Did You Say “Tribe”

What’s wrong with using the word “tribe” in Western media? A lot more than meets the cultural divide, it seems.

AfricaFocus.org posted a fabulous argument about the particulars. I include the introduction here along with a link to the full length piece. This position has recently been brought to the attention of the New York Times’ Executive Editor, Bill Keller, in response to journalist Jeffrey Gettleman’s Kenyan election coverage. While Gettleman, after receiving letters of criticism, seems to have adapted his writing style, Keller was less than obliging. You can read his bitter response as posted at allAfrica.com below too.

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Talking about “Tribe”
Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis
Africa Policy Information Center (APIC)

Background Paper
Published November, 1997

[Excerpts. APIC is now Africa Action. The full original of this paper, including additional references, is available at http://www.africafocus.org/docs08/ethn0801.php]

For most people in Western countries, Africa immediately calls up the word “tribe.” The idea of tribe is ingrained, powerful, and expected. Few readers question a news story describing an African individual as a tribesman or tribeswoman, or the depiction of an African’s motives as tribal. Many Africans themselves use the word “tribe” when speaking or writing in English about community, ethnicity or identity in African states.

Yet today most scholars who study African states and societies–both African and non-African–agree that the idea of tribe promotes misleading stereotypes. The term “tribe” has no consistent meaning. It carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. It blocks accurate views of African realities. At best, any interpretation of African events that relies on the idea of tribe contributes no understanding of specific issues in specific countries. At worst, it perpetuates the idea that African identities and conflicts are in some way more “primitive” than those in other parts of the world. Such misunderstanding may lead to disastrously inappropriate policies.

In this paper we argue that anyone concerned with truth and accuracy should avoid the term “tribe” in characterizing African ethnic groups or cultures. This is not a matter of political correctness. Nor is it an attempt to deny that cultural identities throughout Africa are powerful, significant and sometimes linked to deadly conflicts. It is simply to say that using the term “tribe” does not contribute to understanding these identities or the conflicts sometimes tied to them. There are, moreover, many less loaded and more helpful alternative words to use. Depending on context, people, ethnic group, nationality, community, village, chiefdom, or kin-group might be appropriate. Whatever the term one uses, it is essential to understand that identities in Africa are as diverse, ambiguous, complex, modern, and changing as anywhere else in the world.

Most scholars already prefer other terms to “tribe.” So, among the media, does the British Broadcasting Corporation [at least at the time this was written – editor’s note]. But “tribal” and “African” are still virtually synonyms in most media, among policy-makers and among Western publics. Clearing away this stereotype, this paper argues, is an essential step for beginning to understand the diversity and richness of African realities.

Read more on the “hows and whys” here.

This position has had a bit of an impact, as I’ve already mentioned, upon Gettlemen. As allafrica.com reports, Kellner remains unmoved. According to him, scholarly analysis is trumped by those Africans in need of more than the musings of academia.


Kenya: What is in the Word Tribe?
Fahamu (Oxford)
24 January 2008

Africa Focus narrates that in his December 31 New York Times dispatch from Nairobi, Jeffrey Gettleman argues that the Kenya electoral crisis, “seems to have tapped into an atavistic vein of tribal tension that always lay beneath the surface in Kenya but until now had not provoked widespread mayhem.” Gettleman was not exceptional among those covering the post-election violence in his stress on “tribe.” But his terminology was unusually explicit in revealing the assumption that such divisions are rooted in unchanging and presumably primitive identities…
the other day, I wrote a brief message to Bill Keller, Times’ Executive Editor (ex NYT correspondent from Johannesburg [1992-1995]), alerting him to the H-Africa thread on his paper’s handling of the Kenya crisis.

Mr. Keller’s insulting response included the following statement:

I get it. Anyone who uses the word “tribe” is a racist. [. . .] It’s a tediously familiar mantra in the Western community of Africa scholars. In my experience, most Africans who live outside the comforts of academia (and who use the word “tribe” with shameless disregard for the political sensitivities of American academics) have more important concerns.”

So Gettleman’s ignorance about African languages, history, and cultural identities doesn’t seem to trouble his boss one bit. And the utter disregard Keller seems to have for what scholars is reinforced in a closing line dripping with condescension:

If you have a string that has something insightful to say about Kenya, I hope you’ll pass it along.”

