Talking About Tribes

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We talked with Gwen Thompkins last week about the violence in Kenya... She painted a pretty bleak picture then, and things are no better today. It started as a protest over the presidential election, and quickly exploded into fighting along tribal lines (there are more than 40 different tribes in Kenya, though the fighting is mostly between the Kikuyu and Luo). That word, "tribe," is often misunderstood in the United States, and some argue it's offensive, and smacks of colonialism. And while most Americans know what the term "tribe" means, they have little direct experience with them. What role does tribal identity play in politics, in culture, and everyday life? We'll talk with two Kenyans, and want to hear your stories.

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One could think of it like this, when someone from the US is visiting lets say Europe, one identifies oneself as being from the US. But within the US one refers to one's hometown.

Sent by Ben Obialo | 2:17 PM | 1-14-2008

A tribe is form an identity (since no one carries national ID) to most of Africans because it is the only thing that makes one stand out and gives you a sense of belonging in that certain area or part of the country. In other words, it gives you a right to be part of the country and it also justifies your existence as part of that country. For example, in Sudan, when the name Dinka is mentioned, everyone knows that it is a tribe and that they exist in the Southern part of the country.

Sent by Riya Tingwa | 2:29 PM | 1-14-2008

Having just returned from Kenya and Tanzania, I found that there was a fascinating INVERSE relationship between the amount of tribes in any given country, and the amount of tribalism. For example, in Rwanda, we have TWO major ethnic groups, and a great deal of tribalism which led to the genocide there. In Uganda, you have around two dozen tribes, and also have tribalism which has led to violence. In Kenya, there are roughly 40 tribes. There is less tribal violence there, but now we see the current situation between the two largest groups growing increasing violent. Conversely, TANZANIA has over 120 tribes, and VERY LITTLE tribalism. Tanzanians inter-marry, they socialize between groups etc. An additional issue that makes the tribes of Tanzania unique is that they are united by a NATIVE AFRICAN language, Kiswahili, whereas other tribes in African nations are united under European Languages, like English or French

Sent by Scott McLeod | 2:35 PM | 1-14-2008

Jendayi Fraiser said that elections were rigged by both Kibaki and Raila Odinga - can the speakers discuss that?

Sent by Hazel | 2:37 PM | 1-14-2008

Curious the 'talk' of identity and politics in Kenya's presidential candidacy included no talk of 'gender' as part of the sorting of 'identity' as either political, tribal (Kikuyu or Luo), or economic (have and have nots).
It's not as if African women, including Micere Mugo (Syracuse U. Prof) and/or Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Winner), have never had aspirations for political office in Kenya. But both indicate that violence and intimidation are a major component of who is the 'potential' identity represented for candidacy as well. And it seems that women in some African nations have very different 'politics' as well, to the extent that numerous female African intellectuals are in exile abroad.

Sent by Chloe Frommer | 2:45 PM | 1-14-2008

In discussions of post-election violence in Kenya, the focus on tribe masks the fact that the violence is essentially political and only secondarily gets mobilized along ethnic lines. This is what Elkins was getting at with her concept of "political ethicity." The legacy of the Moi era cannot be overlooked. During Moi's rule, and particularly throughout the 1990's, powerful leaders in the ruling party, KANU, organized, funded and armed paramilitary groups in the Rift Valley, Nairobi and Mombassa to terrorize political opponents and run them off their land and away from their established businesses. I would venture a guess that these are some of the same groups who are wreaking havoc in Eldoret and Kericho.

Sent by Rebecca Kemble | 12:13 PM | 1-15-2008