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Africa: Talking about "Tribe"
Jan 8, 2008 (080108)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
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
[Update January 17, 2008: Since this Bulletin was written last week,
Gettleman's coverage of Kenya in the New York Times has avoided the
indiscriminate use of the word tribe in favor of "ethnic group," and
has noted the historical origins and political character of the continued violence
in the country, as well as its links to ethnic divisions. Thanks to
those AfricaFocus readers and others who contacted the New York Times about
In his blog the same day (http://www.zeleza.com), African historian
P. T. Zeleza countered that such divisions are neither peculiar to
Africa nor rooted in "ancient hatreds." Rather, he noted, they are
based on uneven regional development in both the colonial and postcolonial
periods, followed, at intervals, by the political
mobilization by elites of ethnic divisions,
Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains excerpts from
Zeleza's commentary and other reflections and calls for action to
avert further violence in Kenya. But the pattern of oversimplifying
African conflicts to "tribe" is pervasive and long-standing. Of
course, changing the terminology will not solve conflicts, whatever
their roots. But many analysts have long argued that "tribe" is
particularly pernicious in diverting attention from the structural
and immediate causes of violence by attributing it to supposedly
immutable and irrational divisions.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a paper from the Africa Policy
Information Center, written ten years ago, called "Talking about
'Tribe.' It is sobering to note how little the discourse has
changed since then, as similar stereotypes dominate the coverage of
yet another African crisis.
In the e-mail version of this paper, several case studies are
omitted for reason of length. They are available in the web version
Many thanks to those subscribers who have recently sent in a
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
Talking about "Tribe"
Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis
Africa Policy Information Center (APIC)
Published November, 1997
[Excerpts. APIC is now Africa Action. The full original of this
paper, including additional references, is available at
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.
The main text of this paper was drafted by Chris Lowe (Boston
University). The final version also reflects contributions from
Tunde Brimah (University of Denver), Pearl-Alice Marsh (APIC),
William Minter (APIC), and Monde Muyangwa (National Summit on
Section 1: What's Wrong with "Tribe?"
Tribe has no coherent meaning.
What is a tribe? The Zulu in South Africa, whose name and common
identity was forged by the creation of a powerful state less than
two centuries ago, and who are a bigger group than French
Canadians, are called a tribe. So are the !Kung hunter-gatherers of
Botswana and Namibia, who number in the hundreds. The term is
applied to Kenya's Maasai herders and Kikuyu farmers, and to
members of these groups in cities and towns when they go there to
live and work. Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and
Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history
of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious
diversity even within the same extended families. Tribe is used for
Hutu and Tutsi in the central African countries of Rwanda and
Burundi. Yet the two societies (and regions within them) have
different histories. And in each one, Hutu and Tutsi lived
interspersed in the same territory. They spoke the same language,
married each other, and shared virtually all aspects of culture. At
no point in history could the distinction be defined by distinct
territories, one of the key assumptions built into "tribe."
Tribe is used for groups who trace their heritage to great
kingdoms. It is applied to Nigeria's Igbo and other peoples who
organized orderly societies composed of hundreds of local
communities and highly developed trade networks without recourse to
elaborate states. Tribe is also used for all sorts of smaller units
of such larger nations, peoples or ethnic groups. The followers of
a particular local leader may be called a tribe. Members of an
extended kin-group may be called a tribe. People who live in a
particular area may be called a tribe. We find tribes within
tribes, and cutting across other tribes. Offering no useful
distinctions, tribe obscures many. As a description of a group,
tribe means almost anything, so it really means nothing.
If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory,
a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious
tradition, a similar economic system, and common cultural
practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world. These
characteristics almost never correspond precisely with each other
today, nor did they at any time in the past.
Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness,
obscuring history and change.
The general sense of tribe as most people understand it is
associated with primitiveness. To be in a tribal state is to live
in a uncomplicated, traditional condition. It is assumed there is
little change. Most African countries are economically poor and
often described as less developed or underdeveloped. Westerners
often conclude that they have not changed much over the centuries,
and that African poverty mainly reflects cultural and social
conservatism. Interpreting present day Africa through the lens of
tribes reinforces the image of timelessness. Yet the truth is that
Africa has as much history as anywhere else in the world. It has
undergone momentous changes time and again, especially in the
twentieth century. While African poverty is partly a product of
internal dynamics of African societies, it has also been caused by
the histories of external slave trades and colonial rule.
