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What’s my tribe? None

By Farooq A. Kperogi Last week, my American colleague and friend invited me to give a one-and-a-half hour long talk on Nigeria to student...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week, my American colleague and friend invited me to give a one-and-a-half hour long talk on Nigeria to students enrolled in her intercultural communication class. A day before the talk, she and I got talking about Nigeria during which she asked me questions that inspired this week’s reflections.

“So what’s your tribe?” she asked innocently.
“My tribe?” I inquired back, pretending as if I didn’t understand what she meant.
“I mean, are you from the Hausa, Yoruba or Ibo tribe?” she pushed.
“Well, I am afraid I am not a member of a tribe.”

Shock. Not a member of a tribe? What sort of African says he has no tribe? She thought there was probably some miscommunication somewhere and was about to rephrase her question when I interrupted her and asked: “But what’s your own tribe? Are you from the English, German or Irish tribe?”

My question took her by surprise. She had no answer because she had never for once thought of herself as belonging to a “tribe.” How could I think of an American, a white American, as belonging to a tribe? Isn’t tribe a category that exclusively applies to people who are not descended from Europeans? English tribe? Are you out of your freaking Nigerian mind?

She didn’t verbalize these thoughts openly, of course, but I could read them from her bewildered countenance, her thinly veiled discomfiture. When she spoke, she didn’t answer my question but said instead that no one had ever told her that “tribe” was a derogatory term, and that she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings by her question.

Of course, I already knew that, and she never offended me one bit. It is customary for Europeans, Americans, and even most Africans, to refer to non-European ethnic formations as “tribes” without thinking of the racist implications of the term.

When I asked to know what my friend’s “tribe” was, I didn’t do so in anger or out of some kind of self-righteous indignation. I did so in the spirit of inviting a debate and perhaps some introspection.

If it’s all right to refer to my cultural and linguistic group as a “tribe,” why should it be odd to do same to hers? If there is such a thing as a “Batonu tribe,” a “Hausa tribe,” a “Yoruba tribe,” etc why shouldn’t there equally be such a thing as an “Irish tribe,” an “English tribe,” a “German tribe,” etc?

Or are Europeans and their descendants a higher or different grade of humanity than the rest of us?

So what’s a “tribe” and why do intellectually conscious Africans resent the term with such passion?

Many dictionaries define a tribe as a social division of “preliterate” people. Now, is it accurate to describe all contemporary Africans or Native Americans as “preliterate”? Does that not smack of condescension, even downright revilement?

Well, the Oxford dictionary admits that the term is “sometimes offensive” and that it refers exclusively to people in “developing countries,” a cute euphemism for non-Western peoples.

Now, if we are all descended from a common human ancestor, why should one half of the human family be composed of “tribes” and not the other half?

In early anthropological writing, tribe was conceived of as an aggregation of people who are bonded by ties of consanguinity, territorial contiguity, and noticeable cultural singularities. Some authors deploy the term to denote linguistic affinity, others to denote common culture, some to account for common ancestral provenance, and yet others to describe common government of rulers. This all seems innocent on the surface.

However, in all cases, the term is used exclusively to describe nonwhite people. Where it is used to describe white people, it is often to reference their prehistory, their dim and distant past--a way to say that the past of the West is the present, in fact the future, of the rest.

That is precisely why my friend was taken aback when I asked for her “tribe.” For her, the term tribe isn’t faithful to her identity as a modern, “civilized” white American. This implies, of course, that only the dregs and the baseborn of humanity are worthy of being called “tribes.”

And that’s why since the last half of the 20th century, African scholars and postcolonial theorists have called attention to the invidious Eurocentric bias inherent in the reservation of the term to exclusively describe non-Western peoples in the modern day.

David Wiley, professor of African Studies at Michigan State University, for instance, made the case that Western scholars and journalists have been enamored with the category “tribe” for over a century primarily because it helps them oversimplify for readers the complexity of the socio-historical experiences of non-Western societies of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the American plains.

It is no accident, he said, that the contemporary uses of the term were developed during the 19th Century when the rise of evolutionary and racist theories denigrated non-white peoples as inferior or less civilized, as people who had not yet evolved from an atavistic, acephalous, and primeval state.

That is why, in the West at least, the term “tribe” evokes all kinds of negative associations, misleading stereotypes, and intense (if often unspoken) contempt in the popular imagination.

It conjures images of internecine wars, primitive savagery, irrationality, superstition, occultism, cannibalism, etc. The combination leads to the portrayal of violence and conflict in non-Western societies as congenital and immutable among “tribes.”

This image resonates with habitual Western media-inspired racialist imaginings and can suggest that irrational violence, coarseness, depravity, baseness, and malevolence are in-built in the conception of “tribe.”

Because of the conceptual inexactness and racist underpinnings of the term, some scholars have suggested that it should be thrown to the intellectual trashcan where it rightly belongs.

Instructively, the eminent Kenyan professor of African politics and TV director, Ali Mazrui, never mentions the term “tribe” even once in the entirety of his seminal and hugely influential book and TV series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage.
I was first made aware of the racist undercurrents of the term "tribe" by my political science professors at the Bayero University, Kano. The professor who taught me African politics, for instance, had a course policy that punished students who used the word “tribe” in their written papers. Students risked losing as much as half the grade for any assignment if they violated this rule.

We were encouraged, instead, to use the phrase “ethnic group” to describe the cultural and linguistic collectivities that populate the African continent--and elsewhere. I later read Okwudiba Nnoli’s magisterial volume, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, and got cured of whatever vestigial hang-ups I had about using the word “tribe.”

The trouble often is that many Africans think “tribe” is the lexical equivalent of the words we use in our languages to denote ethnicity or peoplehood. Unfortunately, it is not. "Tribe" is an exceptionable word that degrades the humanity of nonwhite people. By using “tribe” to describe our ethnicities we authorize our debasement, our dehumanization.

Of course, I know I am up against a deeply entrenched "naming practice." The use of the term tribe is so widespread and so ingrained in many people’s active idiolect that it seems pointless fighting against its use. But it doesn’t hurt to try.

How about if we start by calling ourselves—and encouraging others to call us— “people,” or “ethnic groups,” or “nations,” or “communities”— anything but that noxious word “tribe”?

So how did my chat with my colleague end? I caused her to be self-reflexive in her use of “tribe” to describe nonwhite people. After our discussion, she agreed that the term is indeed prejudiced even though most people, like her, who use it might not necessarily be prejudiced.


  1. The word "tribe" is meaning a group of 500. The expression comes from the ants. The Romans also used the word regarding the number of soldiers in a group.

    Even in Africa, we are using this word wrongly to describe a group of individuals speaking the same dialect.

  2. This piece captures the need for more of us engaged in evidence based studies. Thank for sharing.


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