Voices: Traveling to Africa? Think twice about using the word ‘tribe’

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Voices: Traveling to Africa? Think twice about using the word ‘tribe’

By McKenzie Powell, Ohio University May 6, 2015 3:35 pm

We see the word everywhere: throughout news reports of African struggles, in old films and on the latest television shows. You’ve probably even heard it used in a recent class covering topics related to history or anthropology.

“Tribe” has become a well-known, frequently used word to describe a particular group of people, specifically within a non-Western nation. The word seems to predominantly flood media outlets when an African ethnic group is involved in conflict or famine.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries’ newest definition of the word, a tribe is described as, “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”

But what exactly are we implying when we use the word “tribe?” In an African context, when did this word originate and what words can we use as alternates?

Assan Sarr, assistant professor of history at Ohio University, says the word tribe first began spreading throughout Africa during the Scramble for Africa, or the period of European colonization of the continent.

“For much of Africa it seems that the word tribe became associated with the continent more during the 19th century, which means that it coincided with European imperialism,” Sarr says. “So, for Africans, the use of the word is really wrapped up in colonialism and that is one of the major reasons why Africans, or scholars who work on Africa, do not prefer the use of the term tribe to describe Africans.”

With a powerful history and past, the word “tribe” reflects social theories of the 19th century regarding stages of evolution and primitivism.

Even today, many negative connotations and falsities have continued with the use of the term to describe certain peoples within continents like Africa. The fallacies provoked by this pejorative language can include visuals of ethnic groups as clusters of half naked, barbarous, uncivilized and uneducated individuals with long feathers in their hair or spears in hand.

Definitions of the word also seem to point toward a society that exists outside of the state, one that is simple, small and static, and without the same structure as that which may be found in other complex societies and civilizations.

Sarr says the discrepancies are easily noticeable when comparing a commonly labeled tribal group, such as the Igbo, with that of Flemings, or the Flemish. The Igbo and Flemings are similarly categorized by their language and culture, and the Igbo are actually drastically greater in size — yet only the Igbo are considered a tribe.

“You don’t hear of the Irish tribe, or the Italian tribe, or the Spanish tribe. It’s always the various Arab tribes, or the Indian tribes, or the African tribes and that, for me, is one of the most potent issues that we need to be aware of. Here we are essentializing these people, we’re making them look distinctive,” Sarr says. “You are using it to refer to a group of people that share a certain historical experience, certain cultural traits, a language. This seems to me to be the perfect definition of an ethnic group, so why use the word tribe?”

Americans and Westerners are not the only people using this term, as some Africans refer to themselves as a part of a tribe. However, Sarr says that Africans do not use this word with the same assumptions and implications as those who brought it to the continent in the 19th century, or as those who may use it today in Westernized states.

In fact, as mentioned in Talking About Tribe by Africa Action, when some Africans are taught English, they are told that the correct, recognizable word to describe their ethnic group is “tribe.” In their own language, such as Zulu, the word used to describe their ethnic group actually translates to “people” or “nation.”

People and nation are two alternatives of tribe that can also be used in English to portray these multifaceted groups. Using the term “ethnic group” is also acceptable, or just simply calling them by their names – the Mende, the Wolof, the Hausa and so on.

“If they call themselves Igbo that means that word itself has a cultural meaning that the people themselves can associate with, rather than this foreign concept, this idea, that is used by others to describe them that does not capture all of their complex sets of ideas and histories and relationships,” Sarr says.

Using words like tribe and continuing to view places such as Africa as one place with one culture and one type of people is common, yet very detrimental. It is vital to be conscious of the history of the language we are using, and what our words may be negatively implying or stereotyping.

“How do we talk about Africa in a more intelligent, culturally sensitive, and helpful way? It’s this idea of unpacking all of the things that one acquired and grew up with,” Sarr says. “You have all these assumptions, these Eurocentric views, but once you start unpacking that and seeing that this is not true, then you begin to see some real interesting facts about the world.”

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