The Threat of African Tribalism

MARGARET CARSON HUBBARDmade her first visit to Northern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa in 1922, when she set about learning Nyanja, the lingua franca of Central Africa. In 1935 she made the long circuit from the Cape to Cairo, and since World War II she has made four return visits to South Africa, to the Congo and East Africa, to Ghana and the Federation.


BEFORE World War II few Africans had any conception of Africa as a whole or of themselves as Africans. They thought of themselves instead as Kikuyu, Buganda Bahutu, or men of any other of the seven-hundred-odd tribes between the Cape of Good Hope and the Sahara. Then, as a result of wartime travel and the development of airways and radio, the various tribes gradually became aware of themselves as Africans. Such leaders as President Nkrumah of Ghana found an audience for Pan-Africanism, which he describes as a mass movement of “Africa for the Africans.” Yet any unity south of the Sahara remains the dream of a few men. The long memory of tribal conquerors and conquered, the customs, traditions, superstitions, and ancestor worship that have been followed for centuries generate greater loyalty to a tribe than to a new nation.

The tribe remains a powerful unit which resists the best leaders’ determination to replace old loyalties with new. European administrators stopped tribal wars in the nineteenth century, but as colonialism recedes before uhuru, gwacha, independence, or any other name given “Africa for the Africans,” men feel free to take up their spears to settle old scores. And these feuds are a tempting tool to politicians.

Tribal jealousies postponed Nigeria’s independence, and they are the stumbling block to responsible government in Uganda. Next year, should Ruanda-Urundi become independent on schedule, we may hear of the Watusi-Bahutu feud. Last January, the conflict in that trust territory was severe enough to bring a four-man UN investigating team to the scene. When I reached Uganda, refugees were pouring over the border in hordes. After a six weeks’ survey, the UN team recommended that steps be taken immediately to end the “atmosphere of agitation.” But how? As the Congo well illustrates, the crux of the continent’s dilemma is not just Africa for the Africans, but what Africa, for which Africans?

Unless one is on the spot, it is difficult to appreciate that Africans by the thousands dread the day when old feuds will be unrestrained by the governing Europeans. Those whose homes have been burned down, whose families have been threatened or killed, whose shops have been boycotted by political extremists have had a taste of what can happen, and none knows better than the Africans the passions unleashed by tribalism and the dangers they face when old loyalties are used for political ends.

During my recent stay in Africa, I talked to provincial and territorial leaders of the United National Independence Party (U.N.I.P.), led by Mr. Kenneth Kaunda and dedicated to smashing the Federation, which was formed only seven years ago. I listened to their hymn of hate against “imperialist oppressors”; to their scorn for various development schemes, whose only purpose is to give greater opportunity to Africans, though they tossed them off as projects “to give jobs to white boys” (the supervisors); to their contempt for tribes who have more faith in the Crown’s good intentions than in theirs. I asked how they would finance the republic they want and was promptly told that the United States and Great Britain would have to supply the money — or else. “Is that a threat?” was my next question, and they laughed knowingly. Then they ranted — there is no other word — about a string of violent incidents in which, they asserted, innocent Africans were killed by “imperialist oppressors.” To check their accuracy, I went over a completely impartial report of one of the incidents and found that what began as a tribal feud over fishing rights was used by U.N.I.P. and turned into an antiadministration political fight in which people were injured.

So, we should not be surprised when tribal jealousies flare into fights or when politicians use them to promote their own ambitions. After all, their own grandfathers and great-grandfathers thought nothing of selling the troublemakers of their day to the slavers, and some of today’s politicians are equally ruthless. Tribal emotions are easily aroused, and honest nationalists know that they must reckon with this volcanic force rumbling under the calmest political surfaces. All too easily, it could make a shambles of their new dream of nationhood.

THE Masai of Tanganyika, for example, who were split between Kenya and Tanganyika, have petitioned the United Nations to guarantee their boundaries and protect their “way of life and freedom” when British power goes and uhuru (“freedom”) comes to the Bantu. And, as a plea for a way of life, this document, now submerged in UN files, is a classic example of a tribe opposed to being absorbed in a national unit.

They begin their petition by stating, quite simply, that they are a pastoral people who love their cattle above all and would die without them. Then they emphasize their differences from their Bantu neighbors, with whom they have nothing in common but the color of their skin.

“It is the old story of Cain and Abel,” a missionary among them told me, “the conflict between a pastoral and an agricultural people. The Masai fear for their pastures. The agricultural Bantu want more land to cultivate, though everyone knows they destroy the land with their shifting, wasteful cultivation.”

As I read the petition, I watched three Moran, the young Masai warriors. With their capes blowing, their spears in hand, and smeared with the clay of their reddish earth, they looked like autumn leaves flying before the wind. Lithe, lean, and long-muscled, the Masai bear little resemblance to the Bantu tribes they conquered. They are a Nilo-Hamitic people and proud of all differences of custom, way of life, and physique between them and the Bantu.

To silence crying babies, Bantu mothers still whisper, “Hush! The Masai may find us if you cry.” The Bantu have not forgotten the days of hiding in caves when the Moran took up their spears and raided the countryside for cattle and women.

Tanganyika is larger than Texas, and in its 360,000 square miles, the 60,000 Masai live on 23,000, one third of it too arid or infested with tsetse flies to be habitable. A veterinary who works among them reckons they need fifteen acres for each of their 700,000 head of cattle. In their heyday before the white man settled in East Africa, they grazed their cattle at will over twice as much land. Later, the Masai agreed to a treaty restricting the tribe to reserves. Now they fear that Bantu tribes in an independent Tanganyika will move into their few green places.

