Deconstructing tribe and tribalism

If you read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book ‘Secure the base: Making Africa visible in the Globe’, you will forever remove the words Tribe and Tribalism from your  vocabulary – hopefully. And that is, if you haven’t done so already.


The name word tribe is a colonial creation that seeks to make Africans look small, weak and incomprehensible. These terms have become accepted by all, including Africans without any critical analysis of their impact on African peoples. Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes:

“It is fair to say that ‘tribe’, ‘tribalism’ and ‘tribal wars’, the terms so often used to explain conflict in Africa were colonial inventions. Most African languages do not have the equivalent of the English word tribe, with its pejorative connotations that sprung up in the evolution of the anthropological vocabulary of eighteenth -and nineneteenth-century European adventurism in Africa. The worlds have companionship with other colonial conceptions, such as ‘primitive’, the ‘Dark Continent’, ‘backward races’ and ‘warrior communities.'”


You already knew that? Okay. Let us move on.  Once colonialism proper was in place efforts were made to keep communities in the various countries separated along linguistic lines. This was effected by amongst others creation of reserves, homelands etc. In the Kenyan context, those that ended up working for white settlers in the Rift valley were kept in separate quarters based on, again, linguistic formulations. During the struggle for independence every effort was made to scuttle nationalistic movements. You could only organize within your linguistic group. As Ngugi writes “European settlers, and even Asian immigrants, could organize nationally , but Africans were allowed to organize labour, social and political unions only within ethnic boundaries.” Hence, differences were heightened.  The infiltration of a capitalistic economy created class differences between and within different communities – depending on whether you are collaborating with the colonial regime, are close to urban centres and so on.

NB: Most  “flag independence” regimes carried on the same colonial models of governance and divide and rule tactics.


What is the problem with all this?

The problem is that Africans start seeing themselves through the ethnic lines. The term “tribe” is then assigned biological characteristics.  This “tribe”  becomes a “genetic stamp” to explain why the Yoruba’s behave like this and the Zulu’s behave like this.  It is just the way they are – people will say. When it comes to explaining conflict and understanding socio-economic issues in Africa today, the “tribe” becomes the key unit of analysis. Hence conflicts that could have social, economic or environmental origins are seen as “tribal wars.” If a problem is perceived as biological, then you just despair about finding a solution – because, what can you really do to alter biology?  Indifference takes over. Africans and the rest of the world watch as say, genocides are carried out in Rwanda and Darfur because it is impossible to sort out biological issues. Enter the African middle class- the “educated” and “civilized”. Those that the Mau Mau used to refer to as “Black Europeans.” Ngugi argues that  this group has imbibed “self-hatred ” from years of internalizing the colonial gaze makes which some among them gleeful at humiliating another African.”  Using the example of the Congo, Ngugi illustrates the fact that as Africans fight each other over non-existent differences, there is an outsider who is keenly waiting to see what they can pick from the ruins. He has a name for this outsider: “the corporate tribe of the west.” In other words, there are beneficiaries of conflict in Africa – economic beneficiaries.  Once conflict in Africa is understood as “tribal wars” then it ceases to be tied to global issues, for instance climate change, resource depletion or globalization.


Tribe vs Nation

According to Ngugi, the tribe is used  in contrast to the state. Sample this:

“In much of the media coverage of Africa, every African community is said to comprise a tribe and every African a tribes man. We can see the absurdity of the current usages, where a group of 300,000 Icelanders constitutes a nation while 30 million Ibos make up a tribe. Yet, looked at through more objective lenses, what’s commonly describes as tribe fulfills all the criteria of shared history, geography, economic life, language and culture that are used to define a nation.”

As I said in the beginning, the word “tribe” diminishes. It was important in advancing the evils of colonialism. Unfortunately, Africans have embraced the term and this diversity is seen as a weakness as opposed to a strength.


What should we do?

  1. Analyze African issues through social, political, environmental , economic lenses because their issues, like those of any other group of people develop/come about historically and NOT biologically
  2. Refer to Africans or other groups of people by their names. As Ngugi writes:

“While I can understand why detractors of non-European peoples would want to append the word tribe to them, I have not been able to make sense of why African, Pacific, Native American and Indian intellectuals have embraced this pejorative term. It still baffles me why more than 40 million Yorubas are a tribe and 5 million Danes a nation. Every community has a name by which they identify themselves. Call them by that name.”






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