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I had dinner with my parents, my sister and her wife Friday night. The topic of conversation, as I suspect it was around many family dinner tables, was the Iowa caucuses, the first step in the almost interminable process of selecting US presidential candidates.

I was thrilled that Obama was able to beat out presumtive front-runner Hillary Clinton and wondered aloud whether the victory of an African-American candidate in lily-white Iowa meant that the US had made major progress against pervasive racism. (I’m far from the only one to ask this question.)

My sister-in-law wasn’t buying it. An African-American woman in a same-sex marriage, she encounters lots more prejudice and racism in daily life than I do. (Yes, even in liberal, gay-friendly Massachusetts, where we all live.) As she talked about her sense that Obama can’t win primaries in the South, I found myself thinking of a blogpost I’d read earlier that day.

Lower Manhattanite, writing on the Group News Blog, offered his visceral reaction to Obama’s victory in Iowa – the profound fear that the Senator would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Mom was all of 21 when Malcolm was killed uptown. She and my dad knew him well. This was resonating deeply in her, and I could hear the upset in her voice. We lived around the corner on 115th Street from the Mosque they fire-bombed in “retaliation” the next day. Ascendant Black men at rostrums was going to hit my mom funny no matter what. And she was not wrong for the trepidation she felt.

“Are any Black people watching this tonight just enjoying the history of all this? Or are they all as nervous as we are?”, I asked her.

I don’t know if you’ll ever really understand it and why it comes so quickly to the fore for Black folks. I guess, you need only to look at not distant, but recent American history and how deadly cruel it has been to Black people on the cusp of busting a door wide open. In my lifetime, Malcolm X was cut down. Medgar Evers was blown away. Martin Luther King’s flame was sniper’s bullet snuffed. Never mind all the back-room, black-bag shit the U.S. government ran on folks who stood tough locally like Chicago’s Fred Hampton and others.

We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.

And so we talked for a while about how much harder it is to be hopeful about racism in America when you’re not white. And my sister talked about the strength of Huckabee as a candidate and her fear that an evangelical candidate might be unstoppable in a national election.

And I realized that we were talking about tribalism.

My Kenyan friends, both home and abroad, have been highly critical of Northern media’s coverage of the political violence in Kenya. Friends are upset that the situation is immediately compared to the genocide in Rwanda. And they’re frustrated that coverage often falls into an African news trap – “Oh well, it’s all about ancient tribal hatred – nothing we can do about it.”

My friend Binyavanga Wainaina has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, titled “No Country for Old Hatreds“, which does an excellent job of combatting that narrative. He points out that Kenya has a much more coherent national identity than many African nations, and that ethnic politics have lost out to pan-ethnic movements in the past. He notes, “Mr. Odinga and President Kibaki are not really ethnic leaders, but in the days since the disputed election they have stoked tribal paranoia and used it to cement electoral loyalty.”

In other words, the crisis in Kenya is not about Kikuyu versus Luo – thought some of the resulting violence may be. It’s about a leader who’s failed to implement the changes he’s promised and his desire to keep power, and the attempts of an opposition leader to build the narrative of a people’s revolution and gain international support. And both sides are taking advantage of one of the oldest possible narratives: tribe.

Tribe is a narrative that makes intuitive sense to people. Birds of a feather do flock together, in a phenomenon that social scientists call “homophily“. It makes sense that tribes tend to vote together as well. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kenya is likely to survive this crisis, and it will survive for reasons that Bankelele suggested in a post a few days ago:

– Neighbors talking to one another about maintaining their many years of peace
– Neighbors setting up watch out groups and liaising with the local police
– Neighbors taking in and sheltering friends, relative and strangers
– Police officers talking down residents this morning who had hoped to march to Uhuru Park.
– Local leaders and MP’s talking to their constituents – preaching non violence.
– Neighbors standing together and ignoring the sparks from outsiders

It’s too easy to dismiss African political stories as the legacy of tribalism. Assuming that people will behave a certain way because of ancient hatreds, of in- and out-groups denies people political agency.

Kinda like my family and I were doing the other night as we talked about the Iowa caucuses.

Kenya can survive what it’s facing now by rejecting the simple narrative of tribe amd seizing the moment. Binyavanga argues, “The moment is now to make a solid thing called Kenya.” Maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for America to seize that moment, too.

13 thoughts on “Tribe”

  1. It maddens me to hear liberals cite Southern racism as a reason not to vote for Obama, as if Hillary will just waltz into Alabama and Mississipi and walk out with an electoral victory. No Dem can win elections in the South, so the fact that Obama would probably lose worse there on account of his race really shouldn’t factor into anyone’s decision-making process- the question is whether or not he can win in the rest of the country, and I think that now seems very plausible.

