That “tribal” word

I cringe whenever I see that word in a news article. And I see it so often in journalese. Stories about developing countries often feature phrases like tribal healer, tribal land, tribal conflict, tribesmen, tribal chief, tribal wear, tribal name, tribal rhythm. The word is so problematic, I don’t even know where to begin. I will suggest this – get some education on its history.

Jungle Jitters is a 1938 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Friz Freleng. The short was released on February 19, 1938. The numerous racist stereotypes of black people throughout the animation, prompted United Artists to withhold it from syndication within the United States in 1968. However, I remember watching this as a child. The happy, dancing Negro, tribal people, cannibals, savages, the black mammy, the black coon, the aggressive black man, black preacher…the director packed all these racist caricatures in here.  Read more about this animation

Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Toons

In my research I learned that the word comes from tribus in Latin. Its earliest usage was in the time of the Roman empire where there were three original tribes, but more were added to organize the voting system.  At first, tribe may have been related to ethnicity, but as more were added, it became about geographical location, rather than kinship.   Tribe was a territorial voting unit in the Roman state. I’ve seen the word used to talk about Celtic and Germanic histories. It also became associated with the Hebrew people of the Torah and Bible. You must have heard of the 12 Tribes of Israel. The connotations evolved, and the problems with it began when it got into the hands of anthropologists. (Ironically, I have a degree in anthropology and I think it’s a fascinating discipline; Good thing my favorite anthro professor back in my university days wisely recommended that we understand the controversies around the term.)

Truth be told, it offends many people. Here’s why:

#1 For European missionaries and explorers who went out to conquer people, the word “tribal” was synonymous to “savage” and “primitive.” It’s mainstream connotation is rooted in colonial-era racist ideology. The word immediately conjures stereotypical imagery of brown people with bones in their noses or naked warriors running around in a rainforest.

The Myth of the Noble Savage

The word plays into a historic imagination that classifies indigenous people outside of Europe into two categories of savages: the noble savage and the brutal savage. That leads me to number two.

The bottom-line problem with the idea of tribe is that it is intellectually lazy. 

#2 Societies are constantly changing. No matter where you go, you’re bound to see it. Technology, the spread of ideas, education, globalization, all of these elements contribute to sociocultural changes. But the word “tribal” freezes societies in a primordial past (real or imagined) where people wore animal skins and ran with wolves. I think it’s hard for many people in the Western world to accept that societies in Africa (in other developing regions around the world) are dynamic. It’s hard for some to grasp concepts of modernity in such places.   Even the most remote, far flung communities are not the same today as they were just 20 years ago.

The tribe, a long respected category of analysis in anthropology, has recently been the object of some scrutiny by anthropologists … Doubts about the utility of the tribe as an analytical category have almost certainly arisen out of the rapid involvement of peoples, even in the remotest parts of the globe, in political, economic and sometimes direct social relationship with industrial nations. The doubts, however, are based ultimately on the definition and meaning which different scholars give to the term ‘tribe’, its adjective ‘tribal’, and its abstract form ‘tribalism’ ~ Dr. James Clyde Mitchell

Westerners have romanticized certain ethnic groups, like the Maasai in eastern Africa, because they have this romantic idea that the Maasai people are living the exact same way as their ancestors did. Untouched by modernity. But that’s simply not true. And where does this desperate need to have ethnic groups permanently living in primordial or precolonial states come from? Is the “primitive,” noble savage look more marketable for tourism? That leads me to number three.

#3 The relentless attempt to cast Africans as primitive, unchanging people relates to another popular notion that the past, when there was no internet, airplanes or sliced bread, was more peaceful, more pure and less complicated than modern times. The problem with that is that it pushes an identity (based on a misconstrued premise) on other people. It’s someone from the West saying I want the kind of African who lives in a thatch-roofed hut in a village in Niamey, not the African who lives in a brick bungalow in a gated Harare suburb or a high-rise in Lagos.  Africans are constantly being defined by the Western world, submitting to the names and descriptions put upon them. In my favorite work by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, the character Odenigbo says, “But my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.” (I’ll talk about Africans using the word tribe further down!).

In the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, colonial administrators applied these terms [tribe and band] to specific groups almost immediately upon contact. ~Encyclopedia Brittanica

#4 The word “tribal” distorts reality because it leads to misguided ideas of what is authentic and what is not. This is when a Westerner, looks at a picture of expensive cars parked at a chic hotel in Accra, and then says “this is not the real Africa.” I hear this comment all the time because there’s this prevailing perception that the real Africa is “tribal.” Its sticks, bones, dirt and chiefs draped in leopard print. Anything outside of that, according to that line of thought, has been touched (contaminated, even) by the Western world, therefore is inauthentic. Again, it’s that insistence on denying dynamism in society and culture. I remember working with a cameraman from the Middle East some years back. We were filming a news story in Abuja – his first time in Nigeria. We moved around Abuja’s wide tree-lined streets with traffic lights regulating movement, Italian styled palatial homes and tall office buildings and after about a day or two, the cameraman decided that he does not like Abuja. “This is not the real Africa,” was what he told me. Abuja was too modern for his imagination of an African city. Abuja is the capital of Nigeria, so I’m not sure if he was expecting to see a modern capital city to be covered in rainforests with gorillas swinging from tree vines and boisterous tribal people hunting for game. (The irony is that if a modern capital city in Africa did look that way, it would likely be the butt of jokes from visiting Westerners.) Or maybe he wanted the loud outdoor marketplaces, clogged roads and scenes of urban poverty. It’s hard to see those elements in Abuja’s city center, but why not just accept the city without putting expectations on what it’s “supposed” to look like?

