particularly perceptible among “big uninitiated boys” to the point that they appeared to be the adjustment variable at the entrance to the system.15 Because of their respective position, certain individuals were late in relation to their peers (overaged, having aged in that position), while others were too young (underaged). Within a group of “big uninitiated boys”, certain boys left to be initiated because of positive family circumstances, whereas others, who had equal if not greater physical strength, still had to wait four or five years before being initiated and promoted to the status of warriors. As another example of distortions in advancement and inconsistencies in positions, brought about by individual inclinations this time: some warriors sought to get married as soon as possible (thus one brother could get married before his elder brother), while others drew out their lives as unmarried Bushman-warriors as long as they could.

  • 16 On this subject, Deschavanne and Tavoillot ([2007] 2009: 92) wrote: “The individual is, without any (...)
  • 17 To the point that, when I started questioning elders (old men and women) about these issues, they e (...)

32It is not possible to go into further detail here. The major initiation rituals unquestionably created a before and after, dividing collective time. Mbugi’s growing boys, the inventors of circumcision, had understood this well, and the lesson that Van Gennep ([1909] 1981) drew from rites of passage over a century ago still apply. But from the point of view of individual progression, initiation arose at a moment that the future novice could not easily anticipate; it could be characterised by waiting, or its opposite, precipitation. Other events were also marked by uncertainty, in a different way of course. Remembering this intrinsic, recurrent uncertainty leads a considerable qualification of the prevailing idea about progression in age-grade societies, that in personal trajectories, the automatic crossing from one stage to the next is determined in advance.16 As with other modalities of life in society with mechanical effects brought about by the application of certain principles (the tempo of the initiations that conditioned the succession of political generations), the statistical effects of multiple rules combined, effects that were secondary and sometimes contradictory, produced by their implementation in the vagaries of everyday life.17

table 1 – Ages of youth among the old Tigania-Igembe Meru

mûrumî (arumî)

“man”, young father

muthaka (nthaka)

“bushman”, warrior

ntaanî (ntaanî)

“one who was operated upon”, circumcised one, novice

mwîjî (ijîîjî)

“big uninitiated boy”, adolescent, young fellow

kaîjî (îwîjî)

“little uninitiated boy”, boy

mwana (aana)

child (unweaned)

muka (aka)

“woman”, young mother

ngutu (ngutu)

novice, fiancée

ntaanî (ntaanî)

“girl who has been operated on”, girl who has been excised

mûkenye (nkenye)

“big uninitiated girl”, adolescent, girl

gakenye (tûkenye)

“little uninitiated girl”, little girl

mwana (aana)

child (unweaned)

Crises and the modernisation of youth delimitations

33The colonial conquest in 1908 and the tight administration imposed on the Meru led to deep changes in their mode of existence, while fifty kilometres to the north, beyond the administrative boundary of the Northern Frontier Districts establishing something of an internal border, populations continued to lead an existence that was certainly changed, but comparatively more similar to what they were accustomed to, like the Samburu for example (Marmone, present volume; Straight, present volume) who share many traits with the old Meru.

Ruptures and repetitions in the accomplishment pact

  • 18 At different times later, the crisis wave propagated to other grades, that of kaaria mothers (holde (...)

34The prohibition against warriors launching raids and the impossibility of transmitting power from one generation of ageing Fathers to the next generation of fathers at the desired time increased the overlapping of generations, and also blurred precedence and status delimitation. Step by step, year after year, status inconsistencies multiplied. Unable to exercise their judicial power in a normal way, the Fathers of the Country lost legitimacy, conflicts accumulated and a multifaceted crisis propagated into the whole social body. Added to the accomplishment crisis of warriors who had become useless and idle and that of Fathers deprived of their honourability was that of girls and young women, as revealed by the increase in abortions and infanticides of children conceived by uninitiated girls (kitheega). The condition of big uninitiated boys worsened. The central administration had to dispatch experienced commissioners capable of conducting investigations and making themselves heard, and finding the means to reform both the “backward” customs standing in the way of modernisation and the population that avoided taxation and censuses, whose young people balked at finding a job.18

