Talking about "Tribe"
Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis
Published November, 1997
Last updated 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
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
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. 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 Africa).
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 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
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
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
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
Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of
African ethnicity, including
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
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
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 states.
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 theory.
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
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
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 Africa.
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
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
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 tribes.
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 countries.
African leaders see tribalism as a major problem in their countries.
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
tribalism is an outlook of pursuing political advantage through ethnic
chauvinism. The association of nation-building problems with the term
"tribe" just reflects the
colonial heritage and translation issue already mentioned.
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 changing it.
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,
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
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.
For Further Reading
There is an abundant academic literature on "tribe" and ethnicity, much
available only in
specialized academic publications. The following are a few shorter
sources which discuss the issue
in general terms and provide references to other sources.
In The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World edited by Joel Krieger
(New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993), the articles by A. B. M. Mafeje on "Tribalism"
and Okwudiba Nnoli on
"Ethnicity" are short essays with additional literature references.
A short statement from a standard textbook in African Studies, "On the
Concept of Tribe" can be
found in John N. Paden and Edward W. Soja, The African Experience
University Press, 1970), Volume II, 20-22. This is followed by a
section on the "Nature of Ethnic
An often-cited early statement by a prominent anthropologist rejecting
the term is Aidan Southall,
"The Illusion of Tribe," in Peter Gutkind, ed., The Passing of Tribal
Man in Africa (Leiden:
Brill, 1970), 28-51.
Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Richard Lobban and Linda Zangari, "'Tribe': A
writing in UCLA's Ufahamu VII: 1 (1976), 143-165, also argue the case
for discontinuing the use of
"If It's Africa, This Must be a Tribe," originally published in a
special 1990 issue of Africa
News, "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," is
available on- line at
In the H-Africa discussion group of Africanist historians and other
scholars, there have been two
recent discussions of the use of the word "tribe," as well as other
related discussions of Western
stereotypes of Africa. See http://h-net2.msu.edu/logs.
Then choose the H-Africa discussion, and check the logs for June 1995
and October 1997 in
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
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
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 several factors.
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
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
understanding nor coping with conflict is helped in the slightest by
labelling the Hutu/Tutsi
distinction as "tribal."
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
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 changed.
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
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
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
[For a collection of articles introducing the complex Great Lakes
crisis, see the Association of
Concerned Africa Scholars Great Lakes Briefing Packet, December 1996
(available for US$9.00 from
ACAS, 326 Lincoln Hall, 702 S. Wright St., Urbana, IL 68101; e-mail:
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
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 19th century.
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
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"
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 conflict.
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
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
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
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
Among Yorubas, a religious pluralism of traditional religion, Islam and
Christianity has prevailed
for more than a century, with political disputes rarely coinciding with
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 cities.
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
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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