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I am no Tribesman

17 June 2019 at 20:39 | 2591 views


I am no Tribesman

By Dr. Charles Quist-Adade, Vancouver, Canada

In a rather unpleasant conversation between a compatriot and me in Ghana several years ago, I replied to her question, “What tribe do you come from?” with a curt answer: “I am from Ghana.” Naturally, this compatriot was offended. She shot back angrily: “Of course, I know you’re from Ghana. Every Ghanaian is from one tribe or another. What’s yours?” I told her I was from more than one “tribe” and that it was hard to tell which one I came from. Not satisfied, she insisted: “What’s your father’s tribe?” Needless to say, the conversation did not go any further.

This conversation strikes at the heart of the misunderstanding and misuse of the term “tribe.” The majority of Africans gleefully use the term to describe their genealogical origins as well as the political rivalries in modern Africa. But the term is pejorative, used to describe a primitive and anti-modern people stuck in their primeval past. The Collins Concise Dictionary defines a tribe as a social division of people, especially of a preliterate society.

The term as currently used in the Western media connotes uncivilized, war-like people locked in ancient and traditional modes of existence. Africans are often portrayed as uneducated, depraved and violent, and the term tribe is often, and inappropriately, used to symbolize wild savages living in grass huts, very na๏ve of the modern world. Africa is often portrayed as a collection of primitive tribes and not a continent of 54 countries and countless ethnic groups! One account put the number of ethnic groups in Africa at 3,315 (See This use of the term perpetuates the myth of the savage African, a portrayal which is very narrow and quite unrepresentative of the majority.

Due to its ambiguous definition, analytical deficiencies, and negative connotations in both popular and scholarly literature, the term “tribe” has been discarded by many social scientists. Instead, less loaded terms such as “peoples” or “ethnic units” or even “nationalities” are now used. Similarly, “tribalism”, with its connotations of primitiveness, atavism, and traditionalism, has been superseded by the more rigorously defined and analytically more useful concept of “ethnicity”.

Thus, “ethnic units”, or “peoples” and “ethnicity”, are used by increasing numbers of social scientists to describe the patterns of identity used by groups competing for power and status in contemporary Africa and elsewhere.

Many people, even in the West, consider these terms ambiguous. Previously, the term “tribe” was used to identify people who had kinship or blood ties as the central basis for group identity. Such a definition is vague and has many shortcomings. First, this definition depicts the tribe as static and unresponsive to the environment and does not accurately describe the more complex associations that exist in the African of today. It must be stressed that, whatever the “tribe” may be, it is not a constant, immutable unit. It is, therefore, nonsensical to speak of Africans as “reverting to tribalism,” for example. Ethnic identities have always been in a flux. It is, thus, misleading to think of a contemporary identity group as representing an ancient culture of the past.
Second is the problem of universality. Using the term “tribe” is ambiguous also because people define themselves by blood or kinship ties all over the world, yet most of the people who do so would never be identified as “tribal”. Where is the justification for the use of the concept exclusively for Native Americans and Native Africans? Blood ties, real or imagined, and other types of ethnicity are important bases for societal integration nearly everywhere in the world. Are the Poles, the Serbians, the Danish, or the Welsh to be considered tribes?
This double standard in the use of the term reflects the mindset of Westerners, particularly Western journalists and politicians, when it comes to descriptions of wars in Africa and other parts of the world. African civil wars are “tribal wars”, while similar wars in the Former Yugoslavia are “ethnic cleansing”. In Ireland the wars are simply “secessionist strife”. Factional leaders in African civil wars tagged “warlords.” Their counterparts in Serbia are granted the status of “military leaders”.
To say that the Yoruba, the Hausa-Fulani, and the Ibo are the three major “tribes” in Nigeria is not only uninformative, it is misleading. The Ibos alone outnumber Canadians. They have a complex political system. They are not stuck in their “primitive past”. They have a dynamic and vibrant culture which has borrowed and blended other ways of life with their own. The Asante, the Buganda, the Hausa, the Mossi, the Yoruba, etc., represent an end product of political and other socio-cultural processes by which different ethnic groups have been welded together.

In many cultures of Africa, the elders made decisions through government by discussion and consensus. Power was decentralized through a network of localized leaders. Marriage alliances were forged to promote kinship group stability. The same principle informed marriage alliances forged in Europe and even capitalist North America by the elite. However, those groups were never considered “tribal”. Kinship, especially, formed the basis of the nobility in Europe, but those kings and queens were never considered to be a “tribe”.
By the general definition, any family, group, or nation is a “tribe”, yet no one would consider using that term for Westerners because of all the negativity it conjures.

