Tribe and Nation


by John Tyler Connoley

September 29, 2004


When my father, a missionary of 34 years, meets an African, one of the first things he often asks is, "What tribe are you from?" This inevitably leads to a conversation about the person's family, what language the tribe speaks, the tribe's primary occupation, and (eventually) where the tribe's territory is located. It also puts the African at ease, giving the correct impression that my dad understands the person's culture and cares enough to talk about things that really matter.


Most Americans are what I call geographics (as opposed to most Africans, who are tribalists). We assume that a person's first allegiance is to geography. We ask, "Where are you from? Are you Nigerian or Kenyan?" We want to know if Americans are Oregonians or Virginians, and we make assumptions about them based on the region from which they hail. We want to know if Europeans are German, British, or French.


Living several hundred years after the rise of European nationalism, we seem to have forgotten that European place-names have tribal underpinnings. In the stew pot of the United States, we even try to divest ourselves of tribal allegiances altogether, and take on the historically unprecedented identity of "American" -- a made-up name with roots in no one's family tree (unless you count Amerigo Vespucci).


Our utterly non-tribal culture leads to more than just social blunders when dealing with tribalists. At a dinner party, one can be forgiven for assuming someone is Burundi first and Hutu second. In foreign policy, this can be a fatal mistake -- fatal for thousands of people caught in a civil war. I was reminded of this recently while watching a performance by Frula, a Balkan dance troupe.


Attempting to give due time to all the people-groups of the Balkans, Frula's performance included at least fifteen costume changes. The women would appear in veils and the men in turbans for a Turkish number, then switch to Macedonian skirts and pillbox hats for the next. The men would dance out bare-chested while the women swirled onto the stage in gypsy skirts. The next number would sport quilted vests, woolen pants, and sheepskin hats to represent a mountain tribe.


It wasn't just the costumes, either. The costumes were only shorthand for the different cultures; the dances themselves highlighted the social structures and customs of each tribe and group. The Moslems held to a strict separation between the sexes, while the gypsies flirted wildly with one another. The Macedonians showed off their precision in slow choreographed numbers, while the Vojvodinians seemed to value acrobatic fervor. With each new dance, the troupe transformed itself into another tribal minority.


As I watched, I couldn't help thinking of the civil wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s. How could anyone have thought that such fiercely different groups would ever be happy as a united Yugoslavia? What meaning can nationalism have for a man who thinks of himself as Albanian while living in Kosovo?


So many of the great tragedies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can be traced to attempts to draw geographic boundaries where tribal boundaries prevail. Robert Mugabi, the president of Zimbabwe, has brutally massacred people outside his own tribe. The war between the Tutsis and the Hutus was not a civil war, but a war between tribes who had been arbitrarily drawn into a single nation.


Even Saddam Hussein's most notorious atrocity is mischaracterized by us geographics as "an attack against his own people." As far as Hussein was concerned, the Kurds he gassed were no more his people than the Gallic citizens of Paris were Hitler's people. They were simply foreigners living in his territory.


The United States is unique in that the people who settled here and called themselves Americans wiped out the tribalists who lived here before their arrival. American immigrants could swear allegiance to place, because their family ties had already been severed in the migration. The same is not true for most of the world's population, living on land that has been fought over for centuries by their ancestors.


As difficult as it is for Americans to understand that tribe is often more important than country, we must learn to see the world in those terms if we expect to live into the mid-twenty-first century. It is not enough to expect that democracy will smooth out all differences.


If I had been born a Tongan, it wouldn't matter that I happened to be born in Zimbabwe. I would be Tongan first and Zimbabwean second, and my allegiance would lie with the rest of my tribe in neighboring Zambia. This is the way most of the world works. This is why our toppling of Saddam has sowed the seeds of civil war in Iraq, as Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds jockey for political power. This is why the Sudan has burst into flames yet again. Any tribalist could have seen it coming; it's only the geographics who were taken by surprise.


The good news is that modernization and mobility seem to militate against tribal conflicts. The Germans and the Gauls seem to have finally called a truce (though these days they both hate the Britons). However, in the short term -- the next few hundred years -- tribe will continue to be more important than geography for most of the world's population, so it's a reality we need to get used to.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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