So you belong to a tribe? Are you primitive, barbaric ... or savage?

Wednesday May 20 2020

Anthropologists trace the origin of the word

Anthropologists trace the origin of the word tribe to the Latin word tribus. They say the word tribe acquired negative use through European explorers’ descriptions of cultures they encountered. FOTOSEARCH 

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“Why do you use the words ethnic community instead of tribe? Mwamba of Tanzania wrote last week, asking the most frequent question I get from readers of this column.

Mwamba, this is why.

Anthropologists trace the origin of the word tribe to the Latin word tribus. They say the word tribe acquired negative use through European explorers’ descriptions of cultures they encountered.

In his collection of essays, Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe, quoting the then Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), which defines tribe as “ a group of (esp. primitive) families or communities, linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties and usually, having a common culture and dialect, and a recognised leader” said this definition was “woefully deficient in describing his people, the Igbo.”

Achebe preferred the term nation, then defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a community of people of mainly common descent, history or language, forming a state or inhabiting a territory.”

No good reason


“I like it,” Achebe says, “because unlike the word tribe, which was given to me, nation is not loaded or derogatory, and there is really no good reason to continue using a derogatory name simply because someone gave it to you.”

The Oxford Learners Dictionary now defines tribe as “a noun (sometimes offensive in developing countries) as a group of people of the same race, and with the same customs, language, religion, etc, living in a particular area and often led by a chief, tribes living in remote areas of the Amazonian rainforest; (usually disapproving) a group or class of people, especially of one profession.

Achebe had a sudden outburst against the whole tribe of actors; (biology) a group of related animals or plants, a tribe of cats; (informal or humorous) a large number of people and one or two of the grandchildren will be there, but not the whole tribe.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the word tribe noun includes “a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations, together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers; a category of taxonomic classification ranking below a subfamily and a natural group irrespective of taxonomic rank, such as the cat tribe, the rose tribe. Examples include a tribe of artists with wild hair and casual manners.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind, argued the use of tribe exclusively in reference to Africans and other dark-skinned indigenous peoples and not to white people is racist.

Historian Christopher Ehret in The Civilisations of Africa agreed with Ngūgī and called for an end to using the word tribe as it was a “loaded term” promoting prejudice against Africans and carrying connotations implying Africans are uncivilised and savage.

Writing in Africa Focus, Anengifeya Alagoa says tribe has a definite connotation of primitive savagery, pointing out Basques and Catalans, minority ethnic groups in Spain, Bretons of France or the Welsh of Great Britain are not considered tribes.

“Tribal” people only exist in Africa, the Amazon jungle, Papua New Guinea, or are Native Americans and aboriginal Australians. Anangifeya also says it is sad to read references to ethnic groups as tribes in the African press.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, some anthropologists rejected the word tribe on several grounds. How could one define tribe when it described the 250 members of Kenya’s Elmolo people and the 12 million Zulu of South Africa?

The anthropologists also queried why only non-white people belonged to tribes, framed by Ngūgī into the question, “why are 300,000 Icelanders a nation, but 30 million Igbos a tribe?”
The anthropologists also objected to the derogatory connotations of tribe in the colonial context.

Encyclopedia Britannica editors document the anthropological decision that the definition of ethnic group “as a social group or category of the population that in a larger society, is set apart and bound together by common of race, language, nationality or culture” for all people was a much more preferred reference than tribe.

It is a fact. The word tribe evokes fallacies of primitivity, barbarism, and savagery.
The English, Scots and Welsh, are not referred to as the tribesmen or tribeswomen of Great Britain.

Historical lexicon

The words tribe or tribalism are used by Westerners on themselves either in historical lexicon, denoting an era of primitivity or prehistoric uncivilisation they have since evolved from or describing situations of people negatively pitting themselves as a group against others.

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes often about the latter, juxtaposing in The Retreat to Tribalism among many other articles, American political divisions as tribes engaging in tribal animosities.

When referring to yourself as belonging to a tribe do you agree with the words uncivilised or primitivity?

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]