Third, “tribe” is assumed to be the end product of cultural processes that bonded ethnic groups together. However, specific “tribes” cannot be identified, since even blood ties are only one part of what links together, in any culture, especially today.

It is pertinent to cite Walter Rodney, author of the celebrated book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa extensively: "Following the principles of family living, Africans were organized in groups that had common ancestors. Theoretically, the tribe was the largest group of people claiming descent from a common ancestor at some time in the remote past. Generally, such a group could therefore be said to be of the same ethnic stock and their language would have a great deal in common. Beyond that, members of a tribe were seldom all members of the same political unit and very seldom indeed did they all share common social purpose in terms of activities such as trade and warfare. Instead, African states were sometimes based entirely on part of the members of a given ethnic group or (more usually) on an amalgamation of members of different ethnic communities."

Rodney continued, "All of the large states of nineteenth century Africa were multi-ethnic and their expansions was continually making anything like "tribal" loyalty a thing of the past, by substituting in its place national and class ties. However, in all parts of the world, that substitution of national and class ties for purely ethnic ones is a lengthy historical process, and, invariably there remains for long periods certain regional pockets of individuals who have their own narrow, regional loyalties, springing from ties to kinship, language, and culture. In Asia, the feudal states of Vietnam and Burma both achieved a considerable degree of national homogeneity over the centuries before colonial rule. But there were pockets of "tribes" or "minorities" who remained outside the effective sphere of nation-state and their national economy and culture. "
Why should we not call ourselves tribesmen and tribeswomen?

Four popular misconceptions surround the concepts of “tribe” and “tribalism”. One, as I mentioned above, is the term “tribe” itself, both by definition and by association a negative term, synonymous with primitive, atavist societies which resist all change or modernization. Thus, no matter how it is used – denotatively or connotatively – the term is highly insulting to Africans, particularly when applied to all African societies prior to colonization.

Two, and related to the above, is the view that, prior to the colonial period, most Africans lived in mutually hostile small groups. This view fails to take into account the extremely wide range of organized political societies prior to European penetration. It also fails to consider the very complex processes of change initiated by Africans themselves and by non-European outsiders.

History is replete with Africa’s great contributions to world civilization and to the stock of global knowledge. According to the prominent British historian Basil Davidson, although Africa suffered a cultural lag after 8,000 BC, when the techniques of plant domestication had spread from Western Asia, the people of Northern Nigeria had very early begun to work iron and tin, and their most distinctive achievement was the production of strikingly beautiful terra-cotta sculptures. Arab explorers, whom Kwame Nkrumah described as unbiased in their accounts of Africa, and their Chinese counterparts discovered and chronicled a succession of powerful African kingdoms. One of these was Ghana, after which modern Ghana is named.

According to one Arab explorer, “the pomp of its courts was the admiration of that age. It bred and developed instruments of art, its palaces were of solid architectural construction, complete with glass windows, murals and sculpture, and thrones with palaces bedecked with gold. There were other kingdoms, such as Songhai, Mali, Bornu, Wangara, and many more.

The pyramids of Egypt, to which the world presents nothing in comparison, belong to Africa and her people. Although some conveniently place Egypt in the Middle East (Middle East of where?) and attribute the glory of Egypt to aliens, Egypt was and is part and parcel of Africa; so are all its achievements African. It is not through Egypt alone that Africa claims such unrivalled historic achievements. Consider the pyramids of Ethiopia, which, though smaller in size than those of Egypt, far surpass them in architectural beauty.

Three, “tribalism” is sometimes viewed as responsible for most contemporary problems in Africa. This view belittles the significant changes which occurred prior to and during the colonial period. It also oversimplifies the reasons for the struggles going on in Africa today. Tribalism and its canonical variants – nepotism, cronyism, old-boyism, and patronage – are universal phenomena and must be seen as symptoms rather than root causes of Africa’s problems. The causes of civil strife in Africa are legion and structural, and they are internal as well as external. The battles are fueled by struggles over the control of economic resources and hence political power, first and foremost, although many of them are shrouded in ethnic and religious ideologies.

Finally, the term tribalism in the sense it is used by some Westerners ignores the existence of multiple identities (e.g., national and ethnic). These two concepts are not necessarily incompatible.

Keim, Curtis. (2008). Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. Boulder, CO: Westview
Khapoya, Vincent. (2010). The African Experience: An Introduction. NJ: Prentice Hall
Bohannan Paul & Philip Curtin. (1995). Africa and Africans. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Rodney, Walter. (1981).How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Howard University Press, pp.22-23
Nkrumah, Kwame. (1973). Revolutionary Path. Panaf Books Limited