The use of such terms as “tribe, tribal and tribalism” in global media serves only to denigrate the continent of Africa and all Africans, regardless of where they live.
Tribes, tribalism, savages – these are but a few of the Western stereotypical images of Africans and Africa. Such images appear widely in the Western world’s output of film and print media. Historically, through films and books, evidence of bigotry toward Africans existed long before slaves came to the “New World”. The visual is that of the “Great White Father” (in other words, the intrusion of the white man and colonialism).
Among the first movements in film was the travelogue, or safari film, of the 1920s. In these films, the filmmakers portrayed people of indigenous cultures as more primitive, bringing a taste of the exotic to Western audiences. Portraying indigenous cultures in this way also had the effect of validating the belief system of Western viewers, which unfortunately did not consider Africans as peers, but rather primitive and uncivilized.
During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1909), the “back to nature” movement was in full swing. It began over Roosevelt’s concern for conserving the country’s natural resources for all people. Eventually, the movement ended up benefiting the rejuvenation of the urban middle and upper classes. (William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90.)
Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian during this era, published a paper on the importance of the American frontier in shaping the character of the nation. (Turner, Fredrick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York, 1920). His frontier thesis put forth the notion that in order to progress, a man must first regress. This “frontier mythology” was one of the driving forces behind such types of films in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a theory that has been debated for years among historians. (Faragher, John Mack. Rereading Fredrick Jackson Turner. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.)
Consider the film “King Kong”. It is the tale of the great black ape who “falls in love” with the beautiful, vulnerable white woman. It is a prime example of the kind of bigoted imagery that reinforces the audiences’ already racist attitudes. The film is replete with blatant metaphors of the jungle savages of Africa. Even when King Kong became the sympathetic (to some people) figure in the film, he remained a giant example of what Westerners already believed i.e. Africa and Africans represent tribalism and savagery that is dangerous to all white Westerners. They are uneducated and uncultured. The writing and reporting during the Kenya conflict consistently used the words “tribes” and “tribal” with no thought of the images that were being generated of Africa and Africans. The crisis captured the attention of the Western media and population alike.
The dominant thread by which the situation was represented by most American and European reporters and commentators was as a “tribal conflict” between the Luo and Kikiyu. The violence and turmoil that occurred, after questionable elections, were explained as the result of deep-rooted mutually hostile identities present among Kenya’s people. Not only does using the term “tribe” in this instance promote a racist conception of African ethnicities as primitive and savage, it prevents observers from coming to an accurate understanding of the causes of this conflict. Rethinking the use of “tribe” in the African context can better encourage and support discourse on Africa rooted in African realities.
Whether dealing with Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan or any other African nation that experiences a conflict with ethnic dimensions, the U.S. should ground its policies in an implied understanding of the particular context of each situation rather than...