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Unwary Tribalists

February 15 , 2020
By Kidist Yidnekachew ( Kidist Yidnekachew has degrees in psychology and journalism and communications. She can be reached at )

It is hard to forget a teacher who makes an impression on us. I had one of those, and I would never forget his colourful eye-catching slides and PowerPoint notes and the profound remarks he used to make in the classroom.

Once, he discussed tribalism through a peculiarly affecting anecdote. He started by explaining what most people generally know about the term, much of which is relevant to our current political situation. Tribes, formed along religious, cultural or racial fault lines, are created by people organising together through mostly historical circumstances and share a deep sense of loyalty.

The term generally gives a negative connotation by implying that people band together based on inherited or opportunistic physical traits, lifestyles and worldviews they believe are superior to that of others.

My teacher though preferred to explain it differently. Sitting at the back of a taxi, he noticed a lady next to him holding a baby. Right next to her was a girl, and the baby’s shoes were rubbing against her dress. The girl noticed the mud the baby was getting on her and got mad, berating the woman.

At that moment, he decided to interfere. He turned around and said it is just a dress, and the mud can be washed out.

“What is the big deal?” he asked the class. “Why is it that we may not mind the mess our own children or the children of friends or relatives make? We tend to tolerate the irritating things our kids do, but our patience wears thin when it comes to tolerating other people’s children. This is tribalism.”

It is not hard to see where he was coming from. Our tribalistic nature comes out in our outright identification with our kin, which makes every one of us a bad fit for society. But it is hard not to sympathise with our cause as well.

What if we are not around to look after them or provide for them? If everyone is too busy caring for their own children, what would happen to those who do not have someone to look after them?

How tribalism affects our sense of community can also be observed in our relationship with our kin versus that of others. There was a time children were raised by neighbours as well as the parents. When the children behaved badly, they used to be scolded or sometimes disciplined through force; and parents somehow were okay with that decision.

Nowadays, if one was to lightly scold a neighbour’s child for doing something mischievous, that person would be in quite a conundrum. As with most troublesome areas of our society, I trace this to the overpowering Western influence that seems to have us forsaking our own culture. Children are to be treated like adults, and parenting must be conducted at the absolute minimum lest the child become psychologically damaged.

Industrialisation is no less a culprit, destroying communities and reducing individuals living in the same area to social atoms that rarely ever get to see each other. As a result, the neighbour has become a stranger - no longer part of the tribe. Even the babysitters and caregivers who are hired are there for the money at the end of the day and do not care for the child as much as the community used to, however large the salary may be.

As much as we usually like to lambast the tribalism we witness in our politics, we have failed to observe how atomised we are becoming individually as well. This is tribalism in itself and, as in our politics, it is destroying our sense of community.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 15,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1033]

Kidist Yidnekachew has degrees in psychology and journalism and communications. She can be reached at

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