35By the late 1940s, generation sets and the grades of the warriors and of the Fathers of the Country had become obsolete. Upon the return of soldiers enlisted in the Second World War—the last of the Meru (of the Michubu generation) to go fight as far away as Malaysia and Germany as Bushman-warriors in a war that cost many lives—it was acknowledged that circumcision no longer marked entry into a politically defunct generation set, and that there was no longer any foundation for access to a warrior grade. Neo-traditional councils active in many areas took over, often encouraged by the colonial administration, which was endeavouring to lower the age of initiations, viewing their belated character as the source of recurrent problems: rebellion by the uninitiated, unemployed Bushmen, pregnancies in uninitiated girls, late marriages and low fertility. The neo-traditionalists tweaked the appellations and created amalgamations and hybridisations, not without sowing discord and creating new conflicts. This is what was done by the njûûri ncheke, an exclusive council that grew out of the reform of an ancestral practice. It became the paragon of customary councils in contemporary Kenya (sometimes lauded, sometimes criticised), but divided the Meru and still divides them. The vocabulary of institutions evolved, as did the institutions themselves, and then the movement did not cease.

36In the 1950s and 1960s—at the time of the circumcision of boys of the Ratanya generation, which became a category, as future generations would henceforth—the limits and position of various categories of “young people” had already changed, and were continuing to change deeply because of the extended baby boom that followed profound changes to the structure and economy of families. A new economy that focused on commercial farming was accompanied by a new family model that was spreading in line with growing Christianisation. The main characteristics of the accelerated modernisation of household institutions were: a drastic decrease in the age of initiation and marriage for both men and women, increasingly early weaning, decreasing time between births, the valorisation of many sibships, the discreet rise of a certain polygamy, and changes in the family structure and home. The dormitories for “uncircumcised big boys” disappeared all at once, houses of warriors were no longer reconstructed, while not far away new school buildings were being built, as were coffee and tea factories, various churches, as well as administration buildings, health clinics and new market plazas. Primary schooling for boys and girls became widespread thanks to coffee and tea revenue and citizen mobilisation after independence was gained in 1963. From the 1980s, there was more emphasis on developing secondary schools and boarding schools.

37Changes in family structures, the reform of initiations, demographic growth and increased schooling are closely linked processes that are connected with the redefinition of childhood and youth. After the first general census in 1948, the population of the Meru district grew from approximately 312,000 that year to 1.6 million in 2009, increasing fourfold in fifty years, following the general trend in Kenya where 40% of the population is aged under 15.

38The delimitations of yesteryear having become futile and ineffective, the blurring of customary youth categories increased, but the delimitation work did not cease; it shifted and proceeded with other tools. The superimposition of categories emerging at the intersection of various influences sometimes had convergent effects. Schools, in connection with the state bureaucracy, became hubs spreading a new way of understanding age in terms of accumulated years; and unprecedented demographic growth combined with widespread schooling contributed to constructing youth as a demographic category, delimited by the school grade criterion combined to some extent with birth year (or calendar age; Peatrik, present volume), which was being more and more widely used. Finally, the initiatory institution, with its changing, often conflictual modalities, placed the gender of youth categories at the centre of debates. These competing yet complementary institutions produced and still produce plays of mirrors and rebound effects of which the actors are quite conscious.

39Some terms have been forgotten, or their meaning has changed, while other designations have appeared, testifying to new roles attributed to youth and childhood. Athomi—a term borrowed from Kiswahili (one of the common languages of East Africa) that dates back to the colonial era and designates “those who read”, that is to say literate people, and by extension those who went to school—is used less and less. Literate people are no longer a rarity. Schooling has become widespread and youth categories only represent a portion of the “literate” population. As for school-age populations, “young people” has become common, as have “pupils” and “students” (beginning in primary school), or more recently “learners”. To evoke little boys, one will still speak without much formality of “little uninitiated boys”, though it is awkward to use this term for a child of only 2 years of age who has just been weaned: mwana (child) or his/her first name would be used instead. Otherwise, usage is increasingly determined by the context. Addressing an adolescent as a “big uninitiated boy” (mwiji) is liable to disappoint: unless one wants to create an incident, using the term muthaka (“Bushman” and warrior, therefore circumcised) is safer, even if the boy being addressed is quite obviously uncircumcised. And as for girls, the term mware, which designates a “sister” or “daughter” without any reference to a possible initiation, is preferable to avoid a faux pas.

Delimitation through initiation under debate

  • 19 The evolution of the English lexicon is revealing: “female circumcision” changed to “excision” and (...)
  • 20 Studying the ban on the initiation of Meru girls at the end of the colonial era, and the reaction o (...)
  • 21 “The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2014 indicated that 31 percent of women in Meru aged be (...)