Given proper water development, the veterinary told me, the Masai could double their herds and the numbers they send to market. The quest for water is the basic dynamic of their lives, and few people, he insisted, know more about raising cattle in arid country or better understand the relationship between cattle, grazing land, and water oases. In effect, he was saying that the Masai are a wasted asset in a protein-starved land, for they have received little government aid compared with that given other tribes. One reason, no doubt, is that they have not demanded it, but have lived as best they could in their nomadic way, depending on their own skills to survive.

The old ways die hard, and in their arrogance the Masai have refused to barter their way of life for bicycles and wrist watches. But in recent years they have awakened to the advantages of education and are even ready to sell their beloved cattle to pay for it. I was struck speechless when a woman in a fly-shrouded Masai village, who was plastering her house with cattle dung, told me that her daughter was in school. My imagination balked at bridging the gulf between that thornfenced group of hovels in lion country and a clean schoolroom. Yet it happens. They clamor for drugs, too — first for drugs to protect their cattle from Africa’s host of cattle diseases, and then for antibiotics against pneumonia, the scourge of their open, windy steppes. Their cattle come first.

So, they explain in their petition to the United Nations, though uhuru brings hope to the Bantu, for the Masai it brings the prospect of slow but certain death, because the Bantu tribes already are nibbling at their green places; because some politicians already have promised to turn over to Bantu tribes the best of Masailand when independence is realized; because then Parliament will be filled with Bantu subject to the pressures of the land-hungry. Quite candidly, the petition then points out that the memory of old conquests will tell against the Masai, and some Bantu, at least, will see an opportunity to settle old scores.

To test the validity of Masai fears, I talked with George Kahama, Minister of Social Services, and Amir Jemal, Minister of Urban and Local Government, both of them dedicated to the dreams of Prime Minister Nyerere’s party. “All the land belongs to Tanganyika. We want no tribal feeling, and all land must be used for the good of Tanganyika,” they told me, adding that they have no intention of ousting anyone, except for good reason. “Good reason,” of course, leaves loopholes for the very future the Masai fear. Members of Parliament would be less than human if they did not yield to the demands of the greatest number of voters, the land-hungry Bantu.

Should that happen, the petition states, the Moran will leap to their spears, for they will die fighting rather than slowly, in the dry places, with their cattle. Cool heads in the Masai council want to avoid the trouble and bloodshed which will follow any move to appropriate their land, but they know better than anyone the contempt of the Masai for the tribes they once conquered and the joy with which the Moran would jump into the war dance. Should that day come, it must be remembered, there will be no European power with authority to stop tribal wars. And Tanganyika has but one battalion of African troops — a rather shaky battalion at that, I was told.

The answer to the Masai problem is so symptomatic of the whole continent that it bears consideration. They have petitioned the United Nations that they be an independent state, a protected area under Great Britain, or a trust territory administered for the United Nations by the Tanganyika government. In any case, they wish to unite the Masai in both Tanganyika and Kenya and have organized a Masai United Front to protect their interests and defend the 1911 treaty with Great Britain which granted them the land they occupy.

That Masailand become a trust territory seems both the soundest and most diplomatic of the three proposals. It would protect the Masai and their treaty rights and preserve peace so long as the United Nations carries weight in the world. It would throw the responsibility on an African government, thus enhancing its prestige. Above all, it would give Africans an opportunity to prove they can respect minorities and grant to others the same freedom to manage their own affairs which they themselves demand. The widespread doubt about this ability among Africans and whites in Africa needs proving, one way or another.

True to character, the Masai end their petition on an independent note and proudly state that they will not need much help. All they ask for, they say, is a commissioner to handle the complexities of affairs and business, a veterinary to help them care for their cattle, a doctor to care for their own health, and an engineer to advise them on water conservation and building dams, and to train them to maintain machinery. Then, they conclude, it would not be long before they could pay all expenses. To strive to do so, they are ready to double their taxes or pay any amount to save their way of life.

“Are you never tempted to wash your hands of it all and leave them to fight it out?” I asked the British Resident in Uganda, who is groping for a way to end tribal jealousies in that country.

“But we’re responsible!” he answered, in real anguish.

Where is the responsibility? The African wants to shoulder it, ready or not. We bear the guilt of two world wars and the atomic bomb, which makes us somewhat vulnerable when we criticize African feuds. Yet, can we stand aside and watch African fight African and undo the work of decades? Must force decide boundaries? Or can the United Nations be trusted to patrol boundaries in Africa, as it does between Israel and the United Arab Republic? These questions will haunt us all.

It is very well to say that tribalism must not disrupt Tanganyika, or Africa, but the fact remains that tribe is up against tribe in the Congo, in Ruanda-Urundi, in Uganda. The Somali have their eyes on Kenya’s Northern Province. A desperate struggle for succession is expected in Ethiopia, and the Suk in Uganda, like the Masai, are ready to challenge Bantu rule. In Kenya, conflict is feared between Jalua and Kikuyu. Thus, tribalism compounds confusion for Africans in town and countryside, for African politicians, and for administrations determined to keep the peace.

It seems likely then that, as the European powers move out, the United Nations will be receiving more calls for help such as the one sent by the Masai. The rest of the world, meanwhile, pays the piper and tries to call a peaceful tune.