African Tribalism

          An African tribe may be thought of as a kind of circle, the kind we mean when we speak of a "circle of friends."  Just as the members of such a circle of friends feel much closer to each other than they do to people outside the circle, so do the members of the tribe feel far closer to each other than they could ever feel toward the people of some other tribe.
          It has been estimated that there may be some 600 to 1,000 different tribal groups or more in Africa.  Some of the more important are the Ashanti, Fanti, Kikuyu, Ibo, Masai, Watusi, Zulu, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani, just to name a few.
          We in America, as well as people in Western countries, generally believe that the individual is more important.  We believe that the individual has the right to do what he or she wants to do, providing that no one is hurt.  In other countries, the individual is less important [as in China, Saudi Arabia, etc.].  This is true of Africa.  According to the African view of life, a person can only achieve happiness by being part of a group.  From birth to death the African is always part of a group.
          However, this view is changing as the African continent is industrializing and more and more individuals and families move from the rural areas into the big cities.

          Members of a tribal circle have much in common.  They all speak the same language, for example, while members of another tribe almost always speak a different one.  There are nearly a thousand separate languages spoken by the more than a thousand separate tribal groups in Africa and, naturally, a person cannot feel close to someone he cannot easily speak to.
          Members of the tribal circle also share ideas and ways of living that continually remind them of their differences from others.  They usually all live in one region, which they regard as their very own.  Some tribes may own only a small territory, and all the people may live in just a few villages.  The people ten miles away may be members of a different tribe, speak a different language, and have little to do with their "neighbors."  Still, other tribes own vast regions.  There are some whose territory may be 200 or 300 miles square.  Inside each large territory may live more than a million people. The smaller tribes may have only two or three thousand people, and some of the smallest have only a few hundred.  Most tribes are no larger than 250,000 people, the population of only a medium-sized American city.
          The members of a tribe usually do not travel around very much. The tribes that live in hot, dry regions, where growing crops is difficult or impossible, live a nomadic life continually moving from one place to another within their own territory, hunting for game and plants to eat or herding their livestock [mostly cattle, sheep, and goats] from one watering and grazing place to another.  The tribal people in areas of more rainfall, where agriculture is possible, usually live in villages near their farms.

          Within the tribal and village circles is the smaller family circle.  The family of an African child is rather different in some ways from those of most American children, however.  It usually has many more members who feel very close to one another--second and third cousins may feel as closely related as brothers and sisters--and cooperate in all family activities.
          The really important family circle of an American child usually contains within it just a parent{s}, his or her brothers and sisters [nuclear family].  There may be no more than three, four, or five persons in it.  Close by, in the larger family circle, may be some close relatives, like grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who occasionally may do things together, but who usually more or less take care of their own affairs.
          The smallest African family circle, on the other hand, is already a big one.  It nearly always includes the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, the great-aunts and great-uncles, their children and their childrens' children, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, and even more distant cousins [
extended family].  Actually, the Western view of an extended family is the African's nuclear family!  Many of these relatives are likely to live together in the same house, and even those who live in the same or a nearby village are included in the innermost family circle.  Those who live farther away [those relatives in the larger circle, which is called a clan], also feel a strong sense of obligations to the others.  All the people who have descended from the same ancestor several or even many generations ago consider themselves members of the same large family circle [the ancestral family].
tribe may be thought of as a group of people who share the same customs and language and who believe that they have descended from a common ancestor.  They all speak the same language, of course, and they regard their village and tribal territory as belonging to all of them [communal].
          Families are also joined together when a young man from one marries a young woman from another;  they and their children then belong to two families.  A man may have two or more wives.  This is called
polygamy [80% of traditional Africans practiced this].  Many African women like this arrangement, for it means sharing among several women such work as babysitting, pounding corn, and washing clothes.  Through polygamy, more families are joined and become deeply interested in the welfare of the others, because they share several persons among them.  Members of the different families may also belong to the same tribal clubs or organizations and thus be brought closer together.


          Beginning at a very young age, a child learns to become a good member of his tribe.  From his parents the child learns the laws and customs of the tribe.  Tribal customs cover all the important aspects of life from birth to death.  At age 12 or 13, most African boys are made members in their villages of an age-set composed of other boys the same age.  Each member of a tribe, however, also belongs to their own individual age-set [unmarried women, married women, married men, heads of families, etc.].  This age-set has special services as its members grow [initiation rites, warrior, farmer, advisor].  The Catholic Confirmation ceremony is similar in purpose to these tribal services and rituals.  In this way a person knows what he or she is supposed to do on all occasions and how it is to be done.  He or she are taught the penalties that result from not following the customs of the tribe.  Each member is supposed to make a contribution to the tribe by doing his share of the work and obeying its customs.
          At the same time the tribe provides its members with security.  A person who belongs to a tribe feels that he or she is not alone.  In bad times, they can turn to the other members of the tribe and feel confident that they will help.  For this reason, an African feels great pride in belonging to a tribe and believes that the customs of his own tribe are the best.  This pride is shown by a
tribal mark, which is usually a cut made on the face in a particular way and pattern [scarification].  Although this custom is going out of style, some of today's African leaders still have the tribal marks from their childhood.

          One of the most important things in giving each family circle a sense of belonging to the other is their sharing of a village government and a greater tribal government.  Within the family, the right to govern is usually given to the wiser, older men [elders] such as the grandfathers or great-uncles.  Within the village and tribal circles, the right is usually given to an older man from one of the old families that everyone has agreed should be the royal family.  This man, called the chief, makes the decisions such as when to plant and harvest crops and how to punish tribal members for crimes.  He usually gets advice and good counsel from the wise men of the other families [Council of Elders].  However, full cooperation and agreement among the families are necessary if they are to live in peace and harmony with one another.

          To many Africans today, the tribe is more important than the nation in which he or she lives.  The African will think of himself as a Yoruba or an Ibo rather than, say, a Nigerian.  This is because the nations that exist in Africa now did not exist before the coming of the Europeans.  When the Europeans took over Africa and divided it up among themselves, they drew many boundaries separating their territories from each other.  The present nations of Africa came into existence with those boundary lines.  As a result many tribes were split up and found themselves in different countries.  In other cases, like Rwanda, different tribes were grouped together in the same nation.
          There are many problems resulting from this situation.  Where many tribes find themselves in the same country, there is a problem of communication.  In Nigeria, 250 different languages are spoken.  People in one village often do not understand people living in the next village.  No tribe wants another tribe to dominate the government of the country.  In elections people often support those candidates from their own tribe rather than voting for the person best suited for the job.
          Today, the influences of the tribes, tribal beliefs, and tribal chiefs is decreasing.  Loyalty to the tribe is gradually being replaced by loyalty to a nation, but tribal conflicts still exist and have resulted in civil wars and monumental slaughter of peoples.