Africans are way too tribalistic…– A westerner
I intend to approach this conversation logically while applying sensitivity wherever needed, as I am fully aware that there is hurt on all sides of this conversation. But I do feel as though there are key elements to the conversation that are critical to our solutions going forward, yet are rarely ever mentioned. It would seem that these elements are things that an individual would likely have to be African to be aware of.
When in online forums on social media platforms, it’s not uncommon to come across the sentiment that ‘Africans are too tribalistic’ or that ‘…people with African ancestry have just as much claim to Africa as Africans do’ and even ‘but we’re all the same people though…’
It would seem as though this sentiment stems from Black Americans believing that a lot of Africans are not as open to the idea of viewing Black Americans as African, perhaps leading to them feeling marginalised in African communities and conversations. It would seem that this sentiment may at times shared by some Caribbean people in the UK however is way more common to see from black Americans in the US. This could be due to Caribbean people in addition to having retained more of a cultural connection to Africa, also have national identities that are entirely separate from their race.
The issue with this sentiment is that it is often largely centred on racial identity rather than ethnic identity. In the US and the western world at large, race is the main identifying characteristic of people, so it governs everything. An example of this is could be a black American from one state in the US relocating to another state without having too much difficulty finding and integrating into a new black community. Black communities across state lines share a lot of fundamental historical and cultural themes and matters in common by reason of being linked by their experience of being black in America. Of course this varies, but the codes seem to bear a lot of similarities from place to place. Perhaps not intentionally, but after many generations spanning over 500 years of being rooted in the west, Black Americans largely identify as ‘black’ before anything else.
This is not the case in Africa, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa.
Everyone is largely the same ‘race’ of people, so to most Africans race on its own means almost nothing on a day to day basis and it is often not an identity that is carried consciously. Often you see black Americans claiming a sense of ‘Africanness’ purely on the basis of being black but blackness doesn’t govern how Africans interact with each other within or between most African nations. Plenty of Africans do not even consider themselves ‘black’ even though they have features that would be considered black in the western world. Race is the last classification coming after our primary identification factors, those being ethnic group, language, religion and nationality and when Africans look at black Americans as different, it is almost always on the basis of our primary identification systems.
Black Americans, have one word that is supposed to encompass their race, ethnic group AND nationality: ‘African-American’ and the accuracy of the term is arguable.
With the rise of ancestry DNA testing, we are (online at least) seeing more black Americans using DNA to trace their ancestry around the world. While this may enable black Americans to identify their ethnic ancestry, it doesn’t quite mean that they can be identified as any of the ethnic groups listed on their ancestry test results as the ‘we are all the same people’ logic would suggest. I will explain…
Although DNA can be linked to ethnic groups, for most Africans it is much deeper than genes. It is a consciousness. It is culture, language, religion and other traditional practices that have been held for thousands of years, passed from generation to generation. Culture is largely participatory. An individual is not seen as Bini (an example of an ethnic group in southern Nigeria) if they are not born into a Bini family, or if they have little engagement in Bini culture within Bini communities, or if they don’t speak the Bini language. In going home to Nigeria I personally – a child of 2 Southern Nigerian parents who were born and raised in Nigeria – can at times be looked at as ‘westernised’ in certain settings, because my mannerisms and codes are different, being raised in the UK and not Nigeria.
Africans are much less likely to agree with the sentiment that ‘we’re all the same people’ for many reasons. I cannot speak for all of Africa in this, but I can give a Nigerian perspective:
On the 1st October 1960 Nigeria gained independence from their colonisers (kind of). This would make Nigeria as an independent nation 60 years old and the oldest independent nation in Africa only 65 years old at the time of writing this – so independent African nations are very young. So far, Nigeria has already had one civil war and a lot of Nigerians will tell you they believe we are on the brink of a second one. A lot of Nigerians – especially southern Nigerians, but a lot of northern Nigerians too – are not convinced that Nigeria as the single nation that is currently will be a successful project in the long run. Long story short, poor governance and imperialism of western countries has fostered increased ethnic tensions that predate the concept of Nigeria itself. The civil war itself is a conversation about Nigerian history which is separate from the topic of today, but feel free do your own research on that. Again I cannot speak for all Africans, but it is not hard to find other examples of tensions between ethnic groups within the same African nations. European colonisers carved up and renamed land to maximise their profit from African lands, with no regard for the ethnic identities of the people who lived on and owned the land. And suddenly, different tribes of people who for thousands of years saw themselves as different people were being told they were all the same. And worse still, it was on the basis that they were all the same colour.
This is context that is often missing from these conversations and is why Africans – or Nigerians at least – often do not to buy into the idea that ‘we are all the same people’. Because the idea did not originate in Africa, it originated in the minds of European colonisers. More often Nigerians at least do not see themselves as similar enough to even be considered one single nation, and therefore would see much less in common with westerners from outside their country and ethnic groups. Take into account Africa’s history with westerners and African views on race and things start to make a little more sense. The statement ‘Africans are too tribalistic’ is a western oversimplification of African views on identity. Besides, Africans could just as easily say ‘westerners only care about race’.
So then it stands to reason that one can’t relate with Africans on the basis of nationality if they are of an outside nation, and cannot relate on the basis of ethnic grouping if they do not share the key elements of ethnic identity in common – culture and language. What is left? Race… so not very much then.
Researching different cultures is one thing and is a good starting point for those looking to reconnect with their African roots, but reconnecting with African roots goes way deeper than that and perhaps there are non-African black people who are not ready to have this conversation but there’s only so much ‘reconnecting’ you can do from the outside.
At some point you have to actually join these ethnic communities, learn the language, learn the culture and participate in the traditions. It involves marrying into the community to ensure that any future children are more connected and gain the culture and language you cannot teach them, while placing yourself in closer proximity to the ethnic community you intend to reconnect with so that you too can learn. To a certain extent it involves shedding your previous identity as an American or Caribbean person and fully immersing yourself in this new community (or old one, depending on how you look at things) to establish new roots for your family tree to grow. If not, the most you can say is that you have an appreciation for African culture(s), which is not the same as having an African ethnic identity.
At this point over 500 years of westernisation has created new ethnic groups of black people around the world – that’s how I (a British–Nigerian) see it. ADOS people are an ethnic group of their own with their own nationality, culture and history, and the same applies to Caribbean people too. This is not a bad thing at all. It is not in our best interest as a race of people to overlook our all our differences to manufacture unity. The unity such an outlook creates is always fragile and unstable, which is not what black people as a racial group need moving forward. Each of our individual communities faces their own unique set of afflictions, and in sweeping all those differences under the rug, we only cause those problems to fester.
Moreover, some of those differences are key to our identities as people and are part of what makes us great in different ways. There is no need to suppress that, there is room on this planet for each of our cultures to blossom alongside each other.