I’ve just finished reading this extremely depressing very deep book called Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie.
In it, a character called Odenigbo aka Olana’s Revolutionary Lover, makes an interesting statement. He says that tribe is the only true identity for an African. He feels that nationality is a colonist concept, and that before we were Kenyan, Nigerian or even Diasporan, we were X-tribe.
While I can see where he’s coming from, I disagree completely. Granted we had tribes back when England had Kings [i.e. before feminism built Beatrix, Elizabeth and Victoria], but tribe then is not tribe now. Back then, tribe meant culture, togetherness, community. Socialism worked [as did polygamy, not that I would advocate it now…] Tribe kept people strong, sane … together. It wasn’t a weapon of political mass destruction.
Tribe in the precolonial days was a mutual habitat, a homestead, clan, family. People from different tribes may have been suspicious of each other, but they weren’t murderers. During raids, people stole cattle [and sometimes women], they didn’t practice genocide. Prisoners of war were assimilated or enslaved, not decapitated or spat on. Any history book can tell you that.
So for Odenigbo, and others like him, to focus on tribe is stupid and trite. We are all the same underneath, and we all taste the same to a lion.
We lived in relative harmony before the west, and we can do so now, if we choose to. Someone I know came to my house recently and started a tirade against ‘that tribe’. He assumed that since I almost speak the same mother-tongue he does, I would agree with him. He made the usual sweeping ‘they’re all the same, they’re this, they’re that, some of them even admit it themselves blah blah blah.’
I was holding a kitchen knife at the time, and had to grip it tight to stop my hands shaking – and keep myself from throwing it at him. I picked a mwiko instead – less damage.
I explained quite clearly that ‘those people’ were my friends, my daughter, and that if he could not shut up, he should change the subject. I should simply have shown him the door. People who use tribe as a weapon are lost and confused. They need help, and they need prayers. A knife can harm and hurt. It can kill, but it can also save life. A knife used to defend against a lion is a good thing. A knife used to stab an innocent is not.
Tribe has benefits. My father is a member of ‘this tribe’. My daughter’s DNA is partly from ‘that tribe’. The man I love is from five tribes, none of which are found in Africa. Because of ‘those people’ I can eat fish, mukimo and irio. Because of my man’s tribe, I can speak [some] French, cook spaghtetti, play videogames.
Because of NO tribe would I pick up a panga and kill.
I teach my daughter not to dwell on ethnicity. I tell her to learn both ‘those tribes’ and to say she is proudly Kenyan. She wonders how I can tell – just by her friend’s name – that she is from ‘that tribe’; such is her innocence. So it bothers me when I hear her ask her playmates ‘what tribe are you?’ It crushes me when she chooses ‘my’ tribe over the other half of her DNA, a bias she has picked from my relatives. I tell her we are all equal, and we are all loved. But my lessons are lost when the kids next door hear her name and ask her tribe.
The kids ask it in innocence, and I smile as they tell each other what things are called in this tribe, or that tribe, or the other tribe. It’s all a game to them. So it chills me that some evil being could turn this curiosity to hatred in years to come.
I am Kenyan, I am tribeless. But I wonder how to teach this to my child.