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The Term "tribe"

The continual reference to African social groups as ‘tribes’ by Westerners and Africans alike exhibits the remnants of European colonialism and imperialism in our minds and should be actively discouraged. The word ‘tribe’ itself bears a negative connotation and refers to a relatively small group of primitive, backwards, native people who are linked by a ‘tribal leader’ and share a common ‘tribal language’ and ‘tribal history’. Its usage evokes thoughts of a hunter-gatherer or cavemen social construct that lacks the very sophistications of art, music, organization and culture, which are definitive of civilization.

Historically, the word ‘tribe’ was a vehicle of European conquest in Africa and reflected the type of mentality that was pervasive in 16th-20th century Europe as exhibited in Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”. It was indeed the burden of the white man to spread ‘civilization’ and ‘enlightenment’ to the backward, savage tribes of Africa; tribes that were known in Western circles for nothing more than savagery, nakedness, human sacrifice, and cannibalism.

In today’s media, whenever an African individual is portrayed in his cultural setting, he is referred to as a ‘tribesman’. Whenever conflicts arise internally within African countries, they are referred to as ‘tribal wars’. In the same vein, the Dutch, a people situated in northwestern Europe, number about 16 million and are referred to as an ethnic group or a nation. The Igbo, a group of peoples situated in southern Nigeria, number roughly 40 million, but are referred to as a tribe, not because they lack a culture, a language, or rich traditions, all of which the Dutch possess, but because they are African. The Yugoslav wars, conflicts between the Serbs, Croats, and Slavs, which ripped across the Balkans in the 1990s, were referred to as ‘ethnic wars’, while the Rwandan Hutu-Tutsi conflict of 1994 was—and still is—referred to as a ‘tribal war’.


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