40For girls, the question is uniquely sensitive. Aside from the fact that personal situations vary widely, excision practices among the Meru have been secretive since the 1950s—in relation to both administrative authorities and neo-tribal councils. Fluctuations in opinions and practices are far from being non-existent, and the debate is at once local, national and global.19 Since the time of Mbugi, it has been well-known that initiation is the quintessential delimitation, and that girls’ initiation copies that of boys according to the oral tradition. One same verb kutaana designates the operation, and one identical substantive designates the person who has been operated upon, ntaanî. Concerning this much-debated issue,20 remember that initially, parents (particularly mothers) were opposed to lowering the initiation age for their girls because the authority of their councils and their position in society were at stake. It was later, in order to thwart the opposition of women’s councils, that the question of doing away with initiation arose, taken up by the population-growth favouring male neo-council already mentioned, which banned it in 1956. Modernist families, those in the fold of the Christian churches, stopped practicing it a long time ago. And the Christian churches are still fighting the idea that the child of an uninitiated woman is kitheega. In rural areas that are poorly connected (which does not really mean they are cut off from the modern economy), some fathers and mothers—they can be quite numerous—still think that it is improper, inauspicious and contrary to the rules of good marriage for a girl not to be excised.21

41It is true that, excision or no excision, the question of limits—in this case the lack of limits or substitute rituals (Hughes, 2018)—concerns girls very specifically, as shown among the Meru and more generally in Kenya (in addition to the decrease in the age at which a girl has her first period, as observed everywhere over a very long period) by the increase in pregnancies in young women or “adolescents”, the newest designation to begin spreading. Behind what is a scourge and a major source of the descholarisation that authorities are struggling to combat (along with the AIDS and hepatitis C epidemics), one can find strategies that are not devoid of ulterior motives. Some young people find it useful to prove their ability to bring children into the world before getting married. Which age and which age marker is associated with girls’ first period, first pregnancy or first abortion, and with their early marriage, and with the discreetly assumed and even blossoming position of the young, unmarried mother? It is impossible to pull a single thread and untangle these matters, on which the ethnographic data is incomplete, with a few exceptions (Straight, 2005b; Johnson-Hanks, 2006; Hunt, 2007).

42These divergences between points of view are certainly not found when it comes to boys, but boys are the subject of no-less-virulent confrontations of a different nature. Circumcision is universal among the Meru, and the prevention of AIDS and hepatitis C has strengthened its legitimacy (Lamont, 2018). However, circumcision methods have always provoked divisions and major debates, particularly over the right time and the appropriate place to perform it, that is to say over the ways of establishing the delimitation.

43The valorisation of this trial has only recently started to diminish. It is the only trial in the customary repertoire that remains highly significant and compulsory, and the disappearance of the other major promotion rituals has increased its relative importance. However, the ritual has changed considerably, even if the script attempts to preserve certain features that are viewed as anachronistic but crucial, like the celebration of the war ethos. Being a Bushman, in other words a diehard, contributes to the construction of masculinity. As for the married man, his son’s initiation strengthens paternal links spanning three generations: the initiation of his eldest boy marks his ascension to full paternity, which in turn enables him to establish the right distance with his own father, since he has completed the duty that falls to every son, which is to bring about the rebirth of his father. Feelings of this kind are not foreign to a mother, but they play out at a different register. Last but not least, from the boys’ perspective, circumcision puts an end to the states of minority and dependence, which they find increasingly insufferable.

44Waiting periods having lost their reason for being, in the 1950s the authorities in charge of initiations (reformed authorities prey to new rivalries) started to organise sessions every year instead of every four or five years, in order to meet the demands of pupils and students in a situation of increased schooling. On playgrounds in particular, or in boarding school dormitories, the youngest no longer wanted to tolerate harassment from superior grades, something that led to a domino effect of decreasing circumcision ages, in one education level after another. Since the number of candidates was growing due to the baby boom and increased schooling, three sessions per year ended up being organised, aligned with the school holiday calendar. The main session is held during the major December holiday marking the end of both the school year and the civic year, and additional sessions are held during the Easter break and the August holiday.