In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery.
When the general image of tribal timelessness is applied to
situations of social conflict between Africans, a particularly
destructive myth is created. Stereotypes of primitiveness and
conservative backwardness are also linked to images of
irrationality and superstition. The combination leads to portrayal
of violence and conflict in Africa as primordial, irrational and
unchanging. This image resonates with traditional Western racialist
ideas and can suggest that irrational violence is inherent and
natural to Africans. Yet violence anywhere has both rational and
irrational components. Just as particular conflicts have reasons
and causes elsewhere, they also have them in Africa. The idea of
timeless tribal violence is not an explanation. Instead it
disguises ignorance of real causes by filling the vacuum of real
knowledge with a popular stereotype.
Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of
African ethnicity, including ethnic conflict.
The idea of tribe particularly shapes Western views of ethnicity
and ethnic conflict in Africa, which has been highly visible in
recent years. Over and over again, conflicts are interpreted as
"ancient tribal rivalries," atavistic eruptions of irrational
violence which have always characterized Africa. In fact they are
nothing of the sort. The vast majority of such conflicts could not
have happened a century ago in the ways that they do now. Pick
almost any place where ethnic conflict occurs in modern Africa.
Investigate carefully the issues over which it occurs, the forms it
takes, and the means by which it is organized and carried out.
Recent economic developments and political rivalries will loom much
larger than allegedly ancient and traditional hostilities.
Ironically, some African ethnic identities and divisions now
portrayed as ancient and unchanging actually were created in the
colonial period. In other cases earlier distinctions took new, more
rigid and conflictual forms over the last century. The changes came
out of communities' interactions within a colonial or post-colonial
context, as well as movement of people to cities to work and live.
The identities thus created resemble modern ethnicities in other
countries, which are also shaped by cities, markets and national
Tribe substitutes a generalized illusion for detailed analysis of
The bottom-line problem with the idea of tribe is that it is
intellectually lazy. It substitutes the illusion of understanding
for analysis of particular circumstances. Africa is far away from
North America. Accurate information about particular African states
and societies takes more work to find than some other sorts of
information. Yet both of those situations are changing rapidly.
Africa is increasingly tied into the global economy and
international politics. Using the idea of tribe instead of real,
specific information and analysis of African events has never
served the truth well. It also serves the public interest badly.
Section 2: If "Tribe" Is So Useless, Why Is it So Common?
Tribe reflects once widespread but outdated 19th century social
As Europeans expanded their trade, settlement and military
domination around the world, they began trying to understand the
different forms of society and culture they met. In the 19th
century, ideas that societies followed a path of evolution through
definite stages became prominent. One widespread theory saw a
progression from hunting to herding to agriculture to mechanical
industry. City-focused civilization and related forms of government
were associated with agriculture. Forms of government and social
organization said to precede civilization among pastoralists and
simple agriculturalists were called tribal. It was also believed
that cosmopolitan industrial civilization would gradually break
down older localized identities.
Over the course of the 20th century scholars have learned that such
images tried to make messy reality neater than it really is. While
markets and technology may be said to develop, they have no neat
correspondence with specific forms of politics, social
organization, or culture. Moreover, human beings have proven
remarkably capable of changing older identities to fit new
conditions, or inventing new identities (often stoutly insisting
that the changed or new identities are eternal). Examples close to
home include new hyphenated American identities, new social
identities (for example, gay/lesbian), and new religious identities
(for example, New Age).
Social theories of tribes resonated with classical and biblical
Of course, most ordinary Western people were not social theorists.
But theories of social evolution spread through schools,
newspapers, sermons and other media. The term tribe was tied with
classical and biblical images. The word itself comes from Latin. It
appears in Roman literature describing early Roman society itself.
The Romans also used it for Celtic and Germanic societies with
which many 19th and early 20th century Europeans and Americans
identified. Likewise the term was used in Latin and English bibles
to characterize the twelve tribes of Israel. This link of tribes to
prestigious earlier periods of Western culture contributed to the
view that tribe had universal validity in social evolution.
