Words Matter: Terms of Global Conflict Debated Words such as "tribal," "ethnic," or "sectarian" are often used when discussing violence in foreign countries. Maina Kiai, of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Alem Hailu, professor at Howard University, and Gayle Smith, of the Center for American Progress discuss sensitive terms related to conflict.
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Words Matter: Terms of Global Conflict Debated

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Words Matter: Terms of Global Conflict Debated

Words Matter: Terms of Global Conflict Debated

Words Matter: Terms of Global Conflict Debated

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Words such as "tribal," "ethnic," or "sectarian" are often used when discussing violence in foreign countries. Maina Kiai, of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Alem Hailu, professor at Howard University, and Gayle Smith, of the Center for American Progress discuss sensitive terms related to conflict.

MICHELE MARTIN, host:

But first, we want to talk about the situation in Kenya. The violence has often been described as tribal, and it's often been described - and we tend to hear that in relation to Africa. So we want to sort of talk about that a little bit more, whether that is really true and what that really means. And to do that, we're joined by Alem Hailu. Alem Hailu. He's a professor of African studies at Howard University. He's also with us here in our Washington studio.

On the phone we have Gayle Smith. She's a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Hello to you both. Welcome.

Ms. GAYLE SMITH (Center for American Progress): Hello.

Professor ALEM HAILU (Howard University): Hello.

MARTIN: Professor, what's your definition of a tribe?

Prof. HAILU: The thing to do is place it in the location of how the idea of tribe evolved in Western scholarship. It has both positive and negative connotations in its development. When it really developed was in the second half of the 19th century, when European colonialism was venturing into Africa and other parts of the world. There is the political component where tribe is, was in some cases used interchangeably with nation, nationality, like the Cherokee or Seneca tribes, Seneca nations, Seneca community, nationality. But the negative aspect of tribe comes with the scholarship of anthropology that accompanied colonialism and defined Africans as small cultures devoid of larger political context, where other nationalities also survived in bigger communities. So it could have both negative and positive connotations.

MARTIN: So do you think it's a political term as much as it is a descriptive term?

Prof. HAILU: Yes. It's a constructed definition, where in some case it can mean the negative way of referring to African communities as tribes.

MARTIN: But do tribes actually exist? I mean people do - is it a language group?

Prof. HAILU: It is. But the difference - it has assumed a pejorative meaning, just like the proverbial...

MARTIN: But is it a language group? Is it a family group like a clan group or a religious group?

Prof. HAILU: The definition has been used like common ancestry, common kinship, language, culture. This could easily apply to a national group, an ethnic group, a nationality, but it all depends on how whoever defines it to mean. As in "Alice in Wonderland," the word means what it's supposed to mean. So it can mean negative because sometimes the same tribal connotation in Africa would be seen in the European context, whether in the Balkans or even in - I always remember the Hyde Park speaker who said the First and Second World Wars were nothing but the European tribes fighting each other, the German tribe against the French tribe. So it all depends on how you want it to mean or how it's defined, depending on how it's used.

MARTIN: Gayle Smith, I'd like to hear from you. You've covered Africa as a journalist for 20 years and then you have had positions in the government working with the National Security Council, for example. The media tends to conform to a style guide. It recently advised tribe and tribal to be used sparingly, and that the word ethnic be used instead. Do you think that's a better term?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I think it's better but I don't think it's necessarily right. My old friend Maina said earlier on that there's a tendency to define crises like the one in Kenya as almost exclusively ethnic, and there is without doubt an ethnic dimension. The roots, or as he suggested, are political and economic. And I think that the tendency to so quickly go to tribe and ethnicity in media coverage of Africa largely, as the professor suggests, allows it to have a pejorative tone to it. It suggests, whether intended or not, a kind of level of underdevelopment and ignores the fact that Africa exists in modern history. It's not a term that we use in the United States, for example. I mean, the dissection of the primary elections here on Tuesday are replete with references to how Hispanics voted, how Asian-Americans voted, how African-Americans voted. Nobody ever calls them tribes, or even ethnic groups. But when we talk about Africa, and I think very, very prominently - and particularly in the American media more than others - this term tribe is used. And I think it plays to the most ill informed and uninformed perceptions of Africa and hinders us in understanding what the solutions might be.

MARTIN: But there's a difference between something being divisive and something being unhelpful to whether or not it is true or not. Maina Kiai, I'd like to ask you, though, are tribal relations part of the crisis in Kenya or not? Or are people hiding behind tribal conflict when it's, in fact, a political conflict?