    The assassination fears are a different beast. It is terrifically sad that there is no rational, reasonable way to have that discussion- the fears are real and not irrational, but that line of thinking is spectacularly self-defeating- if we all refuse to vote for the first black president because he might be assassinated, no matter how reasonable that concern, there will never be a black president- and that would be incredibly sad.

  2. Ethan – this is excellent. In a similar conversation with my family last night I struggled to convince them that ‘tribalism’ is but a secondary or tertiary contributor to recent events in Kenya and finally landed with the not-all-that-perfect analogy of an Obama vs. Huckabee showdown next November (not) ending in a Gore vs. Bush 2000 vote-count debacle. I asked them:

    “Would there be charges of racism? Would there be charges of an election being stolen from the poor and the traditionally oppressed?” We agreed the answer was yes, but that those issues would not necessarily be primary drivers of the conflict.

    Like I said, the analogy’s not perfect, but it did help and I think your efforts to broaden people’s understanding of ‘tribe’ in this post accomplishes this as well.

  3. Great topic and great talk. The reason I am writing this comment to ask question. In the time where our economy is going down and people losing job and the health insurance fee going up high like a mountain, will people think about race or change? job or dignity ?

  4. I’ve got to agree with Luis re: Obama’s chances in southern primaries. He’ll be competing for the votes of democrats who, presumably, harbor less racism than their counterparts across partisan lines (though I realize that may be a naive thing to presume).

    As for “ancient” tribal tensions, I think too often we, esp mass media, tend to overlook the role that colonial regimes played in creating, playing up, and dividing people among “tribes.” To project these tensions as somehow autochthonous is to miss a lot of historical perspective.

  5. This “tribalism” seems remarkably similar to what we saw in Yugoslavia/Bosnia. During his rule, Tito had both forced some amount of integration and played ethnic communities against each other in order to maintain power. In the late 80’s there’d been extensive intermarriage in many communities, religion was playing a relatively smaller role in many communities and the divisions between Serb, Croat and Muslim arguably were neither pervasive nor deadly.

    All this did not change on it’s own, but rather an economic crisis, lust for power and politics of division combined to revive dormant or (mostly) dead feelings. As in Kenya, it wasn’t just a matter of time — unless you consider despicable politics a foregone conclusion.

    The inevitability and thus, our inability to intervene effectively, was precisely the conclusion that many reached (including those in the US government). True, reconciliation is hard, which is what makes it so important to restrain ourselves (whether politician or citizen) in the first place, and for friends (including governments and international organizations) to protect again the rise of that violence and division before it becomes too hard to step back.

    Here’s to cooler heads in Kenya and around the world, let them prevail.

  6. Israeli politics is very tribal, and that’s something I think most western observers don’t get… just as they miss how much the big European wars of the first half of the 20th century were tribal (they weren’t entirely tribal, but it was one of the more powerful elements, that gets ignored).

    Western observers do think of things happening in Israel and the middle east as being about “religion”, which then gets debunked by people who notice how it’s *not* actually about religion, but those point-counterpoint debates and essays often proceed with all sides missing the point: religion over there is a marker of tribe, and the issues are not religious but tribal. Similar things happen about ethnicity, which is related to tribe but isn’t exactly the same thing. Religious labels are not about religion, they’re about tribal identity, and similarly, ethnic groups there aren’t about actual ethnicity, they’re about tribal identity.

    There’s a very large percentage of “Israeli Jews” who are ethnically Arab, many of whom either grew up in Arab countries calling themselves “Arab” and speaking Arabic, or whose parents did. But in Israel, they’re not Arabs, they’re “Israeli Jews”, subtribe “Mizrachi”.

  7. We can even dispute the word “tribal”. I mean there is a great deal of arguments to suggest we are nations forced together by artificial boundaries. But we cannot reverse time. Its something to deal with.

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  9. “Great blog post by Ethan Zuckerman on tribe, race, the impact of electing an African American president, and the political conflict in Kenya.”

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  11. It’s interesting to note that throughout history, societies by nature have this natural way of defining and classifying themselves into different groups.

    For instance with the ongoing primaries in the united states, the issue of whites, black and Latino votes is a factor that any serious contender for the white house can not ignore.

    And that brings me to Kenya tribal factor. I think we all must accept the fact that tribe is a big factor that defines and will continue to influence kenya as a society in virtually all aspects of life.

    Now the big question of course is how do Kenyans nurture and tame this tribal aspect so that it contributes positively to it’s society rather than negatively?

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