Intergenerational relations among the Samia of Kenya: culture and experience

  • Maria G. Cattell Department of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College and The Field Museum, USA


Culture in the sense of beliefs or norms for behaviour may be at variance with the actual experience of individuals, as is the case with intergenerational relationships among the Samia of rural Western Kenya. Samia has undergone enormous changes in the 20th century; these changes have created differences in the knowledge and experiences of older and younger generations. While there is consensus across generations about behavioural norms based on principles of seniority, respect and reciprocity, views diverge regarding how well ideals are lived up to in actual behaviour. Young people say that elders often do not understand modern life and they prefer being with other young people; many older people say that the young do not respect their elders, nor do they want to walk or sit and talk with elders. However data reported here indicate that contacts between generations are frequent, providing opportunities for social interaction, skill acquisition, emotional support and reciprocal exchanges. Examples given include patterns of association in daily activities, the nature of intergenerational discourse, and family decision making involving two or more generations. Though not always smooth, relationships between generations are important sources of social interaction and mutual assistance, and frequent contacts provide a sense of generational continuity in a fast-changing world.

Author Biography

Maria G. Cattell, Department of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College and The Field Museum, USA
Dr. Cattell has been researching aging in Kenya since 1982. Her other research includes intergenerational knowledge exchange among Zulus, a community study of older persons in Philadelphia, and the culture of gardening in the US. She is a founding member of the African Gerontological Society and served as president of the Association for Anthropology and Gerontology, president of the Association for Africanist Anthropology (AFAA), co-chair of the Commission on Aging and the Aged of the IUAES, and co-convenor of the Women's Caucus of the African Studies Association.Her publications include Old Age in Global Perspective (1994), Social Memory and History (2002),Women in Anthropology (2006), and many articles and book chapters on her Kenya research, among them Aging and Social Change among Abaluyia in Western Kenya: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives (Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 2008). In 2012 she gave the AFAA Distinguished Lecture on Gender, Generation and Time in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Used as per biographical sketch as available at


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