Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Africa: Talking about "Tribe": Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis

I have to say that overall the reporting of the crisis in Kenya has lacked depth and understanding. One particularly damaging word that was constantly in use was "tribal". This word has been used uncritically, perpetuating misleading stereotypes about Africans. Would we say that Europe is made up of tribes? Or that the English-French tensions within Canada is tribal conflict? Why not? It's about as sensible as assuming that Africa is made up of tribes. Well, apparently I'm not the only one irritated by this:
The Kenyan election, wrote Jeffrey Gettleman for the New York Times in his December 31 dispatch from Nairobi, "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.

Here's an interesting article: 'Talking about "Tribe": Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis,' Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), November, 1997:

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.
<The rest>


lept said...

As an ex-member of the 'white tribe' of Africa I find your argument interesting but ultimately useless.

No matter how one chooses to look at it, the forces that drive us to commit horrible crimes are not in need of great delicacy in their verbal framing - whether it be tribalism in the Balkans or ethnicity in Kenya or tribal nationalism here in Québec: the common thread is the varied histories of conquest and destruction, the creation of false borders and artificial national identities - an ugly, primitive and depressingly prevalent tribalism:
I have met fellow members of the Parti Québécois every inch as 'tribal' (in a very negative sense) as my more boer-ish relatives...
etc., etc.

Whatever we call it, the rifts in a large number of African countries are the result of the colonial past but does that change the ugliness of the tendency to put immediate 'small group' advantage ahead of the larger/national interest?

Anonymous said...

I would call some European groups a tribe. For example, the Bavarians that are now a province in Germany have their own flag, and were originally a tribe. I would also call the Gaulois from France a tribe.

I have never considered that word to be negative.

Red Jenny said...

I respectfully have to disagree. Verbal framing is very important - words have power, and how they are deployed affects the course of events.