Which tribe do you belong to?

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 I was once involved in a conversation with a group of men whose African heritage was different to mine. We were staying in a villa in Cagliari, Sardinia, in the middle of a tour. The discussion was about the use of a particular term to describe ethnic groups. The word in question was ‘tribe’.

In their country of origin, there are only a few ethnic groups. One of those communities accounts for 85% of the nation’s population. Like many other African nations, they experience tension which is rooted in ethnic differences, but it is possible that their national conversation about this issue wasn’t as febrile as is the case in Nigeria, for example.

Due to my awareness of sensitivities related to this matter, I told them I avoid using the term ‘tribe’ to describe African ethnic groups. I explained that no one calls Scots or Welsh people ‘tribesmen or women’ in the UK, so I didn’t see why it should be any different for Africans. I also mentioned the fact that the term ‘tribe’ was used in disparaging terms by colonialists and their descendants, to refer to African ethnic groups. My listeners were adamant that I was using the term ‘ethnic’ incorrectly.

We agreed to disagree on that occasion. It was almost twenty years ago and a lot seems to have changed, as the term ‘tribe’ isn’t used as often as it used to be.

Nowadays, when I refer to a ‘tribe’, I’m thinking of a community of people of diverse ethnic heritages who happen to subscribe to specific ideas or ways of doing things. It’s good to know that progress can be made in the way some words can be used.

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