nigeria

Breezy Tribalism

The other day on one of the WhatsApp group chats I follow, someone shared a picture. It was a row of young men at a corporate presentation looking dapper. The idea of sharing this particular picture was just Hey, look, its me and my boys looking fresh to death. Nothing serious. Not so apparently because before long the conversation slid into comments about the tribes of the people in the picture. (As you can imagine, the members of this group are almost all from one tribe.)

“That one has a face like Yoruba.” “Look at this Hausa man.” Stuff like that. There wasn’t anything said that was directly offensive and usually one can accept some jocularity, but there was a subtext to the whole thing that made me uneasy. Like we are better than these others. It reminded me of how, growing up, I came to imbibe several pejorative stories about different tribes in Nigeria. This one will cheat you. This one is a trickster. This one cannot be trusted. Etc. So many of these ideas are imprinted in our minds when we are young and most impressionable. By the time we are old enough, these stereotypes are too tightly rolled up within us to be unwound even if we wanted to.

It was only after living in South Africa where I witnessed what a society built on racism was like that I came to really despise tribalism. I believe tribalism is no different from racism, frankly. (And other forms of prejudice, but lets focus on these two for this post) It relies on the same vague beliefs and broad, mostly pejorative, assumptions about collectives. Remarkably, many people who despise racism are entirely happy to nurture a rabid sort of tribalism in their hearts. They get angry because that white fellow gave them shit service at the restaurant for no other reason than that they are black, but they will tell their daughters to not date a fellow from this other tribe.

Some of my best people are Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Bini, Idoma, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ibibio, Efik, Oro, Buganda, Shona, Kikuyu, Basotho, Ashanti, Batswana, Pedi, New Yorker, Dutch, Jewish, Cape Coloured,… I don’t even know where it ends.

So I must judge people based on who they are. I must give people the benefit of the doubt. I call out any kind of ridiculous prejudice around me whenever I can. In this particular group everyone went deathly quiet when I pointed out this breezy tribalism. This tells me that I was dealing with fundamentally decent people. They were embarrassed by their own unconscious prejudice. But that’s how deep it has driven into our psyches. We don’t even know when it is there. We are all victims of this, me too.

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