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Appropriate phrase

Jamie Angus Jamie Angus | 14:11 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2008

I was ear-wigging a conversation between the Newhour presenter and duty editor yesterday: our presenter Mike Williams was questioning why, since the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer has used the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' to describe what's happening in some Kenyan provinces, we should be coy about using the phrase ourselves.

World Service logoA wider discussion amongst our programme team revealed mixed views about 'ethnic cleansing', as well as the word 'tribal'. Some felt that 'tribal violence' has a pejorative sense of Heart of Darkness about it - that it implies that this violence is cultural and inevitable.

Others on the team, including some who have spent many years working and reporting in Africa, think this is liberal guilt - ”Kenya is a tribal society. That terminology is perfectly accepted there, and we shouldn't worry about using broadcasting it from London”. The question of direct comparisons with the Rwandan genocide has also been raised. It seems to me most commentators are going out of their way to explain why it's not appropriate.

Richard Dowden's piece in the Independent has been very useful; the author spoke about it both on World Service's Newshour and on Today (which you can listen to here), and the message seems to be “think Balkans rather than Rwanda” which is probably why the 'ethnic cleansing' phrase is tripping off the tongue.

Protests in Kibera, KenyaThere are a couple of reasons why the situation in Kenya is more complex than in other 'tribal' conflicts. This is not a binary dispute - there are at least three major tribes involved plus other smaller tribes, and power in Kenya has not always been held by President Kibaki's Kikuyu as his predecessor Arap Moi was a Kalenjin. Opposition leader Odinga is a Luo, two of whose former presidential candidates have been assassinated since independence. The settlement of land and resources in the post-colonial era is a large factor in the violence, as is the general absence of the rule of law in the wake of an acute political crisis.

In the end many of these phrases work fine in a fuller context; the difficulty comes when we boil them down to shorter forms in headlines and cues. So are we being too coy about the language we're using? Or is this caution justified?


  • 1.
  • At 05:07 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • Andy Croy wrote:


Your reporters who have been based in Africa need to dig little deeper.

There is no word for "tribe" in African languages. "Tribe" in English carries the perojative, Heart of Darkness sense. It implies some sort of primative social organisation, not quite up there with a kingdom but somehow less developed. Africans use this word because they are speaking English. The African words translated as into English as "tribe" carry no negative connotations at all. Ever. Most Africans I know, and I too lived in Africa for 9 years and am married to a Kikuyu, do not appreciate how loaded the word is to English speakers. The African words themselves are probably better translated as "people" or "nation" so a Kikuyu speaking in Kikuyu means "Kikuyu nation" or "Kikuyu people" in the same sense an English person would say English people or English nation.

It is also important to realise that in Kenya, the word "nation", in the sense of a body of people sharing a language, culture etc is not available because it is closely tied up with the word "state", ie the territroy and institutions of government. So to say one is, for example, a member of the Kikuyu nation carries with it an implied threat to the Kenyan state itself.

People in Kenya, when using English to describe their ethnicity, have to rely on a word which, all Kenyans are dismayed to hear, carries with it so many negative connotations to English native speakers. Same word different, meanings.

Violence in Kenya is nationalist and racist. In that way it is similar to the Balkans. Except to emphasise the depravity of the Balksn, the word "tribal" was sometimes used, ie an even more primative form of violence....ooops here we go again.

  • 2.
  • At 05:18 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • Tim Dennell wrote:

You need to be very careful about using the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ for fear that it could become devalued. A quick look at a dictionary definition gives: ‘The systematic elimination of an ethnic group or groups from a region or society, as by deportation, forced emigration, or genocide.’ It signifies violence (and presumably death) on a large-scale, over a wide area conducted in a systematic manner in pursuit of a single aim. I would ethnic cleansing’ is one step below genocide as conducted by the Nazis or in a cruder fashion in Rwanda.
As for ‘tribal’, I feel its appropriate to use it in cultures where people identify themselves by – in ascending order - family, clan, tribe and then nationality; particularly where they share the same religion.
That we have no counterparts doesn’t matter, it helps us understand a situation in cultures that do. It also helps us understand regions where politics is fraught not just be religious schism, but also tribal power structures. Knowledge of this is useful in understanding Iraqi politics for example.

  • 3.
  • At 06:59 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • Andrew Findlay wrote:

Andy Croy (post 1) makes interesting points. I do not think the negative connotation of "tribal" is as significant as he does. That said, I agree that effectively two nations are at war. In this context one should then add that the nation of Kenya is an arbitrary set of lines on a map drawn by some white folks from an island nation much further north. We arbitrarily created a nation that spanned the homelands of two existing nations. Then we are surprised when they resent one another.

Ethnic cleansing is not appropriate for all the reasons that Tin Dennell (post 2) makes.

So maybe it is inter-national conflict in an intra-national setting...

  • 4.
  • At 11:09 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • Gina coleman wrote:

Language, it seems, lets us down.

Which 'common usage' word in the English language could we substitute for 'tribe' when we talk about separate, mainly indigenous, ethnic groups within one [modern] nation?

People whose main economic and social activities - such as marriage - were generally within their own group unless (as with marriage) to cement relations between two 'groups'.

And the 'ethnicity' of these groups -with their own languages and cultures - often pre-dates the formation of the nation which exists today, and in which they live.

News reports are for the benefit of the general public; not anthropologists, sociologists or specialist researchers.

So they have to be written using 'everyday' vocabulary. Not for those with knowledge of specialist language.

[How many members of the general public, for instance, would be familiar with the term 'consociationalism' in a debate on 'power sharing' options?]

In the circumstances, 'tribe' seems to be the word most readers/listeners could relate to. I'm a native English speaker and I don't find anything perjorative in the word.

As for 'ethnic cleansing' - well, the phrase seems to have been popularised particularly because it is emotive. But the implications are usually that a 'recognised authority' - government or controlling power - is forcing one ethnic group to move.

And the current violence in Kenya - however tragic - doesn't seem to fit that definition.

I don’t see why you need to use either phrase as they both appear to be judgemental and therefore partial. If there is some ambiguity in your own office surrounding these terms then there is even more reason to steer clear of them.

Why not report specific events. If you do need to roll them up, perhaps “violent clashes” would suffice. The BBC has a tendency to try to get inside a story instead of being detached and therefore as impartial as possible.

On a wider issue, I think you should also be careful not to leave us thinking that all Kenyans are on the rampage. I suspect that the majority are living in peace, although I really have no way of knowing for certain, judging from BBC reports. I am sure many people think that the continent of Africa is full of warring factions, corrupt politicians and starving children. I wish that Africa could have a fairer representation in our media. I am certainly not saying that negative news should not be reported, but I would love to see some of the great achievements in Africa being aired occasionally plus at least a nod to the backdrop of a largely peaceful, albeit poor, continent.

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