Why are 300,000 Icelanders a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are a tribe?

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Some months ago, I was buying fabric from a woman trader in Nigeria. I was offered a seat, which I took, the mark of a serious buyer.

We began discussing the types of fabric I wanted. She was bubbly, a great conversationalist. “In my other life, I am a teacher,” she said. This was her weekend job. “I am a teaching trader, not a trading teacher,” she said. “Teaching is my first love although it does not pay all the bills.”

My accent betrayed the fact that I was not local, she said, asking laughingly where I was from. “Kenya,” I said proudly.

“Oh Kenya! That is good-o. I enjoy teaching Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s books, I have also read Grace Ogot,” she said.

Our schools and universities teach Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi and Wole Soyinka’s books too, I said.

“Is it not such a good way to learn about the existence of diverse people, with different beliefs and opinions within Africa,” we mused, discussing our joint love for books as she sorted out the fabric.

She then hesitated, and I realised she was struggling to say something. I identified with what I imagined were her thoughts as she debated the pricing of the fabric in her mind, wondering, now that she knew I was not local, should she give me a foreigners’ or a local price? I smiled encouragingly, silently communicating, I hoped, that our connection as African sisters made me qualify for the local price.

But no, that was not it. “My question is related to something we have been discussing in the staffroom,” she said as my eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Above the hum of the generators and din of noisy calls to passing customers from neighbouring traders, she exhaled. The sentence that had been gathering momentum came out of her mouth, rushing at me with the suddenness of a flash flood: “IsyourtribeKikuyuorLuo”?

I immediately recognised the question for what it was. Our elections, which had been violent, had just ended. It is a question even we Kenyans had asked of Rwandans, “Are you Hutu or Tutsi”? Or to South Sudanese, “Are you Dinka or Nuer”? Or to Nigerians, “Are you Fulani or Berom, or are you Christian or Muslim”? Or for Somalis, “What is your clan?”

Ethnic profiling

In some instances, this could qualify as ethnic profiling. In this case, my assumption was that she believed the Luo and Kikuyu were at war with each other during the elections.

Uhuru Kenyatta, Kikuyu, Kenya’s President and Raila Odinga, Luo, former prime minister both children of our founding fathers, first president Jomo Kenyatta and first vice president Jaramogi Odinga Oginga had however recently publicly renounced their differences resulting in what is now known as the “handshake.”

It was an awkward moment; this was a topic we were never taught to talk about by parents and teachers. I didn’t want to come off sounding uninvolved, indifferent or, even worse, a victim.

Was there a middle ground? I wondered. I had taken the seat she offered and encouraged her to tell me about her life. I could not now shut down the conversation with a curt, “What do you mean by asking whether I am Kikuyu or Luo? I am a Kenyan!”

I squirmed in my seat and momentarily evaded the question by asking her; why do you use the word tribe? Because it’s the English word I was taught and I teach, she said.

I then told her that Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in Secure the Base, argues that Africa has been presented as a barbarous counterpart to Western civilisation, with the continent’s nations and communities still described as tribes, with connotations of the primitive inherent in the term. He gives an example: The 300,000 Icelanders are considered to constitute a nation but 30 million Nigerian Igbos are said to make up a tribe, which would be comic, if it did not have such tragic consequences.


Building up to the question the teaching trader had asked me, I told her that the research I had quoted pointed to an explanation of African politics through an ethnic lens implying expressly that our problems were intractable and written into our biological make up as “tribes.”

This thinking translated into the Luo and Kikuyu not being seen as individuals but as people belonging to a tribal world of savagery and primitive practices that are deep, natural and ancient.

“So what word should we use instead of tribe?” the perplexed teaching trader asked me, piling fabric on my lap, telling me that she had noted my preference for yellow and purple and smaller patterns in the fabrics I was choosing.

“I do not know any African who does not use the word tribe to describe themselves or who objects to being depicted as a tribesman or tribeswoman or whose culture is not defined as tribal,” she said.

“Yet now, after listening to you, I do not know why we describe ourselves that way. When you first began to tell me about it, I thought you were trying to be politically correct. But now I too wonder. How is it that only some people in the world belong to tribes and others do not? This is an interesting question I will raise in the staffroom,” she added.

Nationality, ethnic community or group, would do, I told her. We were now walking towards the road as she escorted me to the taxi, my purchases, which she had assured me were for a local price, balanced on her head.

“But why do you, as an African, think that the term ethnic group as a replacement for tribe is good?” The teaching trader asked me.

“Because it embraces a pluralistic definition that accepts that we are all different types of people, who have different beliefs and opinions, yet live within the same society. Pluralism is also the belief that the existence of different types of people within the same society is a good thing,” I said.

“What about words that come from tribe such as tribalism?” she asked. I told her I use “ethnicism” instead of “tribalism.” Ethnicism is defined as an ideology focusing on the superiority of one generally narrow ethnic or national group.

Some people use the term “negative ethnicity” but that too cannot be correct because ethnicity cannot be either negative or positive. Ethnicity is simply a form of identity. And every human being adopts at least one if not several identities.

We exchanged telephone numbers and hugged. As I settled in the taxi, my new friend said to me, “Greet your family and tell them you made a friend in Nigeria. I must call you to follow up on this conversation. Because when I explain what we discussed to my fellow teachers in the staffroom on Monday, they will surely want to know whether you are Luo or Kikuyu.”

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, A Commissioner’s Experience on Cohesion and Integration[email protected]

Read Alice Nderitu’s here.


Oxford Symposium Comparative and International Education (OXSCIE)


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