45At the same time, the (calendar) age of circumcision has continued to decrease. Some boys press to be circumcised as soon as possible, while their parents see this drift as harmful, and their boys as too immature to withstand the physical trial and its accompanying social emancipation. In their stubbornness, some boys run away, circumventing their parents’ supervision in order to go and get initiated in another location, where they mix in with a large group of candidates and pass incognito. This echoes the uninitiated boys of the past who threatened to run away, but they were aged 20 or older, whereas the boys in question are barely pubescent. The decrease in the calendar age of initiation generates a supplementary debate relating to the concrete modalities of the operation. Even though it is held over two weeks in a simplified, condensed form (whereas it used to span a year), initiation is nevertheless a true physical and psychological ordeal. On the one hand, civic and sex education courses are given, and their content, even if adapted, cannot meet the expectations of a boy aged 12 (or less) and another aged nearly 18. On the other hand, it is more than a simple circumcision. It is an operation in which the foreskin is shaped in a painful way, and the healing process requires at least two weeks of care and supervision. Modernists incline towards an operation performed under anaesthetic in a clinic, but this medicalisation is rejected by proponents of custom, who believe an initiation can only be held in a group in a public setting, led by the appropriate operator who is now aware of the transmission of AIDS through blood. Conflicts between traditionalists and modernists have always been virulent. Modern initiation continues to be characterised by proponents of custom as “kiswahili”—a disparaging term in this case, which denigrates the masculinity of coastal inhabitants (Muslim Swahilis)—as opposed to so-called “kimeru” initiation, the only kind that confers a truly Meru identity. The prefix “ki-” in Kiswahili as well as Kimeru (two Bantu languages) indicates both spoken language and how to do things, that is to say custom (Peatrik, 1999: 29–30, 2019: 30–31; Mark Lamont, personal communication). Such conflicts express themselves openly when it comes to the opportunity to declare the “circumcision field” open, and it is not unusual for the sons of modernists to be kidnapped and circumcised against their will in the public field. It is an antagonism that the customary councils try to mediate (they too are divided on the subject), and that the local administration attempts to temper in its own way.

Schooling and youth delimitations

46The crisis in the male and female limits of “youth”, which echoes situations encountered elsewhere in Kenya (Ocobock, 2017), is directly related to the increasing role that scholastic institutions play in the lives of children and young people. School programmes indicate new grades and delimit just as many age groups, similarly to the old grades and the traditional groupings. This parallel was suggested to me many times by elders who wondered at this continuity, to the point that it reinforced their support for schooling, which they financed with their revenue from farming.

47For thirty-three years, from 1985 to 2018, the school programme was divided into the so-called 8/4/4 curriculum: eight years in primary school, four years in secondary school, and four in higher education.

fig. 1 – Another interpretation of class photos

fig. 1 – Another interpretation of class photos

Photos Anne-Marie Peatrik, The Kîgûcwa primary school (Tigania), April 1993

The first phase of the 8/4/4 programme can be seen in these class photos (Fig. 1), taken in 1993 to thank some very cooperative teachers for their help. Here they acquire unexpected documentary relevance. These head-to-toe group portraits testify to that new age-based structure. Another felicitous coincidence is that they echo that rare photo of uncircumcised Tigania Meru boys from 1893–1894 (Fig. 2), which illustrates the old way of categorising young people: it shows uninitiated boys—big boys mixed with some little boys—holding their shepherd’s staffs, leaning on them in a pose found throughout East Africa.

fig. 2 – Uncircumcised Tigania Meru boys

fig. 2 – Uncircumcised Tigania Meru boys

Photo G. Kolb, 1893–1894 (in Neumann, 1898: 65)

48With the exception of children at preschool level, whose attendance was then optional, all of the schoolboys and schoolgirls are wearing uniforms (Fig. 1). In photo after photo, we recognise—after a few hesitations (attributing age is no easy task)—the successive primary school grades and the changes in the schoolchildren. This school is typical of the thousands of schools that exist in Kenya, whose programmes lead to the KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education). Organised at the country level, the national ranking it attributes determines subsequent choices about whether to move on to technical education, general education or working life. Four years later, one national examination confirms the conclusion of secondary education and provides access to higher education. These two national competitive examinations, held in October and November prior to the main holiday, structure the academic and calendar year in Kenya, as well as the lives of Kenyans. The impatiently awaited publication of rankings and marks, which also establish the renown of prestigious schools, generate persistent debates in the media that contribute to shaping the Kenyan national spirit.

  • 22 Thanks to Nathaniel Gernez, who is studying plurilingual practices in Kenyan schools, for this info (...)

49To fight the unemployment affecting a segment of the young population, and to correct the faults inherent in these programmes, this structure was recently reformed.22 In 2013, the Basic Education Act made school mandatory up to the age of 18, when secondary school ends. Since January 2018, the programme has gradually been transitioning to the so-called 2/6/6/3 system (two mandatory years in preschool, six in primary school, six in secondary school, and three years in university), establishing new thresholds along the paths of childhood and youth; particularly as school is now mandatory from the age of 4, whereas the idea that a minimum age could govern access to school was previously non-existent. The end of secondary school aligns with the age limit of 18 years, reinforcing the demarcation effect of this age, which is also the age of legal and civil majority.

