Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Ethnic Group or Tribe?

New Canaan Library Author Talk

The New Canaan Library is lovely. My talk was in the Curtis Gallery. See the book stack, dolls, and beads on the sales table where my friend Mary-Jane was on duty!

The New Canaan Library is lovely. My talk was in the Curtis Gallery. See the book stack, dolls, and beads on the sales table where my friend Mary-Jane was on duty!

The audience of about 35 people at my New Canaan Library Author Talk on Monday evening was enthusiastic and full of interesting questions.

As people were leaving one audience member said, “Why do you use the word ‘tribes’ to describe Nigeria’s ethnic groups? Isn’t that outdated?”

The person speaking was an Igbo woman. My daughter has also said I should not use the term “tribe.”

Both daughter Beth and audience member Pat say use “ethnic group.”

“Tribe,” they say, has derogatory connotations and should be put to rest. Pat repeated her thoughts in a comment she posted. She said she loved the talk and it took her down memory lane – she’s been in this country for many years! Then she said,

“My only suggestion is to drop the use of tribes in favor of ethnic groups as tribes connotes negative stereotypes and backwardness about non western societies. The Igbo people are well-traveled and highly educated and I can’t imagine how tribe best describes them.

I use the word “tribes” because I see it in many documents. But maybe they are all out of date, as Pat suggested! (see article below about Igbo names)

And I just found that the WordPress spell-check calls “Tribe” bias language! Maybe it’s time to concede!

What do you think on the question of ethnic group or tribe?

Boko Haram Militants in Rehab

Russell in Cincinnati sent me a link to an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The story highlighted Usman, a former Boko Haram member, who is, “among 95 Boko Haram members trying to repent by surrendering their weapons and participating in a government program to de-radicalize them and assimilate them into society.”

This program is part of President Buhari’s efforts to end Boko Haram’s violence.

More than 20,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million others displaced in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.

There is a sense in Nigeria that many, if not most, of the Boko Haram fighters are pressured to join the terrorist group when there is no other viable opportunity to earn a living. So there is sympathy toward a program allowing them to re-enter society.

After the rehabilitation officers learn what they can, the former fighters begin the rehab program. It includes, “counseling and vocational classes in tailoring, farming, auto repair and other skills. The aim is to allow them to earn enough so they’re not tempted to go back to Boko Haram.”

Igbo Names and Their Meanings

In my second book, now in the hands of six beta readers, I have a chapter about Igbo names. The other day I found a description of the importance of Igbo names in this lovely piece.

The Guardian article begins, “The Igbo are one of the three major tribes of Nigeria.” A good example of what I mean about seeing the term used – see the first part of this post!

The writer says, “Our [Igbo] names bear a message, a meaning, a story, an observation, a history, a life experience or a prayer. They embody a collective of my people’s rich heritage and provide a window into our value systems and life philosophies.

The article describes the importance of the naming ceremony. The grandparents call on the gods and ancestors and announce the chosen name. There are libations of wine again to honor the ancestors. Then comes breaking of kola, followed by speeches.

For our first son, the event was all afternoon and continued into the evening. During the ceremony the stub of our son’s umbilical cord was buried in the compound to tie him to his home forever.

One of my favorite Igbo names is Nkiruka, the name given to our granddaughter. It’s usually shortened to Nkiru for everyday use. It is one of the 10 names the article explains:

What lays ahead of you is far greater than what is behind. She looks ahead for greater things to come.

Gloria Johnson-Powell ’58: #PoweredByMountHolyoke

Gloria Johnson-Powell in the LinkedIn photo

Gloria Johnson-Powell in the LinkedIn photo

The Mount Holyoke Alumnae LinkedIn group shared a piece about Gloria Johnson-Powell ’58. The post said, “She organized for the Civil Rights movement as a student, and became a key figure in researching health inequalities among disenfranchised women and children of color living in Milwaukee. As a child psychiatrist, she was one of the first African American women to gain tenure at Harvard Medical School.”

