Age old tribal bloodlust – the curse of Africa

How could it be any other way? Just watch TV, read a paper or open a book about Africa by a western writer or journalist and tribalism will slap you in the face, says Keith Somerville

June 9, 2009
10 min read

I’ve been slapped repeatedly in recent months.

Not long ago I was reading accounts of the latest attempt by Kenyans beaten or tortured by the British during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s to gain redress. Most accounts were factual and highlighted the growing body of evidence of the extent and institutionalised nature of torture – just as with US policy in Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ – that makes it clear that it wasn’t a few bad apples.

But the Telegraph website just couldn’t stop itself reverting to revert to type with this description: ‘The Mau Mau was an armed movement drawn from Kenya’s majority Kikuyu tribe which launched a series of attacks against whites and pro-British blacks.’ First of all, the attacks were aimed at the colonial system and not just simply ‘whites’ – it was not racially motivated. Secondly, the Kikuyu are not the majority community in Kenya, just the largest single group. And, finally, why tribe? Why in Europe do we have nations, or communities or ethnic groups, but in Africa tribes, with all the connotations of the word.

I recently watch a re-broadcast of Simon Reeve’s Rift Valley episode of his wide-eyed, naive middle-class ‘white boy goes to exotic places’ series Explore on the BBC. He just loved slumming it with AK-47 toting ‘tribal warriors’ of the Turkana and getting a buzz from being with these dangerous ‘tribes’ fighting out ‘traditional’ battles. The programme jumped to Emeka Onono in the Kenyan Rift Valley where we got a snapshot of the ‘tribal violence’ that followed the elections last year and of ‘traditional’ tribal hatreds.

Even the ‘liberal’ Guardian isn’t free of this approach. A couple of months ago it hit me with an account of a music festival in Africa headlined, ‘Now that’s a tribal gathering’. The piece told you a bit about the music but a lot more about how many ‘tribespeople’ ,’local tribes’, ‘other tribes’ and how much ‘tribal music’ there was. Is Irish or Scottish folk music ‘tribal’, I wonder.

The most telling blow came from the Telegraph‘s Tim Butcher at the start of his recent book, Blood River, A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. He tells of a veteran newspaper journalist advising him that there were, ‘just two things to remember in Africa, which tribe and how many dead’ (p4).

Just look what the Africans have done now

If you’re British, American, Canadian, European or Asian with no great knowledge or experience of Africa, then you rely on newspapers, TV, radio and books to give you a picture of the continent and its people. The picture you get is of a continent that produced Nelson Mandela (so saintly because he is African and so we can guess at the barbarous environment from which he emerged) and wildlife – to be seen on ‘red in tooth and claw’ documentaries and sanitised safaris, but which also gave us war, famine and corruption. The image of Africa is of a continent riven by centuries-old tribal conflicts, that is corrupt, starving and hopeless. The message is that Africans are all the same and deserve our pity and maybe our help, but then aren’t they also potential tribal killers, who let their own children starve, kill their neighbours because of primordial hatreds and so are beyond our help? Should we bother?

Okay, I am presenting a very particular picture of media representations of Africa. But the regular coverage in the papers, on TV, radio, online and in popular books (as opposed to specialised or academic works), is of an Africa that is dominated by tribal conflict, corrupt leaders, basket-case economies, disease and famine. The other side of the coin is the holiday paradise with vibrant markets, fascinating ‘tribal’ customs, great music and nature (plus tribes) red in tooth and claw, made all the more exciting by its essential barbarity.

This opening to a news story on the post-election violence in Kenya last year has it:

‘Once the jewel of post-colonial Africa, Kenya boasted a thriving economy and was among the world’s leading luxury holiday destinations. Now it’s in meltdown with democracy in ruins and more than 1,000 dead in barbaric clashes. And, as this terrifying dispatch reveals, there’s no sign of an end to the tribal bloodshed.’ (Daily Mail, 12 February 2008)

Kenya, and by extension most areas of conflict in Africa, once boasted good economies, they are holiday paradises and inherited much from their colonial rulers – and just look at what the Africans have done to it now.

And it’s usually put down to tribe – at least once any violence starts. The fighting in South Ossetia, involving Russia and Georgia was explained in terms of state conflict and rival nationalisms; the Balkan Wars were essentially nationalistic; Northern Ireland was the ‘troubles’; and in Spain it’s Basque nationalism.

Nothing to do with imperialism?

But if it is Africa, it is atavistic tribalism – an ill only partially cured by the civilising effect of colonial occupation, repression and exploitation. Once the benign hand of imperial rule was removed these old tribal hatreds re-emerged and often became even more heated, we are told endlessly by the media. It’s got nothing to do with the rape of Africa and the destruction or forcible remodelling of societies by colonial violence. Nor is any serious role given to the imposition of territorial borders, government structures and dependent economies by departing colonial powers or the problems of post-colonial societal, economic and political reconstruction in a world that denies them a voice, equal terms of trade or even the chance to develop their own political systems free of Western interference or diktat. And what is also ignored, is the imposition of a language emphasising tribe, tribalism and other concepts – such terms exist in few African languages in the way they do in the languages of colonialism which established tribe and is derivatives as part of African political and societal discourse.

No, that’s all lefty, liberal claptrap. Africa is tribal. The traditional tribal hatred in Kenya was what caused the violence in 2007 and 2008 – it wasn’t the massive inequalities of an economic system that was designed for settler and metropolitan power enrichment, the grinding poverty of the poor and affluence of the rich or the land problems resulting from colonial land seizures and the creation of ‘native reserves’. Of course not, in the Rift Valley it was the traditional hatred between the Kalenjin tribe and the Kikuyu dating back to the distant past.

Well, no. Just to be picky here it’s worth pointing out that the term Kalenjin has only existed since the late 1940s, when small communities in the Rift Valley started to group together with others who spoke similar languages. They did so as a result of a colonial system that seized the best land, forced the local people to work for settlers and so communities came together to fight land seizures under colonial rule and to give themselves a larger voice in the politics of a new ‘nation’ formed by imperial boundaries. There was no traditional hatred between these people and the Kikuyu – the Kikuyu themselves are a collection of different communities who adopted a more unified identity as Kikuyu in the face of colonial rule. Colonial rulers established chiefs, ‘native reserves’ and local native councils as the only ways Kenyans could have a voice.

But if you read newspaper accounts or watch TV bulletins or documentaries about violence in Kenya, the powerful socio-political and economic causes of competition for resources and the immediate cause of the violence – the disputed December 2007 election – are largely pushed to the background or ignored.

The colonial mantle

In a trawl of 455 online, newspaper and TV reports on the post-election violence, tribalism is a prominent description or explanation of the violence 365 times and ethnic 327. Apart from a few detailed pieces thinly spread in the media – by academics like David Anderson or journalists like Victoria Brittain, Madeleine Bunting, the BBC’s Mark Doyle and writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o – the thrust of the media coverage was that you could only understand violence like this, and by implication violence in the rest of Africa, by understanding tribe. Atavistic barbarism, tribal warriors, age old hatreds, blood feuds, cattle theft and a propensity for violence explain what happened. That’s what Africa is about.

Unfortunately, it is how most people understand many of the conflicts and problems in Africa. Many Africans, too, will talk in tribal terms? Why?

The word tribe is a latin one – this is how the OED describes it: 1 a group of (esp. primitive) communities, linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, and usu. having a common culture and dialect, and a recognised leader.

Tribe, as translated into English, has come to mean a community that is primitive, with mainly religious or blood ties, that is at a basic level and is not civilised. The Romans used it for pre-republican, family-based factions in Rome, then for the peoples of Gaul, Germany and Spain whom they conquered. When European colonialists reached Africa they found societes unlike their own, they called them tribes. When missionaries wanted to translate the bible into African languages and so compiled English-Gikuyu or English-Zulu dictionaries, Zulu or Gikuyu words for community, people or nation became tribe in English, with all the atavistic, barbaric connotations. These have stuck.

Generations of anthropologists, colonial administrators, writers, historians and journalists used the term tribe and etched it into the description and study of Africa. It became the term used in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and most other colonial territories and then independent states for the different communities that inhabited the territories.

In British journalism, anthropology and histories of Africa it became dominant. Even the eminent (until the Hitler Diaries) historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said that Africa’s history ‘was only a tale of barbarous tribal gyrations’.

This changed in the 1970s as anthropologists, political scientists and historians began to shrug off the colonial mantle and look at African states more seriously. The South African anthropologist Archie Mafeje led the offensive against offensive colonial categorisation, when he wrote: ‘European colonialism, like any epoch, brought with it certain ways of reconstructing the African reality. It regarded African societies as particularly tribal. This approach produced certain blinkers or ideological predispositions which made it difficult for those associated with the system to view these societies in any other light’.

Those blinkers have been shed by academic disciplines and by just a few enlightened journalists, but media coverage of Africa, whether in news, popular documentaries, travel journalism or even music journalism, is still blinkered and dominated by tribe.

That is a stain on journalism and the media – people learn and build up their images of the world from the media. The popular image of Africa in Britain, the United States and in much of Europe and Asia is one of a holiday paradise spattered with the blood of tribal warfare. Isn’t time that changed? Isn’t it time for a total rethinking of how we represent and so approach Africa?

Keith Somerville teaches journalism at Brunel University, having spent 28 years with the BBC (mainly the World Service) as a journalist. He is the author of several because and numerous articles on conflict in Africa and the liberation struggle in southern Africa and from 1984-1990 was on the editorial board of Anti-Apartheid News.


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