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I have been advised to beware the way I use the word "tribe" when relating to Africans. Why is this?

The reason why caution is needed when using the term "tribe" in relation to Africa is simply because in certain circumstances, especially when Westerners use it, a term which is as old as the days described in the Bible, it is given a pejorative bent. In the case of Africa, when Westerners say "tribe," they do not simply mean a particular group of people encompassing numerous families and clans that belong to a particular place, but one that is, according to the Westerner, backward, poor, "uncivilized;" even a lot more. Lamin Sanneh's explanation with relation to both the words "race" and "tribe," is enlightening:

When used of Africans, 'race' and 'tribe' carry the meaning of a people without history or a knowledge of history. They entail the cultural meaning of a people with no historical record—specimens of nature unrefined by discipline, struggle, and self-control, and thus incapable of logical thinking or polite behavior. (156)

This rather unfortunate use of an otherwise harmless word came into more frequent use with its rather derogatory insinuations round about the 19th century. As Bill Berkeley confirms and explains further:

The very term 'tribe' came into general use in the colonial era. The term was associated with stereotypes of Africans as primitive brutes. For evolutionist anthropologists in their nineteenth-century heyday, 'tribal' society conjured up an early stage of human development with minimal state organization, class structure, literacy or other features of 'civilized' societies. (12)

In the preface of their book Africa and the World: An Introduction to the History of Sub-Saharan Africa from Antiquity to 1840 Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan display an awareness of this problem surrounding the word "tribe," for which reason they go on to explain their use of the word in their book because they consider it "appropriate within certain contexts" (xiv). Two things are obvious in their effort to explain their own use of the word: firstly, they are aware of the fact that some Africanists object to its use, and secondly, they themselves consider it appropriate only "within certain contexts" (xiv). Theirs is a learned but unconvincing endeavor at denying the insulting reverberations around the use of this word "tribe." Firstly, it is true, as they argue, that while white-skinned Jews proudly refer to their ancestral Twelve Tribes, and Germans talk of Swabians, Bavarians, and Saxons of Stdmme or tribes, Africans today also talk of themselves in terms of tribes; nevertheless, it is not the same thing when a white man talks of tribes while referring to Africa. As already indicated, the condescending reverberations are loaded. Unfortunately, this is one of those things about which one can hardly say this is an example of when the word "tribe" is used insultingly, but like many other human attitudes, love, hate, sarcasm, and so on, it can be felt and sensed when at work. This is a fact, and the perpetrators know and understand this even if some scholars profess otherwise in public. The use of the word "tribe" here is typical of virtually all else about Africa—black Africa. The truth is that when it comes to Africa, Westerners relapse into a special vocabulary shelved somewhere in their subconscious which at once helps to maintain the primitive archetypal image instilled in them by their culture of superiority, or is it oppression? Anyone who doubts it should study the vocabulary employed say by the media when reporting events in Africa similar to those somewhere in Europe and he or she is sure to learn a lot. Clashes in Africa are frequently described as "tribal," or "black-on-black," but nobody calls the clashes in Northern Ireland "white factionalism" or "white-on-white violence" or tribal bloodshed (Hawk). If such familiar, yet denigrating vocabulary is not used, then the story certainly has nothing to do with Africa. "Tribe," is one potent word in that vocabulary especially reserved for referring to Africa or native America, which in fact means nothing other than to help conjure loved stereotypical images of primitive savages that Western complex has indoctrinated its people to believe exist mainly in the "dark" continent of Africa and virgin America. As some scholars have argued, the definitions of the word "tribe" are flawed and rarely mean anything as they conjure up social groups that are practically nonexistent. An example will illustrate this point further: Aidan W. Southall observes about the word tribe:

Controversial though the matter is, the most generally accepted characteristics of a tribal society are perhaps that it is a whole society, with a high degree of self-sufficiency at a near subsistence level, based on a relatively simple technology without writing or literature, politically autonomous and with its own distinctive language, culture and sense of identity, tribal religion also being coterminous with tribal society. (38)

Southall goes on to argue that dozens of definitions could, of course, be cited from different authorities, yet all they do is add nothing to understanding while varying only in the area where they add emphasis: language, politics, self-identity and so on. He, accordingly, maintains his definition of what a tribal society is before concluding that in the strict sense these tribal societies "cannot exist, since there are no areas of the inhabited earth unclaimed by one sovereign state or another" (39). If this is the case, then why is the word tribe always coming up when the area of reference is Africa?

 
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