Every time I read how “tribal rivalries” have sparked another outbreak of violence, my B.S. detector goes off. It’s a sure sign that someone (mainly the reporter) is taking the easy way out.
Ascribing violence in Kenya (or anywhere else in Africa) solely to “tribal rivalries” is little more than a simplistic dismissal of complex reality. It’s also denigrating to individuals whose lives consist of much more than looking for ways to enhance their tribe’s fortunes. Finding a job, educating their children, putting food on the table are important to most of the people I’ve met in my travels to Africa.
When I was researching Heart of Diamonds, I found tribal identity an important but not dominating factor. It was there, it could be exploited, but it didn’t particularly define a person. Family ties were much stronger, for example, than membership in the tribe.
However, when an individual’s economic and social interests are suppressed by another group—be they a tribe, a religious group, or a political party—people complain. When institutions, governmental or otherwise, fail to respond to those complaints for various reasons, individual complaints are channeled into group protests. Tribal membership isn’t the cause of violence, it’s simply a facilitating device exploited by power-hungry leaders.