Tribe became a cornerstone idea for European colonial rule in
This background of belief, while mistaken in many respects, might
have been relatively benign. However, emerging during the age of
scientific rationalism, the theories of social evolution became
intertwined with racial theories. These were used to justify first
the latter stages of the Atlantic slave trade (originally justified
on religious grounds), and later European colonial rule. The idea
that Africans were a more primitive, lower order of humanity was
sometimes held to be a permanent condition which justified
Europeans in enslaving and dominating them. Other versions of the
theory held that Africans could develop but needed to be civilized
by Europeans. This was also held to justify dominating them and
taking their labor, land and resources in return for civilization.
These justifying beliefs were used to support the colonization of
the whole continent of Africa after 1880, which otherwise might
more accurately have been seen as a naked exercise of power. It is
in the need to justify colonizing everyone in Africa that we
finally find the reason why all Africans are said to live in
tribes, whether their ancestors built large trading empires and
Muslim universities on the Niger river, densely settled and
cultivated kingdoms around the great lakes in east-central Africa,
or lived in much smaller-scale communities between the larger
political units of the continent.
Calling nearly all African social groups tribes and African
identities tribal in the era of scientific racism turned the idea
of tribe from a social science category into a racial stereotype.
By definition Africans were supposed to live in tribes, preferably
with chiefs. The colonizers proposed to govern cheaply by adapting
tribal and chiefship institutions into European-style bureaucratic
states. If they didn't find tribes and chiefs, they encouraged
people to identify as tribes, and appointed chiefs. In some places,
like Rwanda or Nigeria, colonial racial theory led to favoring one
ethnic group over another because of supposed racial superiority
(meaning white ancestry). In other places, emphasis on tribes was
simply a tool of divide and rule strategies. The idea of tribe we
have today cannot escape these roots.
Section 3: But Why Not Use "Tribe?"
Answers to Common Arguments
In the United States no one objects to referring to Indian
Under US law, tribe is a bureaucratic term. For a community of
Native Americans to gain access to programs, and to enforce rights
due to them under treaties and laws, they must be recognized as a
tribe. This is comparable to unincorporated areas applying for
municipal status under state laws. Away from the law, Native
Americans often prefer the words nation or people over tribe.
Historically, the US government treats all Native American groups
as tribes because of the same outdated cultural evolutionary
theories and colonial viewpoints that led European colonialists to
treat all African groups as tribes. As in Africa, the term obscures
wide historical differences in way of life, political and social
organization, and culture among Native Americans. When we see that
the same term is applied indiscriminately to Native American groups
and African groups, the problem of primitive savagery as the
implied common denominator only becomes more pronounced.
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
African leaders see tribalism as a major problem in their
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
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
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
Rejecting tribe is just an attempt to deny the reality of ethnic
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.
Case in Point: Zambia
Zambia is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Texas. The country
has approximately 10 million inhabitants and a rich cultural
diversity. English is Zambia's official language but it also boasts
73 different indigenous languages. While there are many indigenous
Zambian words which translate into nation, people, clan, language,
foreigner, village, or community, there are none that easily
translate into "tribe."
Sorting Zambians into a fixed number of "tribes" was a byproduct of
British colonial rule over Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia was known
prior to independence in 1964). The British also applied
stereotypes to the different groups. Thus the Bemba, Ngoni and the
Lozi were said to be "strong." The Bemba and the Ngoni were
"warlike" although the Bemba were considered the much "finer race"
because the Ngoni had intertwined with "inferior tribes and have
been spoiled by civilization." The Lamba were labelled "lazy and
indolent" and the Lunda considered to have "an inborn distaste for
work in a regular way." These stereotypes in turn often determined
access to jobs. The Lunda, for instance, were considered "good
material from which to evolve good laborers."
After Zambia gained its independence in 1964, the challenge was how
to forge these disparate ethnic groups into a nation-state in which
its citizens would identify as Zambians. To a large extent, this
has succeeded. Zambians identify with the nation as well as with
individual ethnic groups. Many trace their own family heritage to
more than one Zambian group. Most Zambians live not only within but
beyond their ethnic boundaries. Identities at different levels
coexist and change.
With an economy focused on copper mining, the urban areas and mines
became a magnet for Zambians from across the country and all ethnic
groups seeking employment. By the 1990s almost half of all Zambians
lived in urban areas. Despite ethnic stereotypes, no group had an
overwhelming advantage in urban employment. Cultural diversity was
combined with a common national experience, which was reinforced by
First, Zambia adopted a boarding school system for grades 7-12.
