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Let’s make the word ‘tribe’ history this Black History Month

POWERFUL PEOPLE: Urhobo people from Warri in Nigeria’s Delta State

A POLITICAL education is critical. And it’s not something you’ll get at school. For me, two of the foremost lessons that constituted my political education were administered in food outlets. Probably explains why I’m packing a few extra pounds.

The first time I consciously went to Nigeria was on December 31, 1991. I was 11 years old. Prior to this trip my vision of Africa was shaped by Band Aid. And as such it was far from positive. In fact, I was ashamed and embarrassed to be African.

As fate would have it weeks before this trip I fell over in front of my local Domino’s Pizza. I was helped to my feet by a man called Dennis. He was probably in his early 20s. We got speaking. Eventually Dennis asked me “where are you from?” (As in, ‘where did you get your black from?’)

As was the case with many British-born African children in the early 90s, I lied. I told him I was half-Jamaican and half-Bajan (in reality, I am actually Nigerian and Ghanaian).

Dennis, to my shock, responded: “I see. You look Itsekiri”. I nearly fell over. I was amazed that he knew what Nigerian, let alone Itsekiri people and what they looked like. He knew all this whilst retaining a rather cool haircut, nice trainers and what I considered at the time to be the best job on earth: a pizza maker.

After much internal deliberation and considering how I’d fare on the social ladder and whether or not girls would ever date me, I confessed to him that I was indeed Itsekiri. He confessed to me that he too lied– he overheard my mother calling me by my Itsekiri name at a bus stop. He told me I actually looked Ghanaian. There are only so many things you can confess to in a single day – so I kept that ‘secret’ to myself.

Dennis told me that he too was Itsekiri and Urhobo. He proceeded to tell me about Nigeria and the Niger Delta where we both originate (Itsekiri and Urhobo are both nationalities in the Niger Delta region). He went on to explain, for hours, the history of Nigeria, the significance of the Niger Delta, oil politics, colonialism and why I was ashamed to be African. He ended with why I should be proud to be African and why I should be looking forward to going to Africa.

Dennis didn’t tell me anything my mother had not attempted to tell me a million times before but hearing it from someone like Dennis was different. It impacted my young mind, I wanted to know more, because I wanted to know him and be like him. This is a concept known as a role model.

As the hours progressed, Dennis gave me a job to move 20 packets of Coca Cola to the basement in exchange for a large pizza with every topping I could imagine and a crate of Coke. My first paid piece of work. I only met Dennis once but if I could meet him again I’d tell him he over-rewarded me for the task. The lessons were more than sufficient payment.

My second wave of Africa related political education took place in a meeting of the Nigerian think tank, The Genesis Project, at the Aso Rock Restaurant in Hoxton. During a discussion I said that I was from the Itsekiri ‘tribe’. Calmly and respectfully Dele Ogun, renowned lawyer and the chairman of The Genesis Project told me that there is no such thing as the Itsekiri ‘tribe’. Suspecting I had a Yoruba supremacist on my hands I doubled down and stood my ground. Then Dele explained what I was doing when I uttered the word ‘tribe’ to describe African populations.

The word ‘tribe’ is a subjugating and deeply racist one. It depicts a petty, senseless and uncivilised people who can be gathered together with other ‘tribes’, ‘civilised’ (i.e. stripped of their history, culture, identity , practices and resources) at the barrel of a gun and ruled from afar by ‘wiser’ (i.e. white), ‘stronger’ and ‘civilised’ men. ‘Tribes’ were the white man’s burden, if the white man was to be believed.

Case in point: why are the people of Scotland (population 4 million) a nation, yet the Yoruba people of Nigeria (population 60 million) a ‘tribe’? The Yoruba people have a land mass bigger than Britain, a population nearly as big as Britain, a widely spoken language with multiple variations and accents with respected ceremonial monarchs and vibrant politics. Yet Britain is a world power and the Yoruba people are a ‘tribe’?

To think of a people as a tribe is to literally think of them as nothing. Hence why we often think nothing of our heritage and our people (probably explains why some of us partake in the Ebola ‘jokes’, even though 4,000 of us have lost our lives. If 4,000 westerners died of a disease no one would dare joke about it). But what if I told you that what are called ‘tribes’ were and are actually kingdoms and empires? With their own history, languages, cultures, wealth, land, resources, principles and practices? You would be proud of it; you’d want to be part of it.

You’d be proud to be an African in the same way many of you are proud (or desperate) to be British, American or European (shout out to my ‘Afropeans’!)

For this Black History Month let us end the use of the very racist word ‘tribe’ when describing Africans. Instead of using the word tribe use ‘kingdoms’ or ‘empires’ or ‘nations’. In the same way you speak of the United Kingdom or British Empire, speak of the Itsekiri kingdom or Benin empire.

Tribal people come from tribes. Royalty and emperors come from kingdoms and empires. Words are powerful.

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