Mr. KIAI: It's the first thing that from where we sit, we don't use a word tribe. Because we'll only use the word tribe, as far as we're concerned, when the Germans are called a tribe, when the Swiss are called a tribe, when the Swedes are called tribes. The notion's the same. For some reason, there's this idea that Africans are not yet nations. They're below that, and it's really insulting, to be honest. So we don't use that.

So I think one of the things is that - and I think Gayle Smith, as she said very clearly, we can analyze the Super Tuesday and say, oh the Asian-American tribe voted in a certain manor, or the black African-American tribe - although that's got its own connotations - did its own thing. Or the Hispanic tribe - you know, but we don't do it. Why is it that there's a sense of unity or a sense of nation or a sense of organizing that exists at the American Western level that doesn't exist for Africa? And if you notice, in fact, if you go back to recent history, in the Balkans, when the wars began, nobody called it the Bosnian tribe versus the Croatian tribe. They were all - it became ethnic. All of a sudden, Western media decided that this - that that group was a little bit above the tribe, and therefore, they couldn't be ethnic. So anyway, it's not a fair thing, in that sense.

MARTIN: Professor, do you suggest then that the term tribe really should not be used at all?

Prof. HAILU: Even when words sometimes start with innocent beginnings, when there's some - enough negative baggage, they're discarded. Like we have the description of blacks as Negro, which was an innocent word at the time - or coloreds, you know. And the baggage (unintelligible) leads to redefinition and self-description of a group, you know. So it's probably one of those that has to be consigned to history, because it has assumed a lot of baggage in what it means, in what it implies. Sometimes the undertones, when they say tribal wars, they mean the primitive (unintelligible) tendencies that makes them resort to violence without any cause...

MARTIN: Without cause and any rational kind of - Gayle Smith, I wanted to ask you. Do you think that the use of this term makes it harder for Americans and others in the world community to take these conflicts seriously or to even intervene appropriately to resolve them? Is it perceived as just irrational?

Ms. SMITH: Absolutely. Because I think as both Maina the professor have explained, it suggests a point in history rather than a point in real time now, and I think belies the existence of nations and states and reasonably modern political systems. And it causes, I think, people to buy into that really very ugly notion that, well, this is what tribes do. There is the history of intertribal fighting. And if you look at Kenya, that's a gross misstatement of what's happening right now.

As Maina pointed out earlier, this is a political crisis. It has ethic overtones. It has economic overtones. But the notion that it is somehow a kind of senseless, emotional, let's just wake up in the morning and kill our neighbors kind of crisis is very misleading. And I think it causes us, I think, as outsiders, to look down on Africa and Kenya in circumstances like this, to obscure the solutions that rest in the political and economic realm. And I think it just gives a very inaccurate portrayal of what are at once simple political conflicts and very complex political conflicts. They're not, as I say, tribal fighting, it makes my hair stand on end when I read that in the newspaper. It's a gross oversimplification that I think really impedes our understanding and impedes our formulation of what the US can do most effectively to respond.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that, because I think that leads back to Maina Kiai, I'd like to ask you. In your testimony yesterday, you called for some specific steps that you would like to see the US and other world governments pursue to help resolve the crisis in Kenya. One is, if you could just - we have about a minute left. If you could talk about some of them. You call for an interim government with power sharing. You also call for a travel ban on the hardliners and also for a halt on any aide, military assistance, security assistance, other than humanitarian assistance. Why?

Mr. KIAI: Because the reason why the process of negotiations are having a hard time, and I think you've been seeing that the government rejected Mr. Ramaphosa of Africa to be a negotiator, is that they're trying to delay it. Their strategy is to keep this thing going, and then maybe it will peter out and people will forget and like to go back. It's important that pressure is put on the hardliners, especially those within the government. They need to feel the pinch, travel bans, freezing of assets. And they've assets across the world. They've got assets in America, they've got assets in the UK.

That's what's in Europe, needs to happen. Keeping this issue alive at the international level at the UN Security Council is very important. I think that's one of the things we need to do, keep it alive. Let people understand this is not an easy solution. It's not an easy - it's not a quick fix. And originally, I think the US State Department was coming in as a quick fix in trying to do it. It's not a quick fix. It's easy to fix, but it's not a quick fix, and it needs pressure continuously, especially those who are holding back and don't want a real solution to the problems in Kenya.

MARTIN: And I want to reiterate again that we have posted your testimony on our Web site at npr.org/TellMeMore so that people can explore your ideas in further detail. We were joined by Maina Kiai. He's chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. We're also pleased to be joined by Alem Hailu. He's a professor of African Studies at Howard University. He was also kind enough to join us in the studio. And Gayle Smith - she's a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress, a long time watcher of affairs in Africa. She was on the phone. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KIAI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you for having us.

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