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Situating the concept of ‘tribe’ in modern-day Africa

Posted by CM on January 18, 2008

by Chido Makunike

In the first few days of Kenya’s post-election civil strife, the upheavals were overwhelmingly explained by the Western media as a “tribal” conflict for political dominance, mainly between the Gikuyu and Luo ethnic groups.

Many Kenyans protested that the situation was far more complicated and nuanced. They insisted that in explaining inter-ethnic conflict, it was important to explain how cultural and language differences were exploited by colonial authorities for divide and rule purposes, and how aspects of this have continued in the post-independence era. In short, the conflicts are counter-explained as part of the difficult, on-going process of forging cohesive new nation-states out of groups that for millennia have been more bound by language and local traditions.

Is the African prickliness to how the word “tribe” is used in regards to them by Westerners merely defensiveness? After all, most Africans do indeed use some variation of the concept of “tribe” for self-identification. Is it not therefore a contradiction for Africans to freely refer to “my tribe” and yet take offence when Western news outlets refer to civil conflict like Kenya’s as “tribal violence?”

Part of the answer is that the word ‘tribe’ is at best an approximation of African group identity. It is not an accurate reflection of groups that in a neat way are linguistically, culturally and even physically distinct from each other, especially in a metropolis like Nairobi. But even in rural Africa, where relative groupings of “tribes” into particular geographic areas may still be the reality, “tribal” identity does not necessarily invoke the idea of animosity and conflict with other “tribes” that the word’s use in the Western lexicon often suggests.

Many of what are considered distinct “tribes” in the Western definition are really clans of the same cultural-linguistic grouping. The differences are often more matters of degree than of substance, and that an outsider would find difficult to identify. Widespread and increasing inter-marriage has served to further make nonsense of the idea of distinct “tribes” of people, emphasising how arbitrary can be the delineations the word is supposed to convey.

None of this is to suggest that “tribes” do not exist or that even the arbitrary differences between them are all insignificant. It is merely to try to give an inkling of just how complicated a reality modern-day Africans live; a complexity the word “tribe” as used by many Westerners does not come anywhere close to conveying. Using the example of present-day Kenya, that complexity means people of different “tribes” living happily together in Nairobi, with the concept of “tribe” meaning little more than reference to perhaps a little-known rural ancestral home, for example.

For people living this reality, self-identification is a mix of the important but increasingly-in-the-background “tribe” and the new and increasingly more important identity as a citizen of the nation-state; Kenya in this example. This is not to deny that political and other tensions can be stoked to bring the tribal identity to the fore of the national one, as many argue has been instigated in Kenya by politicians for their own ends.

The Western use of the word “tribe” glosses over all this complexity to suggest Africans who eagerly, militantly and permanently occupy very narrow ghettoes of identity. Africans understand the contextual broadness of the word when they use it to identify themselves to each other. On the other hand, in Western use the word “tribe” to refer to Africans is pretty much always a narrow straitjacket.

Another reason for African discomfort with Western use of a word they use themselves is that “tribe” has long been a loaded term. To Africans it may be mainly a descriptive or identifying term, but in Western use it has often been also a pejorative word meant to portray the “primitiveness” of the African. So even when a Western reporter uses “tribe” as an “innocent” means of trying to distinguish people of one cultural-linguistic tradition from another, many times the African reader or hearer processes the usage through the prism of the negative way the word has long been used in regards to Africans.

This attempt to explain the mixed African reaction to the use of the word “tribe” by Westerners is not to suggest that all the attempted explanations of the origins of Kenya’s troubles since the disputed election are false. It is instead to say that they are often hopelessly inadequate, explaining events with a shallowness that can range from merely amusingly ignorant to insensitive and even dangerous.

There are many Westerners who are quite convinced they have come to understand Africa very well. The example of how the word “tribe” has been used in much of the Western media to try to explain what is going on in Kenya suggests many “Africa experts” do not fathom the continent and its people nearly as well as they have convinced themselves they do.

Black Star News

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