  • 23 Fake birth papers: Meru’s 27,000 KCSE, KCPE candidates in trouble, Daily Nation, Wednesday, 13 Marc (...)

50Whatever they have been or will be, these school classifications are giving rise to new ways of categorising and delimiting ages, which are increasingly viewed as a succession and accumulation of years. Beyond the registration of births—which is mandatory but done only by the father, who is expected to remember the birth-year of each of his children—it is schooling that was and still is the source of these new ways of measuring the flow of personal time. Graduates fresh out of university have learned to mask their birth-age if it proves to be too high, so that it is more consistent with that of a young person searching for a first job. And to combat the fake birth certificates that circulate under many circumstances, the certificates provided in registration applications for the two national examinations are now verified (since 2019), and they get rejected if not compliant, leading to crushes in civil registrar offices and anxiety for thousands of parents, and for schoolchildren who worry they will be unable to register.23 This ongoing episode is a new illustration of the growing influence of birth age, and the role of the school system in the institutionalisation of new ages and age limits.


* *

51Through a process spanning some sixty years, and at the pace of the successive generations (each of which made its own set of changes), the Meru’s age categories—particularly childhood and youth along with their original underlying ontogenesis—have undergone an extraordinary transformation. This would have remained unsuspected had it not been documented by ethnographic investigation. Because of their distinctive features, East African age and generation systems are of course special observation posts, but they plainly have the effect of magnifying very common phenomena that are more buried elsewhere. The time is (perhaps) over when age categories seem natural, and age limits seem arbitrary and laughable, with the notable and almost disproportionate exception of those orchestrated by a rite of passage. Youth is not only that phase between childhood and adulthood, it unfolds and diffracts into many heterogeneous processes. Entry into youth is ceaselessly questioned, and departure from youth rarely obeys the job/marriage/settling-down triad.

52The modernisation of the customary categories of Meru youth signalled the transition from an old complexity to a new complexity. The pragmatics of age limits, like other delimitations (Monod Becquelin, 2012), has become a new frontier in anthropology. Vital conjunctures, crucial moments of existence, status inconsistencies: all of these concepts are attempting to revive the study of age thresholds (Bideau et al., 2000), to capture the “fuzzy states and complex trajectories” (Antoine and Lelièvre [ed.], 2006) of person-bodies, produced by the sometimes easy-going and sometimes accelerated flow of time inherent in different types of youth and in the ages of life. It is impossible to overlook the shared punctuations in the course of existence. But indicating as it does a fixed point in the flow of time, every limit introduces a discontinuity and is expected to be surpassed. Mbugi’s trials and tribulations are still relevant: that engineer of the limits of the ages of youth is not ready to stop his work. The still-numerous brood, in a constant state of renewal, will always need to be categorised.

Haut de page


Antoine, Philippe and Lelièvre, Eva (eds)
2006États flous et trajectoires complexes: observation, modélisation, interprétation (Paris, Éditions de l’Ined).

Antoine, Philippe, Razafindrakoto, Mireille and Roubaud, François
2001Contraints de rester jeunes? Évolution de l’insertion dans trois capitales africaines: Dakar, Yaoundé, Antanarivo, Autrepart, 18: 17–36; DOI: 10.3917/autr.018.0017.

Ariès, Philippe
[1960]1973L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (Paris, Éditions du Seuil).

Bessin, Marc, Bidart, Claire and Grosseti, Michel (eds)
2009Bifurcations: les sciences sociales face aux ruptures et à l’événement (Paris, La Découverte).

Bideau, Antoine, Bourdelais, Patrice and Légaré, Jacques (eds)
2000De l’usage des seuils: structures par âge et âges de la vie (Paris, Société de démographie historique) [Cahiers des Annales de démographie historique, 2].

Deschavanne, Éric and Tavoillot, Pierre-Henri
2007[2009]Philosophie des âges de la vie: pourquoi grandir, pourquoi vieillir? (Paris, Hachette Littératures).

Ficquet, Eloi
2003Dynamiques générationnelles et expansion des Oromo en Ethiopie au xvie siècle, L’Homme, 167–168: 235–251; DOI: 10.4000/lhomme.21527.

