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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Queries on Tribes

Over the weekend I had an interesting discussion with my Dad regarding the achievements (or lack thereof) of the Kibaki administration. As the discussion inevitably turned to NARC-K and ODM, the temperature heated up and voices became shrill. It suddenly dawned upon me that almost all Kenyans on both sides of the political divide were motivated by something less than ideology, something less than the objective assessment of a government's or politician's merit. It is the big gorilla in the room no one wants to discuss. No, I am not referring to Fred Gumo, but to the tribe -supposedly the basic unit of the African polity.

The questions that bedevil me are these. What is a tribe? If the tribe is so central to our identity, why has the concept been so systematically demonized? Why is it absent in our current and proposed governing structures?

What is a tribe? According to Wikipedia, a tribe "consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states...The term is often loosely used to refer to any non-Western or indigenous society." This definition is remarkable because it doesn't tell us what a tribe is, but what it is not. It is not a state and it is not Western. Tribes lack the moral, cultural, administrative and material refinement associated with statehood. And the moniker is uniquely applied to non-Westerners. (This, strictly speaking, is not true. The "savage" hordes that ravaged the outer reaches of the Roman empire in Europe were grouped into tribes.) I think the notion the word is meant to portray is uncivilised. The penchant for equating civilisation with Westernisation then leads us to the absurd situation where the Irish, Scots, English and Welsh are not the tribes of Britain but the Ibos, Fulani and Hausa are tribes in Nigeria (nothing to do with population, by the way, since the Ibos easily outnumber the Welsh and Scots combined.) Europe has ethnicities, the rest have tribes. The difference is in the connotation. In the reality show "Survivor", participants are grouped into tribes because "ethnic groups" somehow does not quite convey the idea of uncivilization that the show thrives on.

Now, it is obvious that we are dealing with a loaded word here and need to be careful (I wouldn't wish to find myself in the position of arguing that a lack of civilisation is central to African identity!). Why is allegiance to one's tribe so demonised? Let me be the first to state that some of the most heinous crimes have been committed in the name of the tribe. Just look at Rwanda. However, many more massacres have been committed in the name of ethnicity, race, religion and state but these are not demonised to the same degree. Do the "tribal" aspirations of the Luos really differ from the "ethnic" aspirations of the Serbs, Albanians, Chechens, Scots, Irish or French? The latter's railings against "Anglo-Saxon" domination sound very like the rants we hear about Kikuyu domination in Kenya. Was the Holocaust (and the many pogroms that preceded it) really not a tribal genocide same as the wholesale killing of Tutsis in Rwanda or the ongoing "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur? Is it more "civilised" to pack human beings into cattle boxes and transport them to gas chambers where their deaths are meticulously recorded, rather than to pick up machetes and hack them at random?

In Kenya, our response to the political challenges posed by tribe has been wacha ukabila! We have been banging our heads against that particular brick wall for the last 40 years. (Today, our political parties are little more than vehicles for tribal ambitions and accommodations. In the 60s, KANU was a Kikuyu-Luo Affair and KADU a coalition of the smaller tribes. In the new millenium, we are still struggling with the consequences of the Kikuyu-Luo falling out, only we try disguise it in ideological terms. There was a brief rapproachment in 2002, but the rift opened up again.) Why are we afraid to accept the tribal basis of our politics? Why is it considered a liability? If democracy springs from the people, and the people are a tribal lot, then should that not be reflected and accommodated in our national institutions? Take the US example. In the drafting of their constitution, they acknowledged that the basic political unit was the state. Small states feared domination by big states. They did not resolve this by shouting wacha ustate! Instead they accommodated the reality of it in the institutions they created. Should we not be looking to accommodate the reality of the tribe in our constitutional arrangements?

Answers anyone?

9 comments:

Jon said...

"Should we not be looking to accommodate the reality of the tribe in our constitutional arrangements?"

I would suggest not, because whatever the listed definition, ‘tribe’ reeks of outdated tradition. In Western society it conjures up images of bands of scantly clad dark-skinned villagers living in huts, although throughout the British Isles they had their own equivalents if you go far enough back in time.
The Anglo-Saxons were probably the most well known ‘tribes’ of the UK, but the ‘Clans’ in Scotland, although more family orientated, could loosely be viewed as a ‘tribe’ of sorts.

The modern equivalent in Western society today that is ‘tribal’ in nature, probably could be sports teams and in particular football teams. Agreed, there is nothing tribal insofar as existing as a society is concerned, but I am referring to the tendency of teams and fans to ‘belong’ to a particular team (tribe) and the associated rivalry that exists between them. Another example would be political parties, or organisations with various vested interests.

The only benefit I can see from a political context for a tribe is perhaps the maintenance of a particular culture or tradition, and in that concept, perhaps tribes should be recognised within a constitution.

coldtusker said...

You need the Joe (see Thinkers Room + African Bullets & Honey)... to liven up the debate here!

Joe could write volumes on why tribalism is "cool"...

LOL...

Gathara said...

coldtuske,
I was not aware that race and racism, tribe and tribalism was the hottest ticket in town.

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