I found more about her in an earlier Mount Holyoke publication. In that piece she related that she had thought of leaving medical school to become more active in the civil rights movement. But someone convinced her otherwise!

“It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself who changed her mind.” She recalled that she was at a meeting of student organizers when, “He banged his hand on the table, pointed his finger at me, and said, ‘You will stay in school because one of these days we’re going to need you.’ ”

Wikipedia has an entry for her.

The article says she was, “an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement and was one of the first African-American women to attain tenure at Harvard Medical School.”

Her book Black Monday’s Children: A Study Of The Effects Of School Desegregation On The Self-Concepts Of Southern Children is an important text in child psychology.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. My sister Beth sent this comment by email: I enjoyed this post and yes I read it all. Tribes belong in talking what you speak about… it would sound out of context to call Indian tribes, ethnic groups?!!

  2. Katy Hansen was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. She sent a comment by email: I also think “ethnic groups” is better. We don’t talk about the European “tribes.” It is used only for what we perceive as under-developed and backward.


  3. This came from Gen Shore: Catherine, I agree with your daughter and that audience member.
    “Tribe” is outdated in the same way that “colored” is to describe African-Americans. It conjures up images of barely evolved people who are living in near primitive conditions. It is “paternalistic” and condescending and immediately dismisses these groups as being inferior.

    I never really thought about it, but now that it has been brought to my attention, I see it that way.

  4. An interesting issue Catherine. Although I have never been in Nigeria, I wonder what a big cross section of people who were born & still live in Nigeria would think. I recently visited Rwanda & I had depth discussions with my driver about the Hutus vs the Tutsi & he definitely did not consider them to be different ethnicly. I also don’t believe the Samburus would say they were different ethnicly than the Masais in Kenya. They were & still are tribes of people. In fact, being Jewish, we just celebrated our 5778 New Year & I wish I could trace my roots back so I’d know which of the 12 tribes I came from. But regardless of whether I am from the Levi, Judah, Benjaman, etc tribe my ethnicity is Jewish & an Isrealite & I came from some TRIBE. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with that term today anymore than 50 or 100 years ago.

    • Thanks, Mike. Interesting point about the Jewish tribes. I had not thought of that.

      • The comedian Chris Rock puts an interesting spin on the issue of the oxymoron of a positive stereotype: “call me good with money” he says.

        @Mike it’s fine to be a tribe when the image that springs to mind is hundreds of Rene Magritte’s “man with bowler hat” heading for a Wall St or a “City” office on monday morning; for us it’s strictly the image of the “Rwanda” of competing for scarce resources in addled post colonial states not designed in any way for success.

        It’s essentially maintaining a world of expectations based on the same “good with money” narratives in a post Madoff world.

        The essence of Igbo culture for me is rarely discussed: A democratic pre-colonial society that was deliberately undermined to create a system easier to use to accomplish indirect rule; this was when we witnessed the introduction of “Warrant Chiefs” answerable to the colonials

  5. Interesting re “tribes” and yes, I can see letting the term die in the context you are using it. I think it has baggage your family and audience members are right to address.

    What I find more curious, though, is how many people in our disattached Western communities-of-choice refer to “finding one’s tribe” as a deeply *positive* thing. It’s a common turn of phrase in the science fiction/fantasy and gaming circles I move in. A different connotation, to be sure, but it is (in my contexts) a signal of fellow-feeling, of comraderie, of being easily understood and comfortable even with strangers met for the first time (but who passionately share the same interests).

    Language changes! Food for thought, as always. Thank you!

    • Yes, Liz, I have also seen that use of “tribe.” In fact I use it in the Americanized context in my second book, as you’ll see! I first heard it from Peter’s wife Mary when she was describing their son’s finding his “tribe” in high school.

  6. I think both terms are thoroughly discredited otherwise when an Englishman says he’s celebrating his “Englishness” we neither call that ethnic pride nor “tribalism”.

    Like the term “African American”, we need a new term; I hope it’s one that describes our city States or “groupings”, there’s a lot for people to learn about us, a lot for you to teach