This whole tribe thing…

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.

For more information on 3CB, click here.

8 thoughts on “This whole tribe thing…

  1. I agree with you. Tribe is a culture‚ a background‚ a history…something that gives us salt to flavour the world. Using it as an excuse to claim that one is better than the other or justify killing another is foolhardy and myopic. I hate it when people ask me my tribe…I ask them what difference does it make? They say they want to know where am from…I say Kenya. Yeah‚ but where in Kenya? Nairobi. Yeah‚ but… and by then they’ve lost me.

    When it came to the election violence‚ all everyone saw was Kenyans killing Kenyans. It doesnt make sense. Are we not supposed to be a united country? We’ve already got racism which is a battle we’re struggling to fight…add tribalism and we destroy ourselves from within.

    preach, preacher!

  2. While growing up, I used to believe that one day Kenyans would finally be able to walk that elusive line between positive and negative ethnicity. But it appears I was wrong. The bad things that have come from people identifying themselves by their individual tribes clearly outweigh the few merits that come from proclaiming our ethnic diversity as a country.

    As a country with no sense of national identity and no sense of nation-hood, it is up to us to ensure that our children and all future generations grow up identifying themselves as Kenyans first and foremost.

    sometimes ‘the world outside’ nullifies – or at least dilutes – the lessons at home 😦 still, i won’t stop trying 🙂

  3. There’s a certain pride that comes with knowing you belong to a particular tribe from a particular area with its own particular customs, foods, beliefs and general way of life. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to cling to that.

    you know, it’s strange, but i’ve never felt that pride. my favourite foods are from ‘other’ tribes, as have been my boyfriends. My ancestral ethnicity gave me a pretty name, a great complexion, and a jeans-friendly booty. Beyond that, I have no attachment to it…

    What IS wrong is the culture of intolerance and hate that is propagated by politicians in the name of ethno-centricity. We cannot allow such people to divide us along ethnic lines purely for their own gain.

    3CB likes this **insert FB-thumbs-up icon here**

  4. Wonderful post. And I loved that book, Odenigbo’s questionable opinions aside 🙂

    The girl has mad talent, but it’s not really my thing. Too broody

    On another occasion, Ngozi Adichie said: ‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete.’

    I think it’s the same thing with people (like your guest) who stereotype people according to tribe. They’re choosing to see only part of who the person is.

    I am not tribalist, but I don’t subscribe to the notion of ‘I am Ugandan, not X-tribe’ because sometimes, Ugandan is too general, too mixed-up to define certain aspects of me – my language, the food I prefer, my village, etc. So I choose to be X-tribe, and Ugandan and African all at the same time.

    I don’t know … I find it easy to claim labels that appeal to me. I gladly announce I am Mel-choleric, I am INFJ, I am Kenyan … because those are things I am proud of, pleased with. But I am X-tribe – not so much, because I don’t like what it represents.

  5. @CB: The truth is alot of us (Kenyans) encourage ethnicisation within our social milieux by remaining silent.
    Silence means we are consenting to perpetuation of ethnic animosity and hatred.
    If you have a problem with someone or several people, dont go generalising that everyone from that person’s tribe are all the same. That’s just ignorant! Put your grievances out in the open if they really are that serious, instead of bad-mouthing people and their tribes in private. That’s just cowardly!
    Also, I have been known to tell people off who have the habit of speaking vernacular while in the presence of non-speakers, that’s just wrong!

    i hate when people do that. it’s so rude. if you want to talk in private, leave the room or something. ai!

    I also encouraged my friends to travel outside Nairobi not just to their shagz but to other provinces and be open to other cultures and ways of life.

    i like this idea

    Sadly in most rural areas where education is still a luxury, tribalism is all people understand but I believe this too will and must change. Tribes CAN live side by side with each other. They should all be united by their hunger for peace and collective anger at our useless ‘leaders’.

    In short, thanks for posting this!

    PS: Your little girl is lucky to have such a diverse ethno-cultural background. Soon enough she’ll be telling all her schoolmates to stop asking her what her tribe is! Proudly Kenyan 🙂

  6. Well worth watching…

    Other interesting reads from Chimamanda include her collection of short stories – The Thing Around Your Neck, I related to them far much more than Yellow Sun – and lets be honest, its much harder to pull off a great short story than a compelling novel (emphasis here is on GREAT).

    I’m really not a Chimamanda fan, though i DO recognise her talent. She’s very gift, but she’s not really my thing

    I hope that you will forgive my snob of the topic at hand, simply because its bored me. I believe that all of us reading this post are well aware blinkered tribalism and its dangers. Thing is, we’ve got to stop talking, and start doing…

    • Am a mother and I approve this message.

      Lol I hate it when my baby comes home from daycare and mumbles something about this or that tribe she heard some idiotic grown up saying.

      i guess daily mummy homework = undoing the ‘trivial’ damage from daycare/nursery/primary school

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