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What is in the word tribe?

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

Pambazuka News Editors

2008-01-22, Issue 338

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There are 8 comments on this article.

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.

*Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

At last a complete explanation of the ongoing problem with the word tribe/tribal. I have been so fed up with the ongoing use of the word. Of course, people from the continent of Africa often use the word 'tribe' , but as explained to me - they are using the coloniser's language and given that the education of English is often out of the colonial imperative - certainly that has become part of their daily comments. I feel so foolish saying this to a friend or acquaintance that this word only seems to be used in respect to Africans or First Peoples here. I then mention that First Nations will often use the world 'nation' and Europeans self identify with 'ethnic'. So now, I have you to put it all together and I can now shut up and just save the article and then ask the person for their email and send them a link. Thank you for this.

Anne Brittain

The fact that the term is used in ordinary, everyday speech does not justify or legitimize its usage in scholarly discourse.

Gloria Emeagwali

I greatly appreicate your analysis on western media use of the word tribe and why it is such a bad description or grouping of people. I agree that its use has a lot to do with negative conotations from the people who brought the term-the English.

My major concern however is that the term tribe (while it doesnt exist in any African language as a description) has become widely used that our attempts to stop its use in US, EU will not be helpful when it has been deeply entrenched in African countries.

In my country Uganda for example, the constititution names tribes of the country-more than 50 of them. When a child is born, on the form or certificate there is a line for filling his/her tribe. I was recently shocked to learn that every case recorded by police in Uganda (and indeed many African countries) mentions name, and next the tribe ..e.g. I, Businge of the Banyoro tribe, hereby point is that the word is widely entrenched, just like we have to learn English (the national language.But its use in Africa is not as negative as it is in the US. In Africa, everyone belongs to a social grouping with a common heritage, practices etc...and such kind of grouping, whatever word is used should not result in a bad description of any one or a group of people.

The colonialists were very inclined to seperate people on some sort of ground and tribe was their major yardstick.

I think, just like we have taken on English as our national language (it does present a lot of benefits), let us accept the word tribe without going along with the tribal conotation it alludes to in the west. I have no problem being refered to as of a particular tribe, so long as that description is not made a standard basis of judging me- my abilities, my situation, the opportunities i should get etc.

I do understand the polarisation sting in the word tribe, also as introduced by the colonialists. The fact that people can fight each other on tribal basis is as bad as people fighting each other on religouss basis, which happended in many African countries during colonialism and is still happening today in some parts. So let us not look at tribe as a description of a people as ancient or a description of people when they fight or conflict. Men conflict with women on every continent, religions have conflicts in some areas, just like some clans or families have conflicts. So we are not going to say let us not use the word religion, family,clan, man or woman becaue some people fitting in such characteristic descriotion conflict(ed).

So i dont think there is anything wrong with the word tribe or being of a particualr tribe and i can only say journalists should stop using is to describe eor generalise any issue or situation other than geographical abode or cultural upbringing.

Gerlad Businge, Ultimate Media Consult

Thank you for enlightening me on this. I have realised that the word "tribe" is a transplant. In my mother tongue there is no word for tribe. Unfortunately, our education system does not reflect this. In a way we are taught to use these artificial and derogatory labels in schools-all the way from primary school, not any where else. This must change.

Eliamani Laltaika

In response to Dr. Kamau's comment, it seems to me that thinking in terms of "tribes" is a big part of why it is so difficult to inject reality into the discussion, and this is why it's so important to repudiate the connotations it so persistantly has in the Western media. After all, the nest of hornets that this election has stirred up is not simply a result of brainwashed youths who think their neighbors are "different" than them. This is not to excuse the violence, of course, but if we think the problem is simply that a kid with a panga "sees himself as different" we're going to miss the bigger picture, which has everything to do with a long history of political dis-enfranchisement and neglected community developement. After all, this crisis didn't come out of no where; Kenyans didn't used to think of themselves as different in the ways they have after the election, and unless we address how violence produces tribalism (and not the reverse) it seems unlikely that anyone outside of Kenya is going to be able to contribute anything. I agree that its important to have a sense of proportion here (the most important thing right now is stopping the violence, and the media's racism is important to the extent that doing so helps to stop the violence), but if we think the problem is only a matter of ruthless leaders and brainwashed youths, and ignore the variety of socio-economic and complexly political causes that fuel the fire those people have lit.

Aaron Bady

Great summary of the battle to get mainstream US media to stop using the frameworks of "tribe," "tribal conflict," etc. In the past 3 weeks I have submitted letters to the editor on this and related issues to the NYT (2), Boston Globe (1), and Washington Post (1). I have yet to hear about any of them. I have also sent individual letters to two Washington Post reporters, and received a brief response from one of them. May everyone please keep on mainstream journalists to heed these calls for change in their reporting! Otherwise they will simply maintain the status quo, which only serves to reinforce the stereotype of African backwardness that is so pervasive throughout the general public.

John Barbieri

I totally agree that the use of the word 'tribe'has a definite connotation of primitive savagery, and I have for a long time refused to use it.

The Basques and the Catalans are minority ethnic groups in Spain, but they are never referred to as tribes. Neither are the Bretons of France or the Welsh of Great Britain. Tribes seem to exist only in Africa, in the Amazon jungle, or in Papua New Guinea. Native Americans and aboriginal Australians were also referred to as tribal people because they were perceived by the white settlers to be savage and primitive.

It is sad to read in the African press references to our various ethnic groups as tribes. I am frequently asked the question "what tribe do you belong to?". I find this very offensive, and it often sets me off on a lengthy diatribe on the reasons we Africans should never refer to our indigenous nations and ethnic groups as tribes.

Anengiyefa Alagoa

Your long account about the words "tribe" and "ethnic groups" as used by NY Times' Getleman is good; informative, etc. My only concern is: the kalenjin and Luo youth with pangas and clubs couldn't care less what an elite that writes fine words, that complains to NY Times' Keller thinks. They kill because in their minds they see a disctintion between them and their "victims." We must inject a sense of reality in our discussion. The Zulu's sense of differentness was marshalled by Chief Buthelezi and his Afrikaner supporters to attack Xhosas, etc, during SouthAfrican elections fifteen years ago. This is fact: whether you call it tribe, or whatever, the Masai, the Kisii's mind has been manipulated and turned; he sees himself as different. And that's all that counts to him; no matter what journalists and linguistic purists say.


Pius Kamau

Pius Kamau MD

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