Galland, Olivier
[1991]2011Sociologie de la jeunesse (Paris, Armand Colin) [5th ed.].

Golaz, Valérie and Sajoux, Muriel (eds)
2018Politiques publiques et vieillesses dans les Suds (Marseille, Laboratoire Population environnement développement), online: [Les Impromptus du LPED, 4].

Honwana, Alcinda
The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa (Sterling, Kumarian Press).

Hughes, Lotte
2018 Alternative rites of passage: faith, rights, and performance on FGM/C abandonment campaigns in Kenya,
African Studies, 77 (2): 274–292; DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2018.1452860.

Hunt, Nancy Rose
2007 Between fiction and history: modes of writing abortion in Africa,
Cahiers d’études africaines, 186: 277–312; DOI: 10.2307/40930628.

Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer
On the limits of life stage in ethnography: toward a theory of vital conjunctures, American Anthropologist, 104 (3): 865–880; DOI: 10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.865.
Uncertain Honor: Modern Motherhood in an African Crisis (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press).

Kratz, Corinne A.
2002 Circumcision debates and asylum cases: intersecting areas, contested values, and tangled webs,
in R. Shweder, M. Minow, and H.R. Markus (eds), Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies (New York, Russell Sage Foundation): 309-343.

Lamont, Mark
2018 Forced male circumcision and the politics of foreskin in Kenya,
African Studies, 77 (2): 293–311; DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2018.1452850.

Lenski, Gerhard E.
1954 Status crystallisation: a non-vertical dimension of social status,
American Sociological Review, 19 (4): 405–413; DOI: 10.2307/2087459.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude
1958Les organisations dualistes existent-elles?, in Anthropologie structurale (Paris, Plon): 147–180.

Mauss, Marcel
[1936]1968Les techniques du corps, in Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris, Presses universitaires de France): 365–386.
[1938]1968Une catégorie de l’esprit humain: la notion de personne, celle de “moi”, in Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris, Presses universitaires de France): 331–362.

Mendras, Henri
1975Éléments de sociologie: une initiation à l’analyse sociologique (Paris, Armand Colin).

Monod Becquelin, Aurore
2012Introduction. La frontière épaisse, Ateliers d’anthropologie, 37, online: [thematic issue: A.‑M. Monod Becquelin (ed.), Frontières épaisses]; DOI: 10.4000/ateliers.9170.

Neumann, Arthur H.
Elephant Hunting in Equatorial Africa (London, Rowland Ward Ltd).

Ocobock, Paul
An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Athens, Ohio University Press).

Peatrik, Anne-Marie
1991Le chant des hyènes tristes. Essai sur les rites funéraires des Meru du Kenya et des peuples apparentés, Systèmes de pensée en Afrique noire, 11: 103–130; DOI: 10.4000/span.1258.
1995aIntroduction, L’Homme, 134: 7–12 [thematic issue: A.‑M. Peatrik (ed.), Âges et générations: ordres et désordres].
1995bLa Règle et le nombre: les systèmes d’âge et de génération d’Afrique orientale, L’Homme, 134: 13–49; DOI: 10.3406/hom.1995.369906.
1999La vie à pas contés: génération, âge et société dans les hautes terres du Kénya (Meru Tigania-Igembe, Kenya) (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie).
2003aL’océan des âges, L’Homme, 167–168: 7–23 [thematic issue: A.‑M. Peatrik, Passages à l’âge d’homme]; DOI: 10.4000/lhomme.21476.
2003bUn paradigme africain, L’Homme, 167–168: 271–284; DOI: 10.4000/lhomme.21540.
2006Which complementarity between history and anthropology?, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 40 (2): 332–349
2013aTuer pour engendrer: les agents d’une masculinité au long cours (Afrique de l’Est), Cahiers d’études africaines, 209–210: 217–245 [thematic issue: C. Broca and A. Doquet (eds), Masculin pluriel]; DOI: 10.4000/etudesafricaines.14455.
2013bKill to engender. Agencies of lifelong constructed masculinities (East Africa), Cahiers d’études africaines, 209–210: 217–245
2019A complex polity: Generations, initiation, and territory, among the Old Meru of Kenya (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie) [French ethnography in translation].
à paraîtrePar-delà un passé oblitéré, l’originalité des peuples du Kenya pré-colonial, in M.‑A. Fouéré and C. Thibon (eds), Le Kenya contemporain (Nairobi/Paris, IFRA).

