Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe