Tribalism is the word that must now be spoken. It is being used across Africa to gain political power, to pillage wealth, and it ultimately results in genocide.

The politically correct resist use of the word — though they are least likely to rush to pick up the bodies and heal the wounded when conflict arises. In Rwanda, tribalism is called genocide ideology and ethnographers there no longer use the labels Hutu or Tutsi.

Tribalism is another form of that old political favourite: divide and rule. The Germans used it to breed hatred against Jews in Nazi Germany, whites used it against blacks in apartheid South Africa, the Tutsis used it against Hutus in Rwanda, and it was used to divided Serb and Croat in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Somalia, where there are no tribes, warlords use the next best — clans. In Kenya, the Kikuyu have used it to secure wealth and power over the 41 other tribes in that country. At present, the Luo are trying to oust them so they too can have power and privilege.

In South Africa, Jacob Zuma has built KwaZulu-Natal as the strongest ANC region; previously it was the Xhosa Eastern Cape. He now wanders around in skins and does tribal dances. Perhaps we need to ask: Is this charming or potentially dangerous?

Those who drew up South Africa’s Constitution, which urges us to celebrate diversity, were careful to ensure respect for South Africa’s 11 languages. The South African Broadcasting Corporation now has radio stations in 11 vernacular languages as well as English and Afrikaans. Was this thoughtful or does it encourage ethnic division and disable the education of children in a globalised world where English predominates?

The Nairobi Women’s Hospital, as an example, has forbidden the speaking of vernacular among staff, especially in front of patients during the present political crisis. For a Luo patient who has been hacked or raped by Kikuyu, or vice versa, it is terrifying to hear medical staff speak in the language of the attacker, so staff speak only English or Kiswahili.

Graham Robb, in his new book, The Discovery of France, notes in a chapter on tribes how in 1790, Abbe Henri Gregoire surveyed how many citizens of France could speak French. His survey showed six million citizens could not speak French, a further six million could barely conduct a conversation in it, and only 11% of French — or three million — could properly speak the language. Seventy years later, 53 out of 89 departements — regions of France — could still not speak adequate French. All these different languages and dialects were a mark of the tribes of France.

Gregoire realised that France could not be united nor reach its potential unless a universal language was spoken. “In the land of a thousand tongues, monolingualism became the mark of the educated person,” Robb writes. Developing a unifying language saw it become a peaceful, cultural paradise and one of the great nations of the world.

In developing nations, tourism encourages tribalism. While academics scoff at tribalism, they are most likely to “go African” when they visit here. Blonde hair is plaited into dreadlocks, Reeboks are discarded for Masai sandals, Brookes Brothers shirts are discarded for Java prints that are, wrongly, seen as traditionally African. They proudly speak of a friend who is a Kikuyu princess or a Swazi prince, although royal titles are a dime a dozen in Africa.

They go to restaurants and eat so-called African foods, although the average villager from the areas those foods claim to come from would never recognise the meal. “Tribal villages” and dances are created.

Tribalism is profitable but it warps ethnic identity. The reed dance has no place in traditional Zulu culture, but is now a tourist tool and a way of repressing women. It fosters an ethnic identity that often owes less to real culture and historical reality than money-making fictions for tourist markets. When tribal conflict breaks out, tourists are the first to flee and the slowest to return.

In South Africa, the Zulu are seen as a brave warrior tribe — but the Sotho, Tswana and others also had heroic warriors, one of whom was a warrior queen who ruled most of the Free State in the 19th century, yet we never hear of her or them. It’s strange how warmongers go down in history as greater figures than those who develop strong, stable societies.

Tribalism in the 21st century is about creating a lever for political advantage. It pays scant respect to historical or cultural fact and propagates myth to divide and subjugate.

Lucy Oriang, writing in Kenya’s Daily Nation on Friday January 18, observed: “Some people may want to blame [Kenya’s brutalisation] on the colonial divide-and-rule policy that allocated special status to some groups and dismissed others as being of no consequence. But there is a generation or two of Kenyans who did not live the colonial experience. At some point we will have to grow up and own up to our mistakes. We chose tribal politics because it suited our prejudices.”

Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist writing in the same publication, also on January 18, talks of the effects of tribal conflict on children in Kenya. “Children are repeating disturbing ethnic stereotypes with ease … It promises that what is happening in Kenya today will happen again in 15 or 20 years’ time. When these children are strong enough to wield machetes, clubs or even guns, they will loot, they will kill and they will rape in pursuit of what [they believe] is rightfully theirs. They will make anyone who comes from a different community a target whenever they feel aggrieved.”

A 10-year-old boy who witnessed his father being cut into pieces in Nairobi told the writer he now wanted to kill. A 20-year-old man, forced to watch his mother and two sisters being raped and then murdered before the house was torched, expressed similar views — but none of the wealthy international aid agencies in Kenya is helping these people heal, and despite brave efforts by some Kenyan agencies they are overstretched.

Healing is a long-term process. Fourteen years after the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s Parliament last week called for an extraordinary session to discuss the return of “genocide ideology” in society. It is most apparent in schools where teachers are finding letters from students saying, as an example: “They [people of another group] are snakes. We are fed up with them and will kill them.” These are sentiments astonishingly similar to those heard in the 1994 genocide from children not yet born or infants when the slaughter took place.

Some analysts have suggested that it is only in societies where equality and opportunity are the norm that ethnic differences can safely be highlighted. But perhaps the real message is that every time we categorise another — whether as a woman, a man, disabled, black, white, Chinese, Pedi, Jewish, Muslim — we create division and a basis for discrimination.

Ultimately we are all simple, flawed people — different traditions can be fascinating, but they need to be seen as novel ways of doing things and not mechanisms that separate groups.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

Leave a comment