Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I've written quite a bit in December – this entry will put me solidly at three entries per week – by virtue of the fact that I simply haven't had all that much in the way of structured work (emphasis on structured – the unstructured task of grading, though I am making headway, is still a significant time-consumer).

I want to write a little bit about tribalism here. One of the reasons that I was excited to come to Liberia was to see how it compared with Kenya – West vs. East Africa, a country with strong American ties vs. a former British colony, a country that is emerging from a long period of tribalism-driven civil war vs. a country that, at the end of my time there, saw its own latent problems with tribalism flare and threaten the stability of the country. In light of how I left Kenya (evacuated after the December 2007 elections, which prompted a wave of violence when the incumbent president appeared to rig the election in a very close contest that was mainly split along tribal lines), I thought it would be very interesting to see the flip side of the coin – a country that is struggling to rebuild itself after fourteen years of civil war, in which tribalism was the single greatest motivating factor.

Once again, my own experiences are confounded by the fact that I am in a larger town this time around, instead of a small, mostly ethnically homogeneous village. In general, both here and in Kenya, tribal prejudices are likely most severe in the rural areas, where education levels overall are lower and there is little overlap between groups. Peace Corps told us in our very brief training (and I think I repeated this in a very early entry) that, in essence, people in Liberia are “tired of” tribalistic concerns. In the war, everyone suffered, and to that end it served as a unifying factor among ethnic groups. Yet tribalism is still clearly a major concern – one of President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson's most difficult tasks has been maintaining adequate governmental representation by all ethnic groups.

I will say, though, that I rarely or never hear people disparaging rival tribes here (or even talking about the different tribes in general), whereas in Kenya that was nearly a daily occurrence. To be fair, I was, for most of my time there, in Molo district, in solidly Kalenjin country but very close to an area that was still subject to violent land disputes between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes. So by virtue of my placement there, the extent to which I perceived ethnic tensions may have been exaggerated, as compared to the degree to which tribal concerns persisted throughout the country as a whole. (As an example of how tribalism affected everyday life – although my first boarding school attracted girls from other districts, and we had representatives of the Maasai, Luhya, and Luo tribes, there was not a single Kikuyu girl or teacher at the school, despite the fact that there were large Kikuyu-dominated areas relatively nearby). Yet the fact that the elections were so very tribally divided, and resulted in such swift and senseless violence, suggests that tribal tensions were indeed lurking just below the surface throughout the country.

One tangential, but still relevant, issue that I find fascinating is the divisiveness of language in tribal disputes. As I mentioned before, here and in Kenya (and throughout Africa in general), there are many unique ethic groups, and, in general, each has its own language. In fact, language is one of the major ways in which outsiders can distinguish between the tribes. Just after the elections in Kenya, when the violence was at its peak, people were erecting roadblocks along the roads (this was the major reason that Peace Corps sent a helicopter to fetch me, not because I was in any imminent danger – I simply couldn't leave). They would arrest traveling matatus (the main form of transportation), and would force the occupants to speak their mother tongue in order to determine whether they were members of a friendly or opposing tribe.

Here, I have noticed that, while I do hear older persons speaking in the local dialect, I rarely hear the younger generation speaking Khran. In fact, when I questioned some of the neighborhood children about this, they told me that they don't speak the dialect at all. Whether this is a symbol of the unification of the country and a movement toward a national identity as opposed to a primarily tribal one, or a byproduct of increased mobility with the end of the war, leading to the necessity of wider usage of a common language, or the result of something else entirely – that I can't say. But the fact that members of the younger generation (at least in the more urban areas) are not learning mother tongue certainly seems like a significant fact in it of itself.


  1. Ugh, so I had a big long (almost submitted this as "big log") comment about Shibboleths written out, because I think linguistic identification is neat...because I too am a dork, then some shenanigans went down and it's gone. So you get NOTHING! Merry Christmas!

    Seriously though (commenting now on the last 3 entries or so), you should know that you're totally not a loser. There's a guy here who's almost 40 and is still working on his PhD, and most people, excluding maybe his girlfriend, don't think he's a loser. There's plenty of time to figure out what you're doing with your life. Just cause all your friends are jumping off bridges and getting knocked up doesn't mean you have to too!

    Also, I'm watching MTV as I write this, and I think you should know, that Lady Gaga is fucked up. That is all.

  2. Aw, I'm sorry Blogger ate your Shibboleths comment . . . I would have liked to have read it. I think linguistic identification is pretty neat too.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments! I'm glad you don't think I'm a loser. . . . Are my friends who are jumping off of bridges the same ones who have gotten knocked up? Or are they getting knocked up as they jump off the bridges? Because that would be impressive.