This system brought together children from all ethnic groups to
live and learn together for nine months of the year. Along with
English, several Zambian languages and social studies also became
a major component of school curricula enabling Zambians to learn
about and to communicate with each other. As a result of living
together, interacting in the towns and cities, and going to school
together, the average Zambian speaks at least three languages.
Second, Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, made a point of
establishing policies and using tools that would promote
nation-building. For example, he popularized the slogan
"One-Zambia, One Nation". This slogan was supported by the use of
tools such as ethnic balancing in the appointments to cabinet and
other key government positions. The intent was to provide Zambia's
various ethnic groups with representation and hence a stake in the
new nation that was being forged. Ethnic background has been only
one among many factors influencing political allegiances.
Third, after independence the marriage rate among people of
different ethnic identities increased. In the same way that one
should not immediately assume that an American called Syzmanski
speaks or understands Polish, neither should one necessarily expect
a Zambian with the last name of Chimuka to speak or understand
Tonga. As with most Americans, Zambian names are increasingly
becoming no more than one indicator of one's ethnic heritage.
Many Zambians do use the word tribe. Its meaning, however, is
probably closer to that of an "ethnic group" in a Western country
than what Westerners understand by a "tribe." The word does not
have negative undertones, or necessary implications of the degree
of group loyalty, but refers to one's mother tongue and, to lesser
extent, specific cultural traits. For example, in the same way that
Jewish Americans celebrate Bar Mitzvah as a rite of passage into
adulthood, various Zambian ethnic groups have similar rites of
passage ceremonies, such as Siyomboka among the Lozi and Mukanda
for the Luvale. An urban family may or may not celebrate a
particular rite, and may need to decide which branch of the
family's older generation they should follow.
Case in Point: Hutu/Tutsi
The deadly power of the split between Hutu and Tutsi in central
Africa is witnessed not only by the genocide of more than half a
million carried out by Hutu extremists against Tutsi and moderate
Hutu in Rwanda in 1994, but also by a long list of massacres by
extremists on both sides in recent years, in Rwanda, in Burundi,
and in eastern Congo.
Trying to understand this set of conflicts is as complex as trying
to understand the Holocaust in Europe, or current conflicts in the
Middle East or the Balkans. No outside framework or analogy to
another region can substitute for understanding the particularities
of the tangled recent history of the Great Lakes region. But one
point is clear: there are few places in Africa where the common
concept of "tribe" is so completely inappropriate as in this set of
conflicts. Neither understanding nor coping with conflict is helped
in the slightest by labelling the Hutu/Tutsi distinction as
Before European conquest the Great Lakes region included a number
of centralized, hierarchical and often warring kingdoms. The battle
lines of pre-colonial wars, however, were not drawn between
geographically and culturally distinct "Hutu" and "Tutsi" peoples.
Furthermore, within each unit, whether pre-colonial kingdom or the
modern countries defined by colonial boundaries, Tutsi and Hutu
speak the same language and share the same culture. Stereotypes
identify the Tutsi as "pastoralists" and the Hutu as
"agriculturalists," the Tutsi as "patrons" and the Hutu as
"clients," or the Tutsi as "rulers" and the Hutu as "ruled." Some
scholars have tried to apply the concept of "caste." Yet each of
these frameworks also exaggerates the clarity of the distinction
and reads back into history the stereotypes of current political
In two respects, such stereotypes are misleading. First, shared
economic, social and religious practices attest to the fact that
interaction was much more frequent, peaceful and cooperative than
conflictual. Second, the historical evidence makes it clear that
there was at least as much conflict among competing Tutsi dynasties
as between Tutsi and Hutu polities.
What is clear from recent scholarship is that the dividing line
between Hutu and Tutsi was drawn differently at different times and
in different places. Thus, leading Burundi scholar Rene Lemarchand
notes the use of the term "Hutu" to mean social subordinate: "a
Tutsi cast in the role of client vis-a-vis a wealthier patron would
be referred to as 'Hutu,' even though his cultural identity
remained Tutsi" (Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996, 10). But both "clients" and
"patrons" could be either Hutu or Tutsi. There were Hutu as well as
Tutsi who raised cattle. A family could move from one group to the
other over generations as its political and economic situation
As historian David Newbury notes, the term "Hutu" in pre- colonial
times probably meant "those not previously under the effective rule
of the court, and non-pastoralist (though many 'Hutu' in western
Rwanda owned cattle, sometimes in important numbers)" (David
Newbury, Kings and Clans. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1991, 277). More generally, the Tutsi/Hutu distinction seems to
have made sense in relation to the political hierarchy of a
kingdom. It accordingly differed, and changed, in accord with the
political fortunes of the different kingdoms and with the degree of
integration of different regions into those kingdoms.
