Monday, 21 January 2008

The T-word

The New Oxford English Dictionary’s (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998) definition of TRIBE is as follows:

Noun 1 a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader: indigenous Indian tribes.

Derogatory a distinctive close-knit social or political group
Derogatory a group or class of people or things
Informal Large numbers of people

A boxed statement headlined “usage” subsequently states:
In historical contexts, the word tribe is broadly accepted. However, in contemporary contexts, used to refer to a community living within a traditional society today, the word is problematic. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of so-called primitive or uncivilised peoples living in remote undeveloped places. For this reason, it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people.

The word tribe and its derivatives have progressively provoked a bone of contention. My heightened sensitivity to the use of this word incessantly drives me to ponder on its apparently comfortable place in our vocabulary in sub-Saharan Africa. What is the appropriate term to define the gargantuan variety of languages, cultures and traditions that traverse the entirety of the African continent and beyond? I tend to disdain from its use and refer to the debatable terms “ethnic groups” or “communities” when making an observation that demands a distinction between Kenya’s 50-odd tongues. Curiously, of the three East-African languages that I speak, only Kiswahili easily translates into kabila.

What tribe are you? - The fleeting use of this phrase, without the close inspection and analysis of a cognitively composed question has developed into a habit. It implicitly infers a label that may be stuck onto someone and used to define them by a string of regrettably familiar stereotypes; as opposed to belonging to a community that share the same language, culture and to an extent values. Although admittedly, the advancement of rural to urban migration renders the latter invalid in some cases. Perhaps the ease displayed in the use of the word tribe is attributed to our apparent innocence (or debatably ignorance) that the word tribe carries with it a heavy load of negative preconceptions, insinuations, connotations and assumptions. To my ear, and admittedly more-so when voiced by Euro-Americans, the word tribe subtly and quietly carries the undertones of an imprisonment to a Conradian perspective; one that locks Africans into a primitive, uncivilised and barbaric predisposition. An uninstructed people, who, perpetually oblivious to the external world around them, herd animals and flimsily drape miniscule pieces of animal hides or processed tree barks that functionally obscure strategic parts of their dark chocolate sun-torched, well-defined bodies. In an attempt to rationally examine this sentiment, it is clear that the root of my strongly formed opinion emanates from colonialism.

The divide and conquer tactics that the Europeans cunningly applied to their great advantage and success, after their task of studying and grouping the variety of cultural practices and languages into tribes was, I suspect, the dawning of so-called tribal politics in a number of African countries, such as Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The infamous word tribal hit the media houses in the West as a result of the violence that engulfed Kenya after the recently contested 2007 general elections, simplifying an intricately complex reality that culminated in the spate of violence that has taken away over 500 lives and destroyed an incalculable number, estimated at over quarter of a million. Hmm, those tribal Africans are at it again.

An elaborate discourse on the meaning and use of the word tribe that I highly recommend is eloquently articulated in a report by Africa Action, which was recently published by Africa Focus Bulletin dated 8th January 2008. Notably, its relevance despite the fact that it was written just over 10 years ago was readily highlighted. Talking about "Tribe" - Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis gives a balanced analysis of the rationale behind both the use or disuse of the word tribe and concludes with relevant case studies across Africa.

In a uniquely pitched piece, Paul Goldsmith’s “The Return of the Tribe”, recently published in Kwani? 4 (2007), Kenya’s cutting-edge literary journal which unapologetically cuts into socio-political issues presents the evolution of the word tribe as a specific form of organisation, which he explores within but not confined to fourth generation warfare, as he also cleverly intertwines his discourse with tribal politics in Africa. Goldsmith lists a sample of titles and corresponding authors who have given an in-depth analysis, far beyond what I ever could, on the concept of tribes and tribalism in Africa. In good faith, I hope Dr Goldsmith won’t mind me plagiarising:
The Illusion of Tribe – Aiden Southall
The Ideology of Tribalism – Archie Mafeje
Tribal Survival in Modern African Political Systems – Colin Legum
The Tribe as Fact and Fiction in an East African City – David Parkin
The Social Organisation of Cultural Differences – Frederick Barth
The Politics of Cultural Pluralism – Crawford Young

What persistently captures my attention and imagination is Mwalimu Nyerere’s vision for Tanzania (Ujamaa); one that has since united a people with the ubiquitous use of the Kiswahili language. It is evident that a nation is so much more than the artificial, colonially-imposed physical boundaries of a country; it is simply a people. Together as one despite their multiple identities.

1 comment:

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