Not only is Kellner unmoved, his tone in the end is more than condescending. I read it as downright angry.

Interestingly, Talking about “Tribe” has this to say about why Africans use the word:

Answers to Common Arguments

Africans themselves talk about tribes.

Commonly when Africans learn English they are taught that tribe is the term that English-speakers will recognize. But what underlying meaning in their own languages are Africans translating when they say tribe? Take the word isizwe in Zulu. In English, writers often refer to the Zulu tribe, whereas in Zulu the word for the Zulu as a group would be isizwe. Often Zulu-speakers will use the English word tribe because that’s what they think English speakers expect, or what they were taught in school. Yet Zulu linguists say that a better translation of isizwe is nation or people. The African National Congress called its guerrilla army Umkhonto weSizwe, “Spear of the Nation” not “Spear of the Tribe.” Isizwe refers both to the multi-ethnic South African nation and to ethno-national peoples that form a part of the multi-ethnic nation. When Africans use the word tribe in general conversation, they do not mean the negative connotations of primitivism the word has in Western countries.

African leaders see tribalism as a major problem in their countries.

This is true. But what they mean by this is ethnic divisiveness, as intensified by colonial divide and rule tactics. Colonial governments told Africans they came in tribes, and rewarded people who acted in terms of ethnic competition. Thus for leaders trying to build multi-ethnic nations, tribalism is an outlook of pursuing political advantage through ethnic discrimination and chauvinism. The association of nation-building problems with the term “tribe” just reflects the colonial heritage and translation issue already mentioned.

African ethnic divisions are quite real, but have little to do with ancient or primitive forms of identity or conflict. Rather, ethnic divisiveness in Africa takes intensely modern forms. It takes place most often in urban settings, or in relations of rural communities to national states. It relies on bureaucratic identity documents, technologies like writing and radio, and modern techniques of organization and mobilization.

Like ethnic divisions elsewhere, African ethnic divisions call on images of heritage and ancestry. In this sense, when journalists refer to the ethnic conflicts so prominent all across the modern world — as in Bosnia or Belgium — as tribalism, the implied resemblance to Africa is not wrong. The problem is that in all these cases what is similar is very modern, not primitive or atavistic. Calling it primitive will not help in understanding or changing it.

Avoiding the term tribe is just political correctness.

No, it isn’t. Avoiding the term tribe is saying that ideas matter. If the term tribe accurately conveyed and clarified truths better than other words, even if they were hard and unpleasant truths, we should use it. But the term tribe is vague, contradictory and confusing, not clarifying. For the most part it does not convey truths but myths, stereotypes and prejudices. When it does express truths, there are other words which express the same truths more clearly, without the additional distortions. Given a choice between words that express truths clearly and precisely, and words which convey partial truths murkily and distortedly, we should choose the former over the latter. That means choosing nation, people, community, chiefdom, kin-group, village or another appopriate word over tribe, when writing or talking about Africa. The question is not political correctness but empirical accuracy and intellectual honesty.

Rejecting tribe is just an attempt to deny the reality of ethnic divisions.

On the contrary, it is an attempt to face the reality of ethnic divisions by taking them seriously. It is using the word tribe and its implications of primitive, ancient, timeless identities and conflicts which tries to deny reality. Since “we” are modern, saying ethnic divisions are primitive, ancient and timeless (tribal) says “we are not like that, those people are different from us, we do not need to be concerned.” That is the real wishful thinking, the real euphemism. It is taking the easy way out. It fills in ignorance of what is happening and why with a familiar and comfortable image. The image, moreover, happens to be false.

The harder, but more honest course, and the only course which will allow good policy or the possibility of finding solutions (although it guarantees neither) is to try to recognize, understand and deal with the complexities. To say African groups are not tribes, and African identities are not tribal, in the common-sense meanings of those words, is not to deny that African ethnic divisions exist. It is to open up questions: what is their true nature? How do they work? How can they be prevented from taking destructive forms? It is, moreover, to link the search for those answers in Africa to the search for answers to the similar questions that press on humanity everywhere in the world today.

Are there any Africans willing to weigh in on this debate?

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