Under colonial rule, first by the Germans and then by the Belgians,
this hierarchical division was racialized and made more rigid.
Ethnic identity cards were required, and the state discriminated in
favor of Tutsi, who were considered to be closer to whites in the
racial hierarchy. This was reinforced by versions of history
portraying the Tutsi as a separate "Hamitic" people migrating into
the region from the north and conquering the Bantu- speaking Hutu.
In fact, current historical evidence is insufficent to confirm to
what extent the distinction arose by migration and conquest or
simply by social differentiation in response to internal economic
and political developments.
In the post-colonial period, for extremists on both sides, the
divide has come to be perceived as a racial division. Political
conflicts and inequalities in the colonial period built on and
reinforced stereotypes and separation. Successive traumatic
conflicts in both Burundi and Rwanda entrenched them even further.
Despite the efforts of many moderates and the existence of many
extended families crossing the Hutu/Tutsi divide, extremist
ideologies and fears are deadly forces. Far from being the product
of ancient and immutable "tribal" distinctions, however, they are
based above all in political rivalries and experiences of current
Case in Point: Zulu Identity in South Africa
Zulu identity in South Africa is historical, not static. What it
means to be "Zulu" has changed over time, and means different
things to different people today. Before the nineteenth century,
"Zulu" was the clan name of the kings of a small kingdom, which was
tributary to the Mthethwa kingdom. Beginning around 1815, the Zulu
kingdom displaced the Mthethwa kingdom and conquered dozens of
other nearby small kingdoms which gradually took on Zulu identity
on top of older local identities.
Culturally these communities already had much in common.
Similarities of culture and mutually intelligible language extended
south to the Xhosa, Mpondo, Thembu, Xesibe and Bhaca kingdoms, as
well as north to many but not all of the political communities in
what are now Swaziland and Mpumalanga province in South Africa.
Ethnic identities within this continuum of culture and language
came mainly from political identification with political
communities. The expansion of political powers, such as the Zulu
and Swazi kingdoms, created new identities for many people in the
White colonization began in the 1830s, when the Zulu kingdom was
still quite new. White conquest took decades. Many chiefdoms
remained in the independent Zulu kingdom while others came under
the British colony of Natal. Many people and chiefs only recently
conquered by the Zulu kingdom fled into Natal, rejecting political
Zulu identity, although retaining cultural affinity. But as all
Zulu-speaking people came under white South African rule, and as
white rule became more oppressive, evolving into apartheid, the
Zulu identity and memories of the powerful independent kingdom
became a unifying focus of cultural resistance.
Under South African rule, the term "tribe" referred to an
administrative unit governed by a chief under rules imposed by the
white government. Tribes were thus not ancient and traditional, but
modern bureaucratic versions of the old small kingdoms. Yet the
Zulu people or nation was also referred to as a tribe by whites.
Thus the Zulu "tribe" was composed of several hundred tribes.
With apartheid, the government fostered ethnic nationalism or
tribalism to divide Africans, claiming that segregated,
impoverished land reserves ("homelands") could become independent
countries. Conversely, when the African National Congress (ANC)
formed in 1912, it saw tribalism --- divisive ethnic politics ---
as an obstacle to creating a modern nation. But it saw diverse
linguistic, cultural and political heritages as sources of
strength. The new nation had to be built by extending and uniting
historic identities, not by negating them.
Since the 1980s severe conflict between followers of the ANC and
followers of the largely Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has
killed tens of thousands of people. Sometimes portrayed as
reflecting primitivism and ancient tribal rivalries, this violence
illustrates how "tribe" misleads.
Most of the conflict has been Zulu people fighting other Zulu
people in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. There are complicated
local causes related to poverty and patronage politics, but the
fighting is also about what Zulu ethnic or national identity should
be in relation to South African national identity. Zulu people are
deeply divided over what it means to be Zulu.
