The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘tribe’ as “A group of persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor” or “A particular race of recognized ancestry; a family”1. The word has its etymology in pre-Roman history. The word ‘tribus’ was used to describe three distinct groups of people, supposedly involved in the founding of Rome. When Western colonialists arrived in Africa, they needed a mechanism to describe the social structures they found. The familiarity of the concept and its connotations seemed perfectly apt for the situation they encountered in Africa.
The term was a product of their Classical education, part of their mental furniture, and it was in this way that the term ‘tribe’ came to be used to describe the people they found in Africa. They deemed ‘tribes’ to be equally primitive and so in need of ‘civilisation’.
‘Tribe’ could also be used as an administrative tool as a method of cultural imperialism to distance “the other” and integrate this alterity into a known anthropological or ethnographic framework.
If we take the dictionary definitions of the word ‘tribe’ at face value, it quickly becomes obvious that its application to social structures in Africa is, at best, tenuous. More importantly, it is critical to note that the term ‘tribe’ is an historical construct deriving from a specific historical situation, i.e. that of Imperialism and as such is not very well suited to explaining very much beyond this specific historical situation. This essay will aim to elucidate this colonial preconception and argue that only by clearing away quintessentially colonialist stereotypes can we begin to understand the richness and diversity of African realities and the problematic dangers of its modern day usage
‘Tribe’ is a derogatory and intellectually lazy term.
Nowhere in the world, can we find a social group of common biological descent that shares a single history, a single language, that can be indentified as being a single political or economic unit with shared religious traditions or common cultural practices. Such entities simply do not exist. This is not an argument of semantics, but an example of what ‘tribe’ is supposed to connote. It is convenient to think of African social structures in this way forgetting that ‘tribe’s were a product of colonial partitioning of the continent. In the pre colonial state it is a truism that groupings existed whereby people spoke mutually intelligible dialects and their social customs grouped them into cohesive units, but these units were a “mosaic of lineage groups, clans, villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires, often with shifting and indeterminate frontiers and loose allegiances”
However during the partitioning of the continent when European diplomats drew straight lines on a map, the territories of these people were often bisected and trisected. “It was a ruthless act of political amalgamation, whereby something of the order of 10,000 units were reduced to a mere 40. It was quite normal for a single one of the newly defined colonies to comprise two or three hundred earlier political groupings”3. Colonial administrators wanted recognizable units they could control. “The chief of a little-known group in Zambia once ventured to remark: My people were not Soli until 1937 when the Bwana D.C told us we were”4. As such ‘tribe’s as we perceive them don’t exist. They not discrete single entities or coherent bodies of people. Identities in Africa are as diverse, ambiguous, complex, modern and changing as anywhere in the world. Before we wrote it, Africans had their own history, political and social structures. They were not primitive, just different to western notions of social structures.
This essay asks about the shortcomings of the word ‘tribe’ in relation to African traditions. Taking the position that African traditions are the foundation of African history, which is essentially an oral tradition of myths and legends passed on from one generation to the next, it is hard to separate the African account from the western one. One cannot doubt that Africans have their own deeply rich history, but as a discipline, Africans writing their own history is relatively new. Post-colonial scholarship is now seeking to uncover other non-dominant voices in African History. The difficulty isolating what constitutes African traditions arises because a lot of what is documented was commissioned by colonial administrators and done so by missionaries or organizations like the Rhodes Livingstone institute, who as anthropologists didn’t question their notion of ‘tribe’ as they believed it was an inherent and pre-existing system/structure of social organization central to rural African lives.
Missionaries “often reduced Africa’s innumerable dialects to fewer written languages, each language supposedly defining a ‘tribe’. Yoruba, Igbo, Ewe, Shona and many other ‘tribes’ were formed on this way”5 When European administrators used the services of African intellectuals, they sometimes “invented entirely new ‘tribes’ such as the Abaluyia of western Kenya”6. This demarcation was used as a tool to facilitate indirect rule. “A central organizing concept in that notion of traditional African culture was of course that of the ‘tribe”7. These examples demonstrate the formation of ‘tribalism’ and highlight the incongruities and questionable status of African history as we know it. Ultimately one might argue that the material this essay draws upon is fundamentally flawed. On the other hand acknowledging these limitations provide a basis for separating what really constitutes African history and tradition. It does not limit discussion on the broader topics of descent, linguistic and political structure.