And these absurd prerequisites of “African-ness” apply to people, too. The African woman who graduated from Harvard Business School, works as a bank executive and wears Chanel suits is not a real African. The woman chopping firewood with a naked baby on her back is and gets bonus points for authenticity if the child has flies swarming around the face.

Over to You, Is the Word ‘Tribe’ Offensive? – BBC World Service

#5 For peoples who experienced oppression, suppression or marginalization from European colonizers or their descendants, the word “tribe” triggers memories of a traumatic past.  This is especially true of Native Americans, also called the First Nations. (I remember learning about the Trail of Tears in elementary school and feeling very sad about it.)  Thousands of Native Americans were brutally uprooted from their ancestral lands when Europeans and their descendants decided to forcibly expand their presence in the Americas. Today, the U.S. government still officially uses the word “tribes” to refer to Native Americans, but I have read that they prefer to be called “nations” or “people.”

#6 There’s also this thing with numbers. British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, originator of the Dunbar’s number theory, said that 500 – 1,500 people (who follow their ancestral culture, beliefs of unity, laws, and rights; are self-sufficient and have strong emotion towards their lands) can be classified as a one tribe. Those are pretty much the same numbers that other nineteenth century anthropologists used, defining a tribe as a human society made up of several bands. A band was a small, egalitarian, kin-based group of perhaps 10–50 people. So when you’re looking at the large ethnic groups in Africa today, some numbering millions, they can’t be described as tribes.

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.” ~Pambazuka News

Zambia is slightly larger than Texas. The country has approximately 10 million inhabitants and a rich cultural diversity. English is the official language, but Zambia also boasts 73 different indigenous languages. While there are many indigenous Zambian words that 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).

~ Teaching Tolerance, The Trouble With Tribe: How a common word masks complex African realities. 


Pambazuka editors give you the war on the word “tribe”

#7 In anthropological theories of social evolution, “tribe” is lower than “civilization.” And that inherently means that “tribal” is less than “civilized.” After studying early cultures in Central and South America, American neo-evolutionary cultural anthropologist Elman Rogers Service devised an influential categorization scheme for the political character of human social structures: band, tribe, chiefdom and state.

A band is the smallest unit of political organization, consisting of only a few families and no formal leadership positions. Tribes have larger populations but are organized around family ties and have fluid or shifting systems of temporary leadership. Chiefdoms are large political units in which the chief, who usually is determined by heredity, holds a formal position of power. States are the most complex form of political organization and are characterized by a central government that has a monopoly over legitimate uses of physical force, a sizeable bureaucracy, a system of formal laws, and a standing military force.

With this understanding, again, many of the ethnic groups in Africa’s modern nation states cannot be called tribes.

But… a lot of Africans use “tribe” to describe themselves. The word is taught in schools across African countries, because the secular educational system was largely created by Westerners. That’s the basis of the ongoing  “decolonize education” campaign in South Africa. Check this out:

When Africans learn English, they are often 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”? In English, writers often refer to the Zulu tribe, whereas in Zulu the word for the Zulu as a group is isizwe. Zulu linguists translate isizwe as “nation” or “people.” 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 draw on the negative connotations of primitivism the word has in Western countries.

But there has been a decades-long push by many African scholars and media professionals to get media outlets, textbooks and academia to stop using “tribe” and “tribal.” Some have addressed their concerns to The New York Times, among other news publications.  According to Pambazuka News, here’s how Bill Keller, New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor from 2003 to 2011 responded to the concerns:

“I get it. Anyone who uses the word “tribe” is a racist. [. . .] It’s a tediously familiar mantra in the Western community of Africa scholars. In my experience, most Africans who live outside the comforts of academia (and who use the word “tribe” with shameless disregard for the political sensitivities of American academics) have more important concerns.”

From my interpretation, the logic here is, since the “real Africans” are using the word themselves, then what’s the big deal? Well, for all the reasons I just presented and more. This post is not a diss or denial of the earlier structures of the various societies in Africa. I am not advocating that Africans outrightly denounce their pre-colonial past in some mass effort to promote the “Africa rising” narrative. No way. Personally, I am very interested in how my ancestors lived and I seek out information about it. I am a student of history. However, I am particularly concerned with how some elements from the West (the mainstream news and pop culture media; academia; the nonprofit sector, foreign aid circles; etc.) continue to insist on defining Africans with words based on enduringly racist imaginations. Tribal is just one of them. There are other problematic terms. And recently we’re seeing a wave of companies and organizations come out to announce that they will not longer use “tribe” and “tribal.” The New York Times is now using “ethnic group” and “ethnic.” (I have issues with how ethnic is used sometimes. At a Walmart store back home in Georgia, I noticed that the aisle for hair products tailored to people of African descent was the “ethnic hair” aisle; that’s literally what the sign said). These entities may have been motivated by political correctness or could be trying to save face. I don’t know. I know that what to do about the tribe/tribal word is a conversation that matters.

2 thoughts on “That “tribal” word

  1. Identity politic in political campaign that highlight ethnicity, religion, and race of the candidates, indirectly also generate racist sentiments.


  2. It’s a tough task to extrapolate all the messy meaning and interpretation from a word
    I am often miss understood
    But your article was a thoughtful and eloquently worded and written piece

    And it brings to mind these ideas I see of other countless cultures
    Grappling with their identities and how to carefully parse their words and meaning

    But this is by no means meant to offend

    But it brings this song to mind

    Liked by 1 person

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