In the early 1990s the violence spread to the Johannesburg area and
often took the ethnic form of Zulu IFP followers vs. Xhosa ANC
followers. Yet this was not an ancient tribal conflict either,
since historically the independent Zulu and Xhosa nations never
fought a war. Rather it was a modern, urban, politicized ethnic
On the one side, the IFP has continually stressed its version of
Zulu identity. Also, since the ANC has followers in all ethnic
groups, as the 1994 elections showed, neighborhoods with many Xhosa
residents may have been specifically targetted in order to falsely
portray the ANC as a "Xhosa" organization. On the other side, the
ANC at the time tried to isolate the IFP in a way that many
ordinary Zulu people saw as anti-Zulu, making them fearful. As has
been recently confirmed, the apartheid regime's police and military
were actively involved in covert actions to instigate the conflict.
The IFP relies heavily on symbols of "tradition." But to see that
as making Zulu identity "tribal" obscures other realities: the
IFP's modern conservative market-oriented economic policy; the deep
involvement of all Zulu in an urban-focused economy, with half
living permanently in cities and towns; the modern weapons,
locations and methods of the violence, and the fact that even as
the IFP won the rural vote in the most recent elections, a strong
majority of urban Zulu-speakers voted ANC.
Case in Point: The Yoruba People
There are 20 million or more people who speak Yoruba as their
mother tongue. Some 19 million of them live in Nigeria, but a
growing diaspora are dispersed around Africa and around the world.
Yoruba-speaking communities have lived in other West African
countries for centuries. Yoruba culture and religion have
profoundly influenced the African diaspora in Brazil, Cuba and
other New World countries, even among communities where the
language itself is completely or partially forgotten.
Taking a quick look at linguistic or national communities of
similar size, one can see that this is roughly equivalent to the
total numbers of Dutch speakers (21 million, including Flemish
speakers in Belgium). It is more than the total population of
Australia (18 million) or the total number of speakers of Hungarian
(14 million) or Greek (12 million).
Like parallel communities of Igbo-speakers (16 million) and
Hausa-speakers (35 million), situated largely within but also
beyond the borders of the state of Nigeria, the Yoruba people has
a long and complex history which is hard to encompass within
"tribal" images. There is a long artistic tradition, with
terra-cotta sculpture flourishing in the Ile-Ife city state a
thousand years ago. There is a common mutually understandable
language, despite many dialects and centuries of political and
military contention among distinct city- states and kingdoms. There
is a tradition of common origin in the city of Ile-Ife and of
descent from Oduduwa, the mythical founder of the Yoruba people.
Notably, Yoruba common language and culture predate any of the
modern "nations" of North or South America. In the 17th and 18th
centuries, the Oyo kingdom ruled over most of Yorubaland, but
included non-Yoruba speakers as well. Today that territory is
within the nation of Nigeria, with borders created by European
conquest. Yoruba identity does not coincide, then, with the
boundaries of a modern nation-state. Its historical depth and
complexity, however, is fully comparable to that of European
nations or other identities elsewhere in the world that do.
Among Yorubas, a religious pluralism of traditional religion, Islam
and Christianity has prevailed for more than a century, with
political disputes rarely coinciding with religious divisions.
Ancestral cities or polities (ilu, comparable to the Greek polis)
are a far more important source of political identity, along with
modern political divisions.
In short, Yoruba identity is real, with substantial historical
roots. But it corresponds neither to a modern nation-state nor to
some simple version of a traditional "tribe." It coexists with
loyalty to the nation (Nigeria for most, but many are full citizens
of other nations), and with "home-town" loyalties to ancestral
In determining what term to use in English, one cannot resort to
the Yoruba language, which has no real equivalent for the English
word "tribe." The closest are the words eniyan or eya, with literal
translations in English as "part" and "portion." The term may refer
to the Yoruba themselves, subgroups or other groups. In Yoruba,
Hausa-speakers would be referred to as awon eniyan Hausa or awon
Hausa, meaning "Hausa people." Non-Yoruba-speaking Nigerians of
whatever origin may be referred to as ti ara ilu kannaa -- "those
of the same country."
In English, no term actually fills in the complexity that is in the
history and present reality so that outsiders understand it as do
the people themselves. Terms such as "ethnic group" or simply
"people," however, carry less baggage than "tribe," and leave room
open for that complexity.
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