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.”





5 thoughts on “Deconstructing tribe and tribalism

  1. This is a complex issue made this way by the age old tactic of the divide and conquer strategy mentioned at the beginning of the article. In order for us today to think usefully about this it would be helpful to view: “What European History Can Teach Us About Trump’s America” by Timothy Snyder on You Tube. Snyder points to two phenomena which socially appear to be history but actually are not. One is “political inevitability” and the other is “political eternity”. The phenomenon of “political eternity” is the phenomenon which Snyder suggests argues it is not necessary to attempt to analyse historical trends and phenomena since it is all the result of biology and all that is necessary is a ‘strong leader’ who will save the people, nation, state, tribe. Of course this sounds very familiar.

    One of the major problems both for Africa and those of us here in America and the rest of the African diaspora is we have not the sufficient and necessary education especially in culture and history tho be able to see the same old game coming yet again. Chinweizu said in his classic “The West and the Rest of Us” Their aim is;”… to rule by persuasion or rule by force but rule…” And this discussion about tribe vs Nation or State is another aspect of the the issues confronting those of us who have had the so-called education of the West up to and through the graduate degrees but have not succumbed to the Kool-Aid which becomes more and more potent the higher up the education ladder we go.

    There are of course other concerns. China who is attempting to develop a “modern” transportation system throughout Africa which it seems to me is just phase two of the “Great Game” of the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They insist they are not after the resources of Africa…(NOW)…but just wait awhile.

    India which has a very strong Western bent regardless of what they say is not any better and as the article points out with a few exceptions (Julius Malema) most of the African leaders are African compradors, gate-keepers and Uncle Toms for the foreign interests who are still attempting to continue to rape our Mother and Father Land.

    This is a discussion we must have however. I resist the term “nation” because this is a term which became current during the turn of the 20th century when European radicals were attempting to destroy European aristocracy. I know the close I came to this was almost 40 years ago Russel Means the late Native American Indian told us in an Anthropology class here in Cleveland, Ohio the Native peoples would prefer to be called Native Americans, later I came to understand this had be modified to Native American Indians and this is what I will call them until another Native America I can respect tells me differently.

    Right now I intentionally use the term “People” capitalized because I have not come up with a term by which to refer to us as a “People” and while I still claim my politics is Black Nationalist, I resist the notion of a Black or African-American Nation since this is inadvertently in my opinion falling into their Worldview or their description of things.

    Hopefully the fact a much larger number of us have had so form of higher education but have not succumb to the Kool-Aid and we will come together and argue and hash things out until we come up with a way of seeing ourselves which is both modern and unified and authentically African at core. Until this happens we will continue to struggle against a phenomenon which dominates the entire World, White Supremacy.



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