Age-grade System

The effectiveness of the age-grade system amongst the Igbo, (known in some dialects as ‘uke’ or ‘ogbo’) as an efficient means of enforcing community-wide law and order, promoting public safety and sanitation, and deterring idleness whilst encouraging a sense of communal moral responsibility, duty, and achievement, is indeed a marvel to behold.

In keeping with the belief that each individual functions as a small piece in the puzzle that is society and is laden with his own responsibilities towards the maintenance of public welfare, the general population is divided into several ranks or grades that are organized based on similarity of age and gender. The age-grades of adolescent males were often used as manpower for communal projects such as: the sweeping of public roads, streets, and markets; the construction and repair of communal meeting houses; and the tidying of local streams and waters. Middle-aged male aged-grades were responsible for the contribution of taxes and funds to be used for public projects in addition to the defence of the community in times of war. In female age-grades, women were organized into various ranks that dealt with issues ranging from the arbitration of disputes and marital strife to female taxation and legislation.

In both male and female circles, junior age-grades were tasked with more menial duties, while senior and elderly age-grades wielded more influence and decision-making powers. In a society devoid of clocks and other means of timekeeping, advancement through the age-grade system was not only a regular ritual ceremony, but a means of recording the concept of age and the passage of time. Individuals in the same age-grade were considered to be peers, and with time, would advance through the various grades of their community, with the ultimate goal of reaching the very last age-grade: that of gray-haired elders.