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Africa Focus, Africa Action and H-Net Africa contributors on Western media coverage of Africa

Pambazuka editors give you the war on the word "tribe"

What’s in a word? What does the word “tribe” carry? Here below Pambazuka Editors give you a few snippets of what is a long struggle to get US Mainstream media to stop using a racist and stereotypical lens in its coverage of Africa. You can find the fascinating discussion at We end with an excerpt from an Africa Action essay ["> on the word.

Africa Focus ["> narrates that in his December 31 New York Times dispatch from Nairobi, Jeffrey Gettleman argues that the Kenya electoral crisis, "seems to have tapped into an atavistic vein of tribal tension that always lay beneath the surface in Kenya but until now had not provoked widespread mayhem." Gettleman was not exceptional among those covering the post-election violence in his stress on "tribe." But his terminology was unusually explicit in revealing the assumption that such divisions are rooted in unchanging and presumably primitive identities.

However, Africa Focus gives an update indicating that since that particular bulletin on Gettleman’s use of language: “ Gettleman's coverage of Kenya in the New York Times has avoided the indiscriminate use of the word tribe in favor of "ethnic group," and has noted the historical origins and political character of the continued violence in the country, as well as its links to ethnic divisions”.

But Peter Alegi from Michigan State University in an H- Net Africa posting says and then asks: “While Gettleman (Times' EastAfrica bureau chief) seems to have toned down his use of "tribe" thanks to our protests, but isn't substituting "ethnic group" for it a minor victory?

Also, folks might be interested in this side story: the other day, I wrote a brief message to Bill Keller, Times' Executive Editor (ex NYT correspondent from Johannesburg [1992-1995]), alerting him to the H-Africa thread on his paper's handling of the Kenya crisis.

Mr. Keller's insulting response included the following statement:

"I get it. Anyone who uses the word "tribe" is a racist. [. . .] It's a tediously familiar mantra in the Western community of Africa scholars. In my experience, most Africans who live outside the comforts of academia (and who use the word "tribe" with shameless disregard for the political sensitivities of American academics) have more important concerns."

So Gettleman's ignorance about African languages, history, and cultural identities doesn't seem to trouble his boss one bit. And the utter disregard Keller seems to have for what scholars is reinforced in a closing line dripping with condescension:

"If you have a string that has something insightful to say about Kenya, I hope you'll pass it along."

Kudos to AfricaFocus then, but it seems that the struggle for accuracy and informed analysis of Africa in US mainstream media is going to be a long and tortuous one.

Carol Sicherman, a Professor Emerita at Lehman College underlines Alegi’s point with the following post to H-net Africa. She states that “On January 12, I wrote to the Public Editor of the New York Times as follows (I did not get an answer):

Reading recent dispatches from Kenya, I was pleased to notice that the Times has responded to years of complaints about the biased terms "tribe" and "tribal," replacing them with "ethnic group" and "ethnic." This editorial policy, however, seems to be confined to the news. Roberta Smith's article "Face Time: Masks, Animal to Video" in the Arts Section on Jan. 11 uses the egregiously offensive phrase "a tribal, almost animalistic ritual." It is exactly that equation that makes it necessary to remove "tribe" and its related words. In the case in question, removing "tribal" would have put the focus on "animalistic" without designating Africans as inherently animalistic. It is particularly odd to find such a cliché in a discussion of the work of Yinka Shonibare, a highly sophisticated, learned, and ironic artist.

I don't know how copy editors are instructed at the Times, but the policy adopted for the news section needs to be adopted for all sections.

And last but not least, in 1997, Africa Action said the following of the word tribe:

Tribe has no coherent meaning. What is a tribe? The Zulu in South Africa, whose name and common identity was forged by the creation of a powerful state less than two centuries ago, and who are a bigger group than French Canadians, are called a tribe. So are the !Kung hunter-gatherers of Botswana and Namibia, who number in the hundreds. The term is applied to Kenya's Maasai herders and Kikuyu farmers, and to members of these groups in cities and towns when they go there to live and work.

Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious diversity even within the same extended families. Tribe is used for Hutu and Tutsi in the central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Yet the two societies (and regions within them) have different histories. And in each one, Hutu and Tutsi lived interspersed in the same territory. They spoke the same language, married each other, and shared virtually all aspects of culture. At no point in history could the distinction be defined by distinct territories, one of the key assumptions built into "tribe."

Tribe is used for groups who trace their heritage to great kingdoms. It is applied to Nigeria's Igbo and other peoples who organized orderly societies composed of hundreds of local communities and highly developed trade networks without recourse to elaborate states. Tribe is also used for all sorts of smaller units of such larger nations, peoples or ethnic groups. The followers of a particular local leader may be called a tribe. Members of an extended kin-group may be called a tribe. People who live in a particular area may be called a tribe. We find tribes within tribes, and cutting across other tribes. Offering no useful distinctions, tribe obscures many. As a description of a group, tribe means almost anything, so it really means nothing.

If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory, a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious tradition, a similar economic system, and common cultural practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world. These characteristics almost never correspond precisely with each other today, nor did they at any time in the past.

Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness, obscuring history and change.

The general sense of tribe as most people understand it is associated with primitiveness. To be in a tribal state is to live in a uncomplicated, traditional condition. It is assumed there is little change. Most African countries are economically poor and often described as less developed or underdeveloped. Westerners often conclude that they have not changed much over the centuries, and that African poverty mainly reflects cultural and social conservatism. Interpreting present day Africa through the lens of tribes reinforces the image of timelessness. Yet the truth is that Africa has as much history as anywhere else in the world. It has undergone momentous changes time and again, especially in the twentieth century. While African poverty is partly a product of internal dynamics of African societies, it has also been caused by the histories of external slave trades and colonial rule.

In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery.

When the general image of tribal timelessness is applied to situations of social conflict between Africans, a particularly destructive myth is created. Stereotypes of primitiveness and conservative backwardness are also linked to images of irrationality and superstition. The combination leads to portrayal of violence and conflict in Africa as primordial, irrational and unchanging. This image resonates with traditional Western racialist ideas and can suggest that irrational violence is inherent and natural to Africans. Yet violence anywhere has both rational and irrational components. Just as particular conflicts have reasons and causes elsewhere, they also have them in Africa. The idea of timeless tribal violence is not an explanation. Instead it disguises ignorance of real causes by filling the vacuum of real knowledge with a popular stereotype.

Images of timelessness and savagery hide the modern character of African ethnicity, including ethnic conflict.

The idea of tribe particularly shapes Western views of ethnicity and ethnic conflict in Africa, which has been highly visible in recent years. Over and over again, conflicts are interpreted as "ancient tribal rivalries," atavistic eruptions of irrational violence which have always characterized Africa. In fact they are nothing of the sort. The vast majority of such conflicts could not have happened a century ago in the ways that they do now. Pick almost any place where ethnic conflict occurs in modern Africa. Investigate carefully the issues over which it occurs, the forms it takes, and the means by which it is organized and carried out. Recent economic developments and political rivalries will loom much larger than allegedly ancient and traditional hostilities.

Ironically, some African ethnic identities and divisions now portrayed as ancient and unchanging actually were created in the colonial period. In other cases earlier distinctions took new, more rigid and conflictual forms over the last century. The changes came out of communities' interactions within a colonial or post-colonial context, as well as movement of people to cities to work and live. The identities thus created resemble modern ethnicities in other countries, which are also shaped by cities, markets and national states.

Tribe substitutes a generalized illusion for detailed analysis of particular situations.

The bottom-line problem with the idea of tribe is that it is intellectually lazy. It substitutes the illusion of understanding for analysis of particular circumstances. Africa is far away from North America. Accurate information about particular African states and societies takes more work to find than some other sorts of information. Yet both of those situations are changing rapidly. Africa is increasingly tied into the global economy and international politics. Using the idea of tribe instead of real, specific information and analysis of African events has never served the truth well. It also serves the public interest badly.

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