‘I think, therefore I am’ vs ‘I am Tribe X, therefore I am’

Saturday March 25 2023
University graduation

The university should be the boiler room of new ideas and new ways of thinking. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


An article in the Daily Nation of March 20 decried the existence of tribalism in universities in Kenya.  Tribalism in universities? It almost seems like an oxymoron. University and tribalism represent fundamentally opposed systems of thought. The university is the objective correlative of René Descartes’ declaration, “I think, therefore, I am”.   Descartes’ definition of being represented a fundamental departure from the definition of being in religious terms. Descartes’ revolutionary assertion that the very act of thinking made him human and alive represented a brave new world in which reason was the engine of human civilisation.

The notion of tribalism (or racism) comes from the idea that one’s ethnic identity forms a quintessential and eternal essence of who we are. But tribe is a social rather than biological construct. In the old days, strong loyalty to a tribe made survival sense because that is how a certain tribal community could mobilise against attack by another tribe. Therefore, members of a tribe were socialised —or brainwashed — to think that loyalty to the tribe was not just a social necessity, but also fundamentally a function of biology.

Ethnic nationalism

A lie necessitates another lie. Around this myth of tribe as a function of biology grew myths of the moral or intellectual superiority of one’s tribe. Ethnic nationalism is a lie based on a lie.

 It is not only a lie, it no longer serves any purpose. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most important factors underpinning Africa’s underdevelopment. It is also an existential threat. In 1994 in Rwanda, after decades of ethnic nationalist indoctrination, Hutu peasants took up machetes and slaughtered about a million of their fellow Tutsi peasants.

The university should be the boiler room of new ideas and new ways of thinking. It should be where old thought processes are challenged and overturned; where communities of thought and not communities of ethnicity are forged. It is a place where gender, ethnic and racial stereotypes are challenged, and ethnic myths overturned and buried. It is a place where brave new intellectual warriors, not tribal warriors, are shaped, ready to be released to the world to change toxic beliefs, narratives and practices.


The article in the Nation talked of hiring of staff based on ethnicity. Instead of hiring staff on the basis of creative or technological innovation, one is hired because he or she belongs to the “right” tribe.

According to the article, masters and doctorate students are supervised by their tribesmen. The result is thousands of degrees that are not worth the paper they are printed on. But these worthless papers will get their holders jobs in government departments headed by their tribeswomen.

The result of this in the long run is an oxymoron of a country such as we are. A country that claims millions of degree holders, yet it is socially, developmentally and technologically backward.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator