WHAT IS TRIBALISM?
It will always be the case, that the sound of Patty Obasi’s voice will conjure a deep sense of nostalgia in me. This is true. And that every time I am approaching Obollo Afor from Ogbadibo, or the Niger Bridge from Asaba, I will feel a small ripple of excitement. That the palm tree will loom large in my imagination, this will always be. And I will never want to see my grandfather’s house as rubble.
Yes. Where my brother is buried, where my father is buried, there too I would like to be buried. So my children’s children can play under the bitter kola tree that shades our headstones, while my children tell them of me. And if they make whole sentences in the particular dialect of my people, or only half ones, I will smile on them still, like the setting sun. For they are holding the lantern passed down to me. See? This is not tribalism.
To know that Aguogba and Nnachebe are our ancestors. And that Ogbuehi and Enyokwu were brothers. That the drums that come riding on the evening breeze is the way our people speak over distance. Yes, we did not invent the telephone, but – see – we invented talking drums. That this is the land of the ogene, of the ekwe and the opi. See? To think of a line of people walking slowly into the sea, choosing death over slavery, to think with pride that those people had something in common with me. This is not tribalism.
No. I will tell you what it is. Yes. Because sometimes it masquerades as poetry. But we will not allow it, not today. Yes. Tribalism is a man who will see two children with distended tummies, ribs showing, and large tear filled eyes. And he will turn his back to one of them, because that one’s name is Oche or Hassan or Habib, and feed the other one with communal bread – the bread baked with the resources of everyone – because that one’s name is Chinedu. This is tribalism.
I mean, who does not want his language to live forever? But tribalism is when you tell a young boy standing with his dreams in black ink on paper, that, no, he cannot become a lawyer here, because the Law Department – in this University built with everyone’s taxes – is reserved exclusively for those who speak your language. Others can study History. This is tribalism.
I mean, who will switch on the TV and, upon seeing his sister in a race with someone else’s sister, not immediately begin to cheer for his sister? But tribalism is when a young girl flies down the tracks, running as if her whole life depended on it, to breast the tape first, and then you walk past her thread-bare shoes and hope filled eyes – her outstretched hands begging you for what is hers by right and conscience – to put the trophy in your sister’s hands, simply because you have the power. This is tribalism.
I mean, whose heart will not swoon at the sight of powerful hills rising out of the heart of his native land? But tribalism is when you say that the Eggon cannot live here, that the Idoma cannot vote here, that a girl that carries the blood of an Itshekiri in her veins is not fit to be married here, that the virtue of the boy before you – who greets you with respect every morning on his way to work – can never overshadow the fact that he is Fulani, so that he, as a person, regardless of his actual individual attributes, should be rewarded or punished, vilified or celebrated, simply for the fact of belonging, even if only nominally, to a particular ethnic group. This is tribalism.
You know? Because we cannot help the things that make our hearts beat faster. Yes. If it is abacha, it is is abacha. If it is gbegiri, it is is gbegiri. If it is afang, it is afang. If it is miyan kuka, it is miyan kuka. You understand? We cannot help the songs that move us to dance, or the language that excites us into conversation. Yes. Everybody comes from somewhere. And a mother will always be inclined to partiality when it comes to her own child. This is true. But tribalism is to act on this instinct, even when it violates deeper laws of fairness, conscience and humanity. You see? Not all of us can do what Okonkwo did. Simply because the native gods are baying for a foreigner’s blood, not all of us can rise up and murder a boy who has lived long enough in your compound to sincerely and honestly call you, ‘father’. This …hardness of heart…yes, this is Tribalism.