Posted by: sean | June 6, 2005

African tribalism

Now for the other aspect of the letter that really bothers me, that “People have been in Africa for thousands of years – & look at their progress during those years. Tribal still!” The OED defines tribalism as follows:

a. The condition of existing as a separate tribe or tribes; tribal system, organization, or relations.
b. Loyalty to a particular tribe or group of which one is a member.

While I’m the first to insist that people should vote for ideas instead of ethnicities, tribes or religions, I think we should beware of throwing stones from our glass abode. It only takes a quick look at the 2004 elections to see the effect that religion as a political tool had on the American political discourse. Does that make Americans tribalistic? Maybe, but one shouldn?t forget that in the U.S. religion is used for a political end. Remember the Catholic bishops who refused communion to pro-choice catholic politicians? What about the political rallies held in Protestant churches all over the nation?

Likewise, ethnicity and religion are being used for political goals in Africa. I’m sure the reader from Oregon would not seriously reduce American politics as sectarian, so why should he so quickly reduce African politics as tribal? Probably because he doesn’t know any better, and the American media certainly isn’t helping him.

Furthermore, these “age-old ethnic hatreds” – as they’re often described by a press that is either incapable or unwilling to understand the nuances of African cultures and politics – were in many cases created (or at least fueled) by Europeans in order to divide and conquer through indirect colonial rule. In the case of Rwanda, Belgian and, to a lesser extent, German colonizers forced the racist biblical idea of “white negros” or “Hamites” (the cursed son of Noah) onto Rwandan society. The distinction was not linguistic, hereditary, geographical or even fixed; Tutsis and Hutus spoke the same language, frequently intermarried, lived together, and changing from one group to another was not unheard of. As a matter of fact, we still don’t really understand the complex social order of pre-colonial Rwanda. An interesting fact is that there seems to have been no “ethnic” violence between Hutus and Tutsis before European colonization.

Still, Europeans, bewildered by a complex political system in the middle of “primitive” black Africa, created the idea that the Tutsi were superior to the Hutu and Twa and then ruled Rwanda and Burundi through the former. These are some of the roots of the violence in central Africa, and we would do well to remember that Western Europe and North America are not very far removed from this same sort of violence – WWII and Segregation, respectively*.

Since western colonization is far from blameless in this violence, we have an obligation to try to help clean it up. And if that isn’t enough, the U.S. should look at the despots, such as Mobutu in Zaire, whom the they supported during the cold war. These are all reasons why the U.S. should ‘care’ about Africa. And if moral responsibility isn’t enough for the reader from Oregon, the fact that the third world has been making its grievances known with car bombs lately should be.

*However, it is important to not see Africa as just a hapless child influenced by a superior Europe as some Africans have taken to doing in order to absolve themselves from the guilt of murder. The Belgians did not dismember their neighbors with machetes, Rwandans did.


  1. You are right about the Belgians, still, they reinforced the differences between the tribes and the basis for the hatred that triggered the genocide.

    Koen – Belgian
    Ps. extremely small print on your blog – what about upsizing it a tiny weeny?

  2. It’s a good thing that we’re not individually guilty for the sins of our native lands, because I’m afriad htat I’d be in more trouble than you…

    You’re probably right about the print. I’ll try to change it this weekend when I’ll have some time to play around with the template a little.

    In any case, thanks for the comment. You’re the first, but hopefully not hte last, person to contribute.

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