Straight, Bilinda
a Cutting time: beads, sex and songs in the making of Samburu memory, in W. James and D. Mills (eds), The Qualities of Time: Temporal Dimensions of Social Form and Human Experience (Oxford, Berg): 267–83 [Asa Monographs Series, 41].
b In the belly of history: memory, forgetting, and the hazards of reproduction, Africa, 75 (1): 83–104; DOI: 10.3366/afr.2005.75.1.83.

Thomas, Lynn M.
Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Van Gennep, Arnold
[1909]1981Les rites de passage (Paris, Éditions Picard).

Waller, Richard
2010 Bad boys in the bush? Disciplining Murran in Colonial Maasailand,
in A. Burton and H. Charton-Bigot (eds), Generations Past: Youth in East African History (Athens, Ohio University Press): 135–174.

Haut de page


1 Only a few episodes are presented here in a condensed form. For the sources and for other episodes of the “Mbugi, Murutu and Mukunga” story (the latter two being seductresses who are actually two sisters—a whole other kinship matter!), see Peatrik, 1999: 189–198, 2019: 161–168. Nowadays this story is no longer told, whereas the Meru’s other grand narrative, about the Mbwaa (see note 2), is still well-known, in a very watered-down form however.

2 Another of the Meru’s so-called Mbwaa narratives, a more famous one that has been subject to contentious interpretations (Peatrik, 1999, 2019: chap. 9), deals with the threat of blurred limits and insufficient differentiation, this time from the perspective of the congestion resulting when men’s actions block the flow of time. It is worth noting that these two grand narratives specifically deal with the delimitation of ages and generations, and that comparable narratives are found in East Africa, whereas such themes are rare elsewhere.

3 In these systems, power is transferred between male sets of fathers and sons: exactly every eight years in a fractioned way among the Borana people; on average, every fifteen twenty, thirty to forty years depending on the population under consideration, be they speakers of Maa, Kalenjin, Karamojong, Bantu or Oromo. Women are categorised through the marital prohibitions linked with the male sets and with the rules of marriage (Peatrik, 1995a and b, 1999 and 2019: chap. 5). Furthermore, in the time when structuralism was triumphing, Mbugi would no doubt have been summoned to converse with Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958) when, in a famous article, the anthropologist explored the viability of dualist divisions. Mbugi could have informed him that the task is even trickier when it is a matter of delimiting groups structured by the flow of time.

4 In a register similar to that of Johnson-Hanks, with slight differences in terms of the understanding of the processes, Antoine et al. (2001) mentions the “crucial moments of existence”. Sociologists Bessin et al. (2009) spoke of turning points, junctions and ruptures in the course of existences (Peatrik, present volume).

5 The various elements characterising an individual’s position could be consistent (harmonious, complementary) or inconsistent, creating dissensions in the position, which are the source of tensions and lie at the root of actions. This concept—at least in terms of description—seemed to me to be very adapted to capturing the dynamics inherent in the ages of life, which are intrinsically linked to the flow of time. This makes and breaks all age categories, producing repetition, now in consistencies, now in inconsistencies with other elements of the position, hence the concept of status inconsistency (Lenski, 1954; Mendras, 1975: 87–90; Peatrik, 2003a).

6 Western sociologists of youth have distinguished several phases of youth (pre-adolescent, adolescent, post-adolescent, young adult; Galland, [1991] 2011). However, what I am referring to here is the common Western conception of “youth”, which is linked for example to so-called “youth culture”, and has spread in Africa. For readers who have never considered questions of age, it is worth recalling the historically constructed character of age categories—brought to light by the pioneer in this area Philippe Ariès ([1960] 1973)—which are, however, in tension with a physiological dimension questioned every time, here and elsewhere, now and in the past (see Peatrik, 2003; in this volume, see the introductory essay, particularly part 3, and the relevant references).

7 “Precolonial”, and “bygone days” in the introduction, refer to the historicity of this society and more broadly to the historical depth of the generational polities in East Africa. The question has provoked debate. An account written in 1593 testifying to the existence of a sophisticated generational polity in southern Ethiopia (the gada of the Borana people) makes it possible to think that these society-organisation and power-organisation modalities, in a wide variety of configurations and states of realisation, are at the very least centuries old in East Africa (Ficquet, 2003; Peatrik, 1995b, 1999 et 2019: chap. 9).

8 For a detailed description, see Peatrik, 1999 and 2019: chap. 1.

9 This was mentioned in the introductory essay (Peatrik, present volume: note 20): the first period used to arrive at an older calendar age, around 16. This age then diminished in the colonial era, something that the elders explain was caused by the more frequent use of salt.

