Tribalism, in the oft-used sense of tribal prejudice or exclusiveness is simply racism that is not based on the grossest differences of skin colour, but on more subtle ethnic distinctions.

To give a traditional example, Hutus and Tutsis are not all that different, but they have come into conflict based on their ethnic differences in Rwanda and Burundi.

Many Xhosas and Zulus likewise have tribalistic prejudices against each other in South Africa.

Tribalism is still an impediment to African unity. As the example of Rwanda shows, the perception of ethnic otherness within Africa still holds Africa back.

It is easy for Westerners to assume that the inhabitants of Africa are huge, amorphous tribe of well, black people. This view is completely false. It is akin to thinking that both a Catholic Irishman and a German Lutheran view each other as kinsmen and themselves both primarily as white people.

To take this over into Europe, tribalism is the reason why Protestants and Catholics kill each other in Ireland, why various groups in The Balkans are at each other's throats.

As an aside, White South Africans are sometimes referred to as the "White Tribe" of Africa. This is also completely false. There are two white tribes: the English speaking white South Africans and the Afrikaans speaking white South Africans, the Afrikaners.

As a counterpoint to the first write-up, it should be noted that many of the so-called 'tribes' of Africa were in fact artificial creations of the colonies. Colonial governments were faced with the 'native problem': in the lands they claimed as their own they were faced with large populations of people content with their own small-scale cultures. Attempting to wield direct control over the natives was unsuccessful, as the natives had no great motivation to listen to the colonizers. Anthropologists suggested that the colonial governments try using indirect rule instead. The colonists granted political power and the title of chief to the individuals they saw as leaders of native groups. Many of the people that the colonists saw as political leaders had in fact been 'leopard-skin chiefs', people who acted as community mediators but held no real power.

The newly-appointed chiefs were gateways into the native cultures for the colonial governments. The governments were able to use them to control the natives. Also, important to this context, creating a political hierarchy changed the previously unmanagable mass of small-scale societies into a group of sharply divided 'tribes'. Tribes competed with each other for the dwindling territory they had been left with, which further assisted the colonists in ripping apart the pre-existing small-scale cultures and creating dependence on the colonial government.

Trib"al*ism (?), n.

The state of existing in tribes; also, tribal feeling; tribal prejudice or exclusiveness; tribal peculiarities or characteristics.


© Webster 1913.

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