the five-letter English word tribe. The Western media’s analysis of events in Africa reveals the word as the main obstacle in the way of a meaningful illumination of dynamics in modern Africa. Tribe—with its clearly pejorative connotation of the primitive and the premodern—is contrasted with nation, which connotes a more positive sense of arrival at the modern. Every African community is a tribe, and every African a tribesman. We can see the absurdity of the current usages, where thirty million Yorubas are referred to as a tribe, but four million Danes as a nation. A group of 250,000 Icelanders constitutes a nation, while 10 million Ibos make up a tribe. And yet, what’s commonly described as a tribe, when looked at through objective lenses, fulfills all the criteria of shared history, geography, economic life, language, and culture that are used to define a nation. These critical attributes are clearly social and historical, not biological.

Nonetheless, to the analysts, tribe is like a genetic stamp on every African character, explaining his every utterance and action, particularly vis-à-vis other African communities. Using the same template of Tribe X versus Tribe Y, print and electronic media and even progressive thinkers simply look at the ethnic origins of the leading actors in a conflict and immediately place them in the category of X or Y. So, whatever the crisis, in whatever part of Africa, in whatever time period, the analysts arrive at one explanation: it is all because of the traditional enmity between Tribe X and Tribe Y. It is like looking at John McCain, seeing that he was born in Panama; then looking at Barack Obama, seeing that he was born in Hawaii; and then concluding that their political differences are due to the places of their birth or that their differences are rooted in an assumed traditional enmity between Panamanians and Hawaiians.” – NgÅ©gÄ© wa Thiong’o

from the current issue Transition magazine

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o


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