10 Peatrik, 1999: 72–74, 2019: 64–66.

11 It is said that the inhabitants of Mûciî Mûkûrû (“Ancient Settlement”), located high on the Nyambene Hills, married so late that they could no longer have children, and that their settlement depopulated.

12 Remember that the Meru practiced divination on entrails (they had a very precise idea of animal anatomy, in which they read signs of fate) and drew a parallel between herd-animal physiology and human physiology. When a pregnant wife died, a post-mortem surgical operation performed by a “specialist” consisted in separating the mother from the child, before their remains were subject to the usual treatment (Peatrik, 1991, 1999, 2019).

13 The father could take another wife, but monogamy was predominant. Some practices evoking polyandry were seen between members of linked husband and wife sets. Within them, licit relationships could be established between so-called bankiro lovers, not without creating tensions and jealousies, but any child born of that union would be considered the child of the official husband.

14 The men of one same generation A do not all procreate at the same time. Their sons in generation B are heterogeneous in age, and will in turn engender a generation C of sons whose heterogeneity will be even greater, and so on. If nothing is done to correct this drift, successive generations end up getting mixed up, more and more individuals of the same age are from different generations, and it becomes impossible to apply the principle of political power transmission between successive generations.

15 A comparable phenomenon occurred at the other end of the journey, at the moment of the competitive, contested transition to the final grade of “accomplished one”, but that is a different development.

16 On this subject, Deschavanne and Tavoillot ([2007] 2009: 92) wrote: “The individual is, without any constraint, taken by the hand to cross the stages of the scale of ages, full of certainty that accomplishment lies ahead.” It is understood that in a summary on the “philosophy of the ages of life”, one had to condense heterogeneous, overabundant materials in a few lines. But the contrast thus highlighted between exotic societies and Western societies stems from cliché, insofar that on the preceding page (91), authors noted the underlying disorder: all of the conclusions had yet to be drawn.

17 To the point that, when I started questioning elders (old men and women) about these issues, they explained that they had conducted their existences as they had thought best. And it was only after collecting a number of life stories that theses age grades (locally called “measured step(s)”) ended up appearing statistically.

18 At different times later, the crisis wave propagated to other grades, that of kaaria mothers (holders of authority, the equivalent of female Fathers of the Country) and that of the old Fathers of the Country destined for “accomplishment”. In the 1950s and 1960s, status inconsistencies were combined with the Mau Mau Uprising and the decolonisation crisis. That is a subject for another article. For more details, see Peatrik, 1999, 2019: chap. 10, 2013a and b. Richard Waller (2010) provides interesting comparative information in the context of the Maasai of Kenya, whose grades were, however, less disrupted by the conquest.

19 The evolution of the English lexicon is revealing: “female circumcision” changed to “excision” and then to “female genital mutilation” (FGM) under the influence of international public policies (Kratz, 2002).

20 Studying the ban on the initiation of Meru girls at the end of the colonial era, and the reaction of some of them who wanted to self-excise, historian Lynn Thomas (2003) did not manage to include the associated rivalry between male and female “indigenous” powers, and the admittedly difficult but crucial question of local conceptions of personhood (Peatrik, 2006).

21 “The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2014 indicated that 31 percent of women in Meru aged between 15 and 49 had undergone FGM” (War against FGM in Meru and Tharaka-Nithi far from over, Daily Nation, Wednesday, 19 December 2018, online:, accessed 2 August 2019).

22 Thanks to Nathaniel Gernez, who is studying plurilingual practices in Kenyan schools, for this information.

23 Fake birth papers: Meru’s 27,000 KCSE, KCPE candidates in trouble, Daily Nation, Wednesday, 13 March 2019, online:, accessed 2 August 2019.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre fig. 1 – Another interpretation of class photos
Crédits Photos Anne-Marie Peatrik, The Kîgûcwa primary school (Tigania), April 1993
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
Titre fig. 2 – Uncircumcised Tigania Meru boys
Crédits Photo G. Kolb, 1893–1894 (in Neumann, 1898: 65)
Fichier image/png, 3,0M
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Anne-Marie Peatrik, « The new frontier of age limits, or youthoods among the Meru (Kenya) »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 47 | 2020, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2020, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Anne-Marie Peatrik

Directrice de recherche émérite CNRS, LESC–UMR7186 (Université Paris Nanterre/CNRS)

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search