Friday, January 31, 2020

Defend your tribes but remember there is nothing natural about them

By Kuir ë Garang*

 "Some members of our tribes are complete strangers but some members of other tribes are our family members. Think about that!"

Photo: Hot in Juba

There is no question that each and everyone of us is born into a 'tribe.' We cannot say why we are born into a given tribe nor do we ever bring ourselves to question the absurdity of identity ascriptions and formations. To use Benedict Anderson's concept, tribes, like nations,  are imagined communities. No one can say exactly what a "tribe" is and no one can claim to know with concrete certainty the boundaries of  a "tribe." Some of us know members of other tribes but we don't know some members of our own tribes. Some members of our tribes are complete strangers but some members of other tribes are our family members. Think about that!

But note that the word "tribe" given its colonial denigrating usage, is being antiquated by anthropologists in favor of "ethnicity." Ngugi wa Thiong'o has written about how Europeans called their tribes nations and called Africans nations tribes: "Thirty million Yorubas are referred to as a tribe, but four million Danes as a nation." However, I will use "tribe" because this is the term South Sudanese are familiar with. Ethnicity has also being criticized for it has its own problems. 

Now, is a child whose father a Nuer and mother Jieeng a Nuer or a Jieeng? Because Nuer and Jieeng use the ethnic background of the child's father to determine the 'tribe' of the child, this child would be considered Nuer. As Sharon Hutchinson argues in Nuer Ethnicity Militarized, "Both groups [Nuer & Jieeng] ...share a strong bias toward patrilineality since children generally take on the lineage affiliations and ethnic identities of their fathers rather than of their mother’s people." 

This is also the case with other tribes. A friend of mine, who is from one of the tribes in the Equatorias, told me of a young man, who was raised by his mother's family (from a tribe in Equatoria) and has never lived with his father's [Jieeng's] family. However, his mother's family still considers him Jieeng (Dinka) because of his father even when he is culturally not a Jieeng. Social Conventions!
Obviously, a group of elders decided that such a thing has to be the case: patrilineality as opposed to matrilineality.  There is nothing in nature that says that a child father's 'tribe' has to be the tribe of the child. But none of us question these absurdities. We just accept them 'naturally' and defend them with all our emotions, intellects, and some times, arms. We are proud of our tribes. But as comedian George Carlin once said, you can only be proud of what you achieved through merit. I can't remember a time when any of us had to compete to win being from a given tribe. This is a matter of luck not achievement! A winner of a lottery doesn't say, "I'm proud." S/he says, "I'm lucky!"

Yet, a person whose father is Jieeng and mother is Zande talks of being a proud Jieeng without acknowledging that he is also a Zande as much as he is Jieeng, biologically. What makes him or her assume Jieeng ethnicity is not something in his/her biology but something he/she learns from social conventions. But this person will proudly say: "I am Dinka!" 

We simply find ourselves being from tribe X or tribe Y. I understand that this is not our fault; we just have to play the part in a movie called socio-ethnic life. Without any hesitation, we find ourselves defending "our tribe", "our people" from the moment we become conscious enough of social group "boundaries". As we grow older and we absorb the social values of the societies we grow up in, we internalize the social realities of "our tribe." These social realities cease to be "things we are taught" but become naturalized, unquestionable, primordial. We act our part so well so that the fact that we were taught we are tribe X ceases to be true. We just say we are tribe X.

We therefore need to understand that tribes as social formations, were mostly important to social organization and safety of tribes. Given that conventional governments, statehood and citizenship did not exist, people had to devise ways to govern themselves, and ensure their safety.

Among the Jieeng and Nuer, a girl child did not belong, by social convention, to any tribe because she could be married to a man from any tribe. Given the fact that a girl moves to her husband's side of the family, it was, in the wisdom of the time, important to fix the identity of the children with the father, who remains part of the clan or the tribe regardless of the tribe of the woman he marries. As the saying goes, "A girl belongs to everyone" because where she  would get married cannot be, supposedly, predicated. 

My point is that tribes are part of humans' attempt to govern themselves and assess and fix loyalties. Just imagine if Moru and Jieeng went to war in the past and there was a young man whose mother was Jieeng and father was Moru but there was no social convention put in place for the young man to know where his allegiance should be. He'd be confused. But social conventions, absurd as they are, fixed his tribal identity to be his father's tribe. 

My advise to South Sudanese is to understand the constructionist nature of these social conventions in order realize that being from tribe A or B is a mere construct. Anyone of us could move to any tribe and in one or two generations become part of a different tribe. We should therefore try to see the humanity in ourselves rather than the tribe of others. Tribes are not fixed through all eternity. They are mere conventions we now use to denigrate ourselves as if they were fixed by some supernatural being. 

I would therefore like to advise those who denigrate other tribes to first take pride in our humanity and statehood. Since all of us belong to that sociopolitical and geopolitical construct called South Sudan, our securities and safeties are inter-twined like Siamese twins. There is no way one can insult people of other tribes without expecting such insults to cause emotional response in others. This is simply part of our emotional make-up and social values with which we  grow up. There is no way one would make another tribe insecure and expects one's tribesfolk to sleep soundly in peace and security. The moment you make another tribe insecurity is the moment you make your own tribe insecure. 

Killing Nuer and expecting them to simply smile at you borders on insane. Knowing that officers of the former SPLA have occupied lands in the Equatorias in the name of 'we liberated this country' but expecting this tribes to shout "thank you officers!" is mere stupidity. Generalizing all Jieeng that they are complicit with a few elite in Juba, who are benefiting from the marginalization of other tribes and expecting Jieeng to remain silent knowing that a majority of Jieeng are languishing in poverty, some suffering in refugee camps and others dying from intra-Jieeng feuds, is to be singing a crazy song. 

We need to KNOW when to criticize and HOW to criticize. We all need to be "proud" of our tribes (however absurd that sounds in Carlinian sense) but we also need be critical of our tribes. None of us has the ultimate truth (with a capital T); we need to know that whatever we say can be criticized or rejected by others.

Note that I'm not saying that we should do away with tribes. They are a social reality we live and will continue to live. My main point is to not to be blind to the absurdities of identities.  Roughly five hundred years ago, according to Sharon Hutchinson, Jieeng and Nuer had a common proto-Nuer/Jieeng common group. 

Both ethnic groups are closely related, having emerged from a common proto Nuer/Dinka cultural formation some five hundred years ago. Both speak closely related Nilotic languages, though these are no longer mutually comprehensible. They have also intermarried heavily over the years, and often migrate through and/or reside in one another’s home territories. Finally, both groups share an extremely broad sense of kinship and related exogamic norms, which can extend back in time to encompass as many as ten to twelve generations of descendants on the father’s side and six to eight generations on the mother’s side. 
There are other closely related "tribes", for example, Acholi, Anyuak, Collo and the Luo in Bahr El Ghazhal (commonly known as Jurchol), who have a common proto-ancestry. However, they are considered as different 'tribes' in South Sudan.

*Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee. Reach him at or on Twitter @kuirthiy. Note, references in the text are in hyperlinks for further reading. 

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