The Culture of Age

Matovu and Me, Kitazigolokwa, Uganda

In 2007, I had an opportunity to travel to Uganda for the first time. Living and working in the country for six months I experienced some of the toughest mind-bending of my young adult life. I have always loved to immerse myself in the language and people wherever I travel, but in this Sub-Saharan “Pearl of Africa”, my attitudes and expectations about trust, communication, relationships and family were all challenged and stretched more than ever before, as I struggled to orient myself to a new and different culture. Here I was confronted with an imbalance of power and expectations shaped by a long history of colonization and foreign Good Samaritans armed with idealistic intentions and naivete’. An idealist with a practical streak, I tried to embrace these challenges as a reality, rather than view them as obstacles to be “conquered.” I was not the conqueror here, merely a visitor in another land, ready to soak in the world around me like a sponge. I worked hard on building awareness of my own assumptions and tried to be careful not to place my own cultural beliefs and traditions on the locals. Of course I wasn’t perfect at this– but I learned a lot by just trying to observe.

One area that immediately intrigued me was the cultural expectations and attitudes towards age in Uganda. As in many countries, the elderly were given a special kind of reverence, with youth kneeling down to greet them as a sign of respect. Everyone seemed to know and understand the signs of deep maturity and old age: creased and wrinkled skin, gray hair, worn and calloused hands and feet–a kind of quiet wisdom and authority was assumed. On the other end of the spectrum, however, the line between childhood and adulthood was not as well-defined, and children often took on what Americans would consider very adult tasks. In fact, I remember being surprised by the level of responsibility children were given.

Here are some of the things I observed:

  • Children as young as 3 or 4 years old walking barefoot and and without any adult chaperone down the dusty streets, carrying bushels of sticks on their heads.
  • Elementary school children sharpening pencils and trimming their fingernails with the edge of a straight razor.
  • Young girls carrying babies half their size on their backs.
  • Older children working alone in the fields, so their younger siblings could attend school
  • A young toddler eating a mango from the large knife in his hands.
  • A small child using an adult-sized bicycle by standing on one side and maneuvering the pedals with one foot.

    Photo courtesy of Gloria Bernard. A boy leans on his adult-sized bicycle.

Little boy holding a knife

Little girl carrying her sister

Were these children “acting their age?” Yes, according to the cultural norms in Uganda–it’s perfectly normal and accepted! Ugandan children “grow up” faster and take on more “adult” responsibilities than American children, simply because of necessity and tradition. But place these same behaviors in the U.S. and we might cry child abuse and neglect. Can you imagine what would happen if I ever tried to give straight razors to American elementary school children? I would be out of a job very quickly!

Photo courtesy of Gloria Bernard. A Ugandan school boy cuts his print with a flat razor blade.

I quickly learned and re-learned not to rush to judgement of others without knowing the cultural context. I think it is easier to agree to this in theory than real life. I really had to question and even “let go” of some pretty entrenched beliefs. I realized that expectations about age are related to privilege and opportunity. If I learned anything from my travel to Uganda, I learned that children are much more capable than I thought. If we expect less of our children, it is because we can afford to.

Ugandan children still take time for fun! This boy is trying to see how far he can walk on his hands.

Another age-related difference I noticed was the almost complete nonchalance surrounding age and birthdays. First of all, written record-keeping is only just beginning to be introduced in rural areas, and so many people don’t even know their exact age, because they simply don’t have any record of it. Most Ugandans “guestimate” their age based on specific events and birth order, and leave it at that. When I first met my husband, he told me he was “around 29”. I later found out that he chose his birth date based on “a piece of paper I saw once at my home.” That paper had long since disappeared so we will never actually know how old he really is. That’s right, my husband’s exact age is complete mystery, a big question mark, a +/- 2-4 years. And it is shockingly no big deal. When my husband applied for a visa to come to the U.S., he did what most Ugandan travelers have to do–pay someone to forge a birth certificate for him.

Who knows how old this man is? Why is that important?

Even if you were to know your birth date, birthdays are just way too costly to celebrate. Here is the Ugandan birthday compared with the American:

American: It’s your birthday, you deserve lots of presents, cake and confetti. You deserve a free dinner paid for by your friends and family. Heck, just take the whole day off. You deserve it.

Ugandan: It’s your birthday. Maybe. Because you want to celebrate, you are expected to pay for any food because no one else can afford that kind of luxury. Also, you invite and feed the entire village, because it would be considered just pain rude if you didn’t. The community deserves to celebrate with you, and your birthday present is their company! And you’d never think of taking a day off because…what does that even mean?

When observing the way that “age” is treated in Uganda, I have mixed feelings: In some ways, I like how maturity seems more tied to experience and community involvement than the number of years alive. I admire how children are not “babied” or overprotected. Children in Uganda are respectful of their elders, and understand how to take care of basic needs at a very young age. Boys and girls help out with chores, and learn valuable and practical life skills at home. They also have more freedom and independence at a young age. I also am attracted to a more communal lifestyle that is less isolating and more community-focused.

On the other hand, with more independence comes risk, as I was reminded when I helped a little boy buy antibiotics for his thumb–severely infected after a deep razor cut. When I think about it, I have to admit that sometimes I kind of like babying kids. This was the way I was raised: all touchy-feely and smothered in kisses. In fact, who doesn’t like a little babying sometimes? I enjoy celebrating birthdays and eating my cake and opening my presents.

Of course some would say I come from a self-indulgent society that focuses on materialistic and individual desires instead of what is beneficial for the whole community. And I would probably agree with them…just as soon as I finish this last piece of cake.

My daughter eats cake for her first birthday

— Madelene Pario


One response to “The Culture of Age

  1. Pingback: One Year Later: Part One | Connect Shore·

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