“What is my ‘tribe’?”

A couple of weeks back Dr. Kwame Zulu Shabazz related a conversation that he had with a continental African regarding the question of the ethnic origins of Diasporan Africans. Dr. Shabazz was asked to identify his “tribe”, and his inability to do so produced some bewilderment in his interlocutor. His experience and discussion of it can be found here: http://twitter.com/kzshabazz/status/1004033728094638082. However this raises a number of interesting questions regarding the issue of Diasporan Africans and our identification with extant ethnic groups on the continent. A late comer to the conversation, I stated that folks seek to answer the “What is my ‘tribe’?” query using three means: DNA testing, divination, and simply “laying claim” to a group to whom one has some kind of affinity or attraction. I would like to briefly explore this question, that is “What is my ‘tribe’?” along with its implications.

It should be noted from the outset that “tribe” is problematic nomenclature for African ethnic groups. However, I will anchor my remarks to it for the sake of this discussion, given that this is the context in which this query was framed. Do note that terms such as ethnic group, society, people, or even nation are better descriptors of African peoples who are often discussed under the heading of “tribes”.

The most obvious reality, and this is borne out in the studies of the genomes of Africans in America, is that we are an admixed population, that is we possess genetic ancestry from a variety of African ethnic groups. This same research reveals that some places feature populations who possess a greater proportion of ancestry from specific African regions. Examples of this would include the presence of people with significant proportions of Akan ancestry in Jamaica and parts of the Virgin Islands. Other studies have suggested that the Igbo and Yorùbá (who possess notable genetic similarities) comprise a significant portion of the genetic makeup of many Africans in the United States. However, even in these cases, some degree of admixture is generally still present. As such, Africans today who are descended from enslaved Africans generally possess ancestral linkages to living groups such as the Bakongo, Fulani, Ewe and other Gbe-speaking peoples, Hausa, Akan, Yorùbá, Mandé peoples, and so on.

This admixing is paralleled by the cultural syncretism that emerged among Africans in the Diaspora, that is the intermixing of cultures from various ethnicities resulting in the formation of various “new” African cultures in the Americas. Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, the United States, and other parts of the Americas evidence the contributions of many African ethnicities. Brazil is an interesting case in point where the fighting traditions of Bantu peoples contributed to shaping Capoeira and Yorùbá and Bakongo spiritual traditions gave rise to Candomblé. Haiti also shows this same pattern, featuring Bakongo-influenced iconography, a spiritual tradition with significant influence from the Fon and other Gbe-speaking peoples, as well as the Yorùbá. The point is that preceding the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” for Diasporan Africans, is the question of “Who are Diasporan Africans?”, a query that reveals various populations of African peoples who are essentially a genetic and cultural composite.

Elsewhere I have written that “The longing for home is most acute among a people dispossessed of one.” Here I was using home to refer to a place of affinity, belonging, one’s foundation in dimensions that are both spatial and cultural. Thus the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” is most notably a question of home, and this has not been an idle query. In fact there have been several means that Diasporan Africans have utilized in response to it. In my response to Dr. Shabazz’s thread I stated that divination, DNA testing, and a sense of affinity have been bases of ethnic group identification that have been utilized by Africans in the US.

The first, divination or the revealing of one’s “ethnic root” occurs in consultation with mwaguzi (diviner) of the traditional African spiritual traditions. This special type of “reading” is intended to identify the particular ethnic group from whom one’s mzimu (“soul”) descends. Central to this process is the idea found in various West African cultures that the mzimu reincarnates further down the clan line, creating and maintaining continuity between the living mtu (person) and their wakale (ancestors).

The second, DNA testing has grown in popularity in tandem with advances with genetic genealogical research. The most advanced service, the one that has been customized specifically for Africans in the Americas, is African Ancestry, whose database contains 33,000 samples of mitochondrial (mtDNA) and Y-DNA from various African and non-African groups. Their service essentially identifies extant populations who share DNA with their customers. According to African Ancestry, the top five groups that they match test-takers with are Mende, Tikar, Fulani, Yorùbá, and Temne and the top five countries are Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. It should be noted that there is a great deal of overlap between these top five groups and countries as shown in the table below.

Country Ethnic group
Sierra Leone Mende, Temne
Cameroon Fulani, Tikar
Nigeria Fulani, Yorùbá
Guinea-Bissau Fulani
Senegal Fulani

For those who receive one match, this may indeed satisfy the “What is my ‘tribe’?” question. However, research on the African American genome and its matches to African haplogroups (specific clusters of mtDNA and Y-DNA) often reveal matches to multiple groups, thus possibly complicating such a question. Also, it should be noted that while these types of DNA may be useful for obtaining some degree of specificity in terms of one’s genetic ancestry, they also represent a very minute portion of one’s DNA, thus basing one’s conception of one’s “tribe” on such a small sample of one’s larger genetic profile may or may not be problematic.

The third, affinity or attraction, appears to be based on a sense of connection to some extant African ethnic group and is not necessarily based on the two above instruments of investigation. Some people express feeling a strong connection to specific groups. This feeling may be based on a number of tangible and intangible things, but nonetheless provides a type of attraction.

Years ago, in my own quest to answer this question I availed myself of the services of a mwaguzi, who told me that my mzimu descended from the Ewe people. At some point this knowledge became the basis of further study and investigation into this group’s utamaduni (culture) and kale (history). Three features of the Ewe experience that struck me was the centrality of migration to their history, the absence of the formation of a centralized Ewe state along with the kind of political relations that existed between these, and the open-texturedness of Ewe culture with respect to their absorption of influences from other peoples—especially the Yorùbá and Akan. My occasional use of “day name” was also partially informed by this knowledge given that the Ewe has adopted this naming convention from the Akan.

More recently, I turned to DNA testing to revisit this question in the hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of my family’s history. My mtDNA matched the Tikar, Hausa, and Fulani of Cameroon and the Bubi people of Equatorial Guinea (my Y-DNA is non-African in origin). In my studies, I have focused on the language of the Hausa and the philosophy and history, particularly the intellectual history of the Fulani. The Hausa language is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Like the Swahili language, it possesses many Arabic loanwords, which has also been useful for me in terms of informing my word recognition. Also, the Fulani’s contributions to the intellectual tradition in West Africa has been notable and inspiring. The Fulani were prominent among the scholars at Timbuktu, which is inspiring given my current profession, and that I am carrying forward this intellectual tradition.

Further, while I cannot say that I have felt a connection to any particular African group, I have been inspired and attracted to the cultures of various groups—the Igbo, Akan, Yorùbá, Bakongo, as well as the ancient Nile Valley. Thus, I have been and continue to be drawn to the wisdom and history of our people in ways that are both general and specific.

In closing, I think that the question “What is my ‘tribe’?” will be a recurring one due to our people’s continued estrangement from our land of origins, and with this, our history and ancestral traditions. I maintain that our response to this query must ultimately be reconciled alongside a conception of a Pan-African identity, that is an identity that recognizes the diverse African heritage of Diasporan Africans, while also seeking substantive connections to extant African cultures that enrich our culture and also provide the healing inherent in regaining a sense of historical continuity. Furthermore, I think that our efforts to answer this question can be enriched by each of the above methods as both the first (the “roots reading”) and third (affinity and attraction) align with the epistemologies of traditional Africa, while the second provides a useful tool in the reconstruction of African Diasporan genealogies. Thus I am not proposing one over the other, but rather elaborating upon what each potentially provides in both answering this question, but also transcending it.