“Tribalism”: A scar today, a wound tomorrow.

I have always found the word tribe to be problematic, if not deliberately condescending primarily because of how it is constantly used to describe African groupings with vast and clearly discernible identities. What I also find amusing is the word’s conspicuous absence in any discourse where similar European groupings or identities are concerned. It is a word that irks me not least because of the uncivilised connotations it carries, but also because of the fact that it has become the de rigueur term for describing what I know and believe to be very distinct, proud and pronounced African ethnicities.

On one hand, Europeans (or any of their more “civilised” cousins) are not grouped into tribes. We are told that they are essentially ethnicities. They are cohesive groupings of civilised beings bound and woven together by a coagulation of culture, tradition and geographic location. While on the other hand, Africans are tribes; naked natives dancing around a fire, eating their kith and kin at a celebration of the new moon who owe the little modicum of civilisation they have to their colonisers who came and taught them the right ways. It is not far from the truth to say that this is a very reductive argument that bypasses a lot of truths on either side of the tribal or ethnic divide. However, to deny that this is the dominant narrative is, in my opinion, dangerous, ignorant and grossly negligent if we seek to tell the truth about how non-white cultures have been portrayed in contemporary historical writings.

The pervasiveness of that dominant narrative lends credence to the salient themes present in the contributions from the previous Baluleki, namely Doreen and Felicity, who in their own ways identified the othering of non-white culture albeit with reference to sexuality and racial identity, respectively. Similarly, the same theme of marginalising and othering is unsurprisingly present in the description of African ethnicities. In my view, it is not accidental but very calculated and deliberate. Nowhere is Julius Caesar’s maxim of “divide and rule” more apt than in the context of the description of African ethnicities. For colonialism to take root, it was important for us to think of ourselves as small and random smatterings of clans and tribes without a collective ethnic identity. That way, it was easier to conquer us and harder for us to unite and fight a common enemy. To describe us as tribes as opposed to the more holistic term ethnicity was an important weapon in the colonisers’ plan not only to rob us of our identity, but also our culture.

The tragedy here is not that this happened and was the anchor upon which colonialism was predicated. The real tragedy is that even to this day, we continue to foist these uninformed views on contemporary African society and on our own children. One need only look at the names of most of Zimbabwe’s provinces: Matabeleland, Mashonaland, Manicaland. We showed some restraint, but nonetheless with a hint of irony, when we named Gweru and surrounding areas the Midlands. The same names that the advocates of divide and conquer used to describe us, are the same names we use to describe sections of the land that those that have come before us have lived in. Land that we proudly proclaim as ours.


I am not denying the existence of smaller collective clans whose identities and culture invariably poured into the greater collective. What I have a problem with is the deliberate avoidance of identifying the conglomeration of said clans as an ethnic group. In my view, it is incorrect to call the Shona a tribe. Is Shona not a sub-ethnic grouping composed of Zezuru, Karanga, Korekore, Ndau and Manyika, amongst others? I stand to be corrected. Similarly, to describe the Nguni as a tribe is also misleading. For are they not a conglomeration of groupings predominantly made up of Zulu, Swati, Xhosa and Ndebele people? History tells us that Mnguni, the great forefather of the Nguni people had four sons namely, Xhosa, Luzumane (Zulu), Swazi and Ndebele. But today you hear terms like the Nguni tribe and so on. This, in my view, is incorrect and indicative of the success of the divide and conquer mantra that our past and present oppressors used on us. Once you believe there are huge differences between you and your brother, it is difficult for you to see past those differences and see your real enemy let alone the cause of your oppression.

As stated earlier, the tragedy lies in the fact that we have not only accepted and accentuated these divisions but we have been the architects of their further entrenchment in our own contemporary societies, sometimes with tragic and fatal consequences. The extent of the entrenchment of the divide and conquer tactic has no greater expression than in the armed wings of the liberation movement that ironically brought about our political independence. The two main armed movements were ZIPRA which was predominantly Ndebele and ZANLA which was predominantly Shona.

The city of Bulawayo however, is an example of how things could have been had we not been obsessed with these perceived differences. While it is true that historically, Bulawayo was predominantly occupied by Ndebele people, I feel this is also a huge generalisation. If we are to accept and interpret history in its proper context, Bulawayo was possibly the most cosmopolitan city in colonial Rhodesia; an accusation that cannot necessarily be levelled against Harare, then named Salisbury. Colloquially Bulawayo is called ‘KoNtuthu ziyanthunqa’ a Ndebele phrase meaning the place of continuous smoke. This phrase probably came about when Bulawayo was in its pomp as the country’s heavy industrial base as well as being the hub of the country’s rail network.
Because of the simple fact that the white collar jobs (mostly concentrated in then Salisbury) were the sole preserve of the white minority, blue collar work was usually the only gainful employment one could obtain as an African. In this regard, it became a very cosmopolitan city because of the labour-inspired rural to urban migration while Salisbury on the other hand, remained largely homogenous in terms of the African ethnic groups that were its inhabitants.

Tolerance has always seemed to me as something that’s woven into the fabric of the soul of the city of Bulawayo.
Although the contempt has decreased over the years, I have always found that in Harare people notice when you speak in IsiNdebele, while in Bulawayo, due to its somewhat cosmopolitan past, Shona as a language is not met with the same contempt or consternation. The irony of all this perhaps is that with the advent of independence, Bulawayo became less cosmopolitan. The reasons for this change in tide are complex but in no way inexplicable. Independence meant more opportunities for blacks in white collar industries and thus more and more of the other ethnicities who would have migrated to Bulawayo found their way to Harare.

However, the ethnic cleansing of Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi genocide is a sore that refuses to go away for many people of Ndebele lineage. Being a Ndebele man myself, I feel in many ways it demonstrated the fact that we are still viewed as outsiders in a land we have inhabited for over 150 years. It also showed the first embers of the brutality of Robert Mugabe’s regime when faced with dissent or the prospect of differing opinions. For me however, Gukurahundi represents the ultimate triumph of colonial conquest. If we truly understand our history as we pretend to do from time to time, surely we must know that we are all descendants of the great Bantu migration. The similarities in our Bantu languages are no coincidence nor are they indicative of lazy ancestors as some have some have put it. In Shona (ie Zezuru, Karanga, Chikorekore, Chimanyika, Chikaranga etc) water is “mvura” while in most of the Nguni dialects (of which IsiNdebele is a part of) water is referred to as “imvula” or “amanzi” depending on the context within which it is being referred to. A person in Shona is “munhu” while in Nguni it is “umuntu”.

Rather than speaking to any vast differences in culture or ethnic identity, these similarities betray a combined ethnicity woven over thousands of years across vast geographical spaces amongst thousands if not millions of people…Abantu. One of the true enduring legacies of colonial conquest has been this ability to divide us and embed these imagined differences in our consciousness. Some will argue that ethnic / tribal tensions of this nature exist all over the world and occur irrespective of conquest. The answer to that is simple. Africa’s past of subjugation and conquest was predicated on the exploitation and the exaggeration of such differences. As such the future of Africa not only requires understanding and embracing this one ethnicity but it demands it.

“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Hunhu hwemunhu hunobva kune vamwe vanhu”

Eleph Gula-Ndebele

Screenshot 2014-10-23 23.16.18


3 thoughts on ““Tribalism”: A scar today, a wound tomorrow.

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