Postcolonial Fantasy and Africa- Against the Word “Tribe”

South-Africa-Tribes-–-South-African-Culture“The idea of tribes was brought to Africa for several reasons…. It was easier to place people into categories based on perceived divisions of ethnicity than it was to try to understand the multi-layered, fluid identities that prevailed…. colonial authorities found that placing people into “tribes” with “chiefs” was an effective way of creating a political order.”–John Reader

“Why don’t you use the word tribe? I think this would make your story seem more realistic.” So read the critique on a rough draft fantasy story I submitted to a writing group. I set many of my fantasy stories in Africa–or better put, fantastic worlds loosely based on African themes–a process of cultural adaptation and self-creation I have discussed in previous blogs, acknowledging the cross-diasporic borrowing in this peculiarly modern practice. The comment was interesting in what it implied–that certain words, like “tribe,” are so connected to Africa (even the Africas of our imaginations) that they are missed when they don’t appear where we expect them. The reviewer was perceptive however: I don’t use the word “tribe” in any of my fantasy stories. It’s quite intentional, and for good reasons.

“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.”–Africa Policy Information Center

Though the term “tribe” fills our popular discourse, media and journalism when it comes to Africa, it has long been a source of dispute. In fact by the post-colonial era of the 1960s and 70s, a mix of social historians, ethnographers and activists (both African and non-African) began to openly question both the value of the word, its full meanings and its origins. One of the first scholarly articles on the topic was Africanist Aidan Southall, whose 1966 classic work “The Illusion of Tribe” remains a primer. Since then numerous studies and papers have been conducted, all showing many of the major fallacies of the term “tribe.” One of the best straightforward non-technical analyses was put forth in 1997 by the Africa Policy Information Center titled “Talking About ‘Tribe’: Moving From Stereotypes to Analysis.” A brief list of the main points:

  • “Tribe has no coherent meaning.” The term throws together people who may speak the same language or merely dialects of the same language, like say millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, even if they have existed for over eight-hundred years in multiple and feuding city-states and show vast religious diversity. Tribe is used for people who trace to large precolonial states, people who never formed states, the followers of a particular local leader, extended kin-groups and people who just happen to live in a particular area. Even groups that have no leadership (acephalous societies) are called tribes. Some tribes exist within other tribes and cut across multiple tribes. APIC concludes that in “offering no useful distinctions, tribe obscures many” and “as a description of a group…means almost anything, so it really means nothing.”
  • “Tribe promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness, obscuring history and change.” It is a notion of Africa that corresponds to Orientalist visions of the East–of backwards societies trapped at some early stage of development. This has negative implications for modern Africa, as it reinforces notions of the “Other,” locked in some static prehistorical moment.
  • “In the modern West, tribe often implies primitive savagery.” Some terms are loaded. They come with a context of bias, race and assumptions of cultural superiority. In the case of Africa, tribes evokes images and meanings almost instantly in the western mind–formed through centuries of institutionalization and indoctrination. Tribes are by their very nature irrational, emotional, illogical, superstitious–the opposite of the Occidental West. Tribes harken to a primeval savagery, which posits Africa as often locked in ancient and senseless “tribal conflicts”–rather than the complexities that define social interactions among non-tribal peoples. Tribes are the natural state of Africa, a place of savages (noble and otherwise) who act out in their heated passions based on their tribal affiliations; this is how it has always been. Except, in reality, it hasn’t.
  • Many of the ideas we associate with Africa and tribes do not come out of some long African past, but the very nearby colonial era. Some African tribes we view today “as ancient and unchanging” were created in the past century. Where earlier distinctions may have existed, colonial societies made them more rigid and imbued them with new meanings for easier colonial control: “By definition Africans were supposed to live in tribes, preferably with chiefs. The colonizers proposed to govern cheaply by adapting tribal and chiefship institutions into European-style bureaucratic states. If they didn’t find tribes and chiefs, they encouraged people to identify as tribes, and appointed chiefs. In some places, like Rwanda or Nigeria, colonial racial theory led to favoring one ethnic group over another because of supposed racial superiority (meaning white ancestry). In other places, emphasis on tribes was simply a tool of divide and rule strategies. The idea of tribe we have today cannot escape these roots.”

The embargo on “tribe” however is by no means an agreed upon proposition, even among continental Africans or those in the recent diaspora. I remember in college my Nigerian-American fraternity brother who readily identified by ethnicity and seemed untroubled by the word “tribe.” During my graduate studies however, I served as a TA for a Nigerian professor who openly chastised students in his Political History of Africa class for the use of “tribe”–going as far as deducting points if the word appeared on a paper. Yet even here, my Nigerian fraternity brother always made plain that his use of tribe was much more analogous to nation, and reflected modern issues of nation-states, not some vestige of a static African past. He also identified himself in numerous other ways beyond his ethnic identity. My professor on the other hand saw tribe as a coded word for backwardness and primitivism in the West, evoking all the worst traits of “Darkest Africa.” He would often challenge students to explain why Europeans were given ethnic groups, while Africans were often herded into “tribes,” and delve lengthily into colonial constructions of identity.

For many of these reasons I have shied away from using the word “tribe” in my fantasy stories. Some might argue that in its “timelessness,” tribe can fit the fantasy genre–which usually focuses on pre-industrial societies. The problem however is that tribe is almost impossible to pry from its racial relationships. So Euro-fantasy rarely uses the word tribe, but it instantly comes into play when we enter fantasy that pulls on Africa (or Native American and numerous other non-white groups). In fact, within Euro-fantasy tribes have their own unwritten hierarchical meaning, reserved for semi-savage “barbarians” or (worse still), non-human man-beasts like Orcs. In some cases I do use ethnic identity, often to identify people who may belong to a kingdom or nation. At other times, to de-emphasize the obsession with identity, I am purposefully vague or establish a primacy on other forms of belonging. My reasoning is not borne from some simplistic need for political-correctness, but instead an attempt (even in small steps) to move beyond colonial landscapes and paradigms that we too often accept as normative, even essentialist, to African existence.

Photo by Hans Silvester

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16 thoughts on “Postcolonial Fantasy and Africa- Against the Word “Tribe”

  1. I too refrain from using the word. The word was never applied to warring factions in Yugoslavia, but was readily employed in every African conflict during the same period.

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  3. I’ve used the word “tribe” in some of my fantasy works, seeing it as a identifier of an archaic community sharing the same founder. But this post and APIC’s analysis of the use of the word and its understanding makes me question not just my understanding of the word, but what I want my readers to envision when they read my stories. What images they take away (in terms of what their perceptions are or will be) and its impact on the tale. Though I prefer to write adventure tales for entertainment, that does not excuse me from understanding and/or realizing the impact of prose has on the readers. If anything it informs me in the choice I make to use or not use the word. Thanks for the info.

  4. Interesting.
    Article contains info that I did not know and gave me things to think about.
    I’ve never actually reflected on the word ‘tribe’ before.
    Thanks for posting.

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  8. This is a great essay.

    Personally… I’m Malaysian and moved to South Africa two years ago. I decided to start telling people my mum and dad are from different tribes because it’s going to be too flipping complicated to explain every time that the peculiar usage of the word “dialect” among English-speaking Chinese people encompasses not only language but ethnicity – yet another word that’s been given peculiar mangled meanings by colonialism.

    • Thanks for reading. Yes, I think this can be applied beyond the African context. And I do also find “ethnicity” can be limiting–even if better than “tribe.” Identity remains complex, and sometimes never fully definable. B

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