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Voices: Traveling to Africa? Think twice about using the word ‘tribe’

As seen in USA TODAY College:

Voices: Traveling to Africa? Think twice about using the word ‘tribe’

By McKenzie Powell, Ohio University May 6, 2015 3:35 pm

We see the word everywhere: throughout news reports of African struggles, in old films and on the latest television shows. You’ve probably even heard it used in a recent class covering topics related to history or anthropology.

“Tribe” has become a well-known, frequently used word to describe a particular group of people, specifically within a non-Western nation. The word seems to predominantly flood media outlets when an African ethnic group is involved in conflict or famine.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries’ newest definition of the word, a tribe is described as, “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”

But what exactly are we implying when we use the word “tribe?” In an African context, when did this word originate and what words can we use as alternates?

Assan Sarr, assistant professor of history at Ohio University, says the word tribe first began spreading throughout Africa during the Scramble for Africa, or the period of European colonization of the continent.

“For much of Africa it seems that the word tribe became associated with the continent more during the 19th century, which means that it coincided with European imperialism,” Sarr says. “So, for Africans, the use of the word is really wrapped up in colonialism and that is one of the major reasons why Africans, or scholars who work on Africa, do not prefer the use of the term tribe to describe Africans.”

With a powerful history and past, the word “tribe” reflects social theories of the 19th century regarding stages of evolution and primitivism.

Even today, many negative connotations and falsities have continued with the use of the term to describe certain peoples within continents like Africa. The fallacies provoked by this pejorative language can include visuals of ethnic groups as clusters of half naked, barbarous, uncivilized and uneducated individuals with long feathers in their hair or spears in hand.

Definitions of the word also seem to point toward a society that exists outside of the state, one that is simple, small and static, and without the same structure as that which may be found in other complex societies and civilizations.

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