The challenge of Ethnicity

Introduction

 In Africa, the blood of family, clan and tribe is thicker than the water of baptism.  This powerful statement was made at the African synod by the Nigerian bishop Albert Obiefuna.[1] Certainly he was touched like many other people by the news of the killings in Rwanda in 1994 when the synod started. The war in Rwanda in 1994 raised a lot of questions concerning the Christian faith and the reality of ethnicity in Africa.  We would like to reflect in this paper on the reality of ethnicity in Africa with a particular reference to Rwanda. We will have to answer to these questions: what is ethnicity? Where is the problem related to ethnicity? How does ethnicity manifests itself? Is ethnicity in itself a problem?   What about the interethnic conflicts? What happens when the Gospel meets the ethnic reality?  What is our mission today? 

What is ethnicity?

Ethnicity, in itself, refers to how people live, think, behave and interact among themselves and with others.  This includes their group’s idea about other people and the attitude they develop towards these people[2].  Another term used often is tribe. A tribe is “a social organization with a common ancestry, language and name”[3].  The term tribalism derived from the word tribe and it has a negative connotation.  Tribalism is “thinking and acting in favour of one’s tribe at the expense of some other tribes[4].”  What is behind such behavior is a strong feeling of loyalty towards and of bond to a group of people to which one belongs.  The word ethnocentrism is closely connected to tribalism.  Ethnocentrism is understood as “that attitude of mind in which a group of human beings takes itself for the center of everything and judges and categorizes other peoples only with references to themselves”[5].  Having defined these terms a question has to be asked: How is ethnicity as defined above a problem?

Ethnicity is a problem

Many people believe that “many of the major political (including violent) conflicts that the world has witnessed in recent years have a clear cut ethnic dimension.” [6] The reality of ethnic problems in Africa is recognized by the African Synod (EA no.49).  The African Synod identifies “tribalism, nepotism, racism, religious intolerance and thirst for power taken to the extreme by totalitarian regimes” as internal causes of wars in Africa (EA No.117). The pope in his opening homily of the African Synod called the war in Rwanda: “an upsetting tragedy” “an absurd hate” “Homicide of violence” “fratricidal massacres”.[7]  The message of the Synod spoke of  “fratricidal hate inspired by political interests”[8] and “the idolatry of ethnicity which lead to fratricidal wars“[9].  The bishops of Amecea saw “tribal and ethnic wars as internal reason to the violation of large human rights in Africa”.[10]  The African Synod listed tribalism and ethnic conflicts in the burning issues facing almost all the nations of Africa today.[11]  

In Rwanda, in 1959, bishop Perraudin in his famous Lenten pastoral letter saw the ethnic problem in Rwanda as the source of the social injustices.[12] The official clear and explicit recognition of the centrality of the ethnic question by the bishops of Rwanda is in 1992 when they wrote that Rwanda will never know peace if Hutu, Tutsi and Twa do not understand and accept each other as equal.[13]  After the war of 1994 the bishops of Rwanda came to realize that the core of the problem was the ethnic antagonisms.  In 1997 in preparation for the Great Jubilee and for the Centenary of the Evangelization of Rwanda, the bishops launched an extraordinary synod on the ethnic question.  They identified the root of the Rwandan problem in the hearts of the Banyarwanda.  

Ethnicity is a problem when it takes the form of ethnocentrism or tribalism. However, “It is becoming increasingly clear that ethnocentrism is a latent disposition of ethnic identity itself.”[14]

How does ethnocentrism manifest itself?

Tribalism or ethnocentrism can be seen as an “exaggerated form of ethnicity”[15].  It is manifested in a feeling of enmity toward one another based on the difference of ethnic origin.  It shows itself in the form of complexes of superiority.  It is sometimes evident in the way some people ridicule others with jokes, insults, to mock them and to dismiss with content and disdain anything they do.[16]  This does not refer to tribal joking relationship so common in West Africa.  Ethnicity becomes a problem when one ethnic group aids and abets its members in whatever they do may it be bad or good, wrong or right. Exaggerated ethnicity gives rise to favoritism and nepotism.  When care, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust are directed only towards the members of one’s ethnic group, ethnicity becomes a serious social issue.  In Rwanda the extremist Batutsi are imposing an exclusive “tutsi solidarity”. This is also seen in the help to the survivors of the genocide.  Only Batutsi survivors can really profit from the aid offered.  

Ethnocentrism is often in our way of being and thinking.  The Lenten campaign 2000 proposed to the Small Christian Communities a reflection on the theme of Reconciliation, Unity and Truth based of the story of a Kenyan lady who goes to America for study.  When she introduced herself to her class, she said confidently: “My name is Agida, I am a Kikuyu…” Her classmates were puzzled and asked her if Kikuyu was a country in Africa or Caribbean.  She realized that tribal backgrounds made little sense in her group.  For those people she was a Kenyan and she has even to show on the map to some of them where Kenya is.  Agida was ever determined that when she goes back to Kenya after the course, she would work as a Kenyan for the good of the country as a whole[17].  

Is ethnicity really a problem?

The concept of ethnicity, like the concept of tribe, is positive.  “All human beings are born into a given ethnic group or tribe.  From that group, we all derive our mode of existence and life.  Our tribe gives our culture, which makes us who we are”.[18]  Ethnicity is a purely human phenomenon and all human beings possess it.  It is a blessing.[19]  We have to accept it as a fact of human existence.  “Belonging to an ethnic group factor gives an individual a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.”[20] We owe our cultural identity to our tribe.  

It is a reality that we are living in a pluralistic society made of approximately 185 nations-states with 8,000 ethnic groups[21].  The biblical writers tried to explain the origins of the human tribes with the myth of the Babel tower in Genesis 11.  Here the scattering of the peoples over the earth is seen as God’s punishment because their decision to build an impressive tower was prompted by pride[22].  But Genesis 10 suggests that   “the spread of peoples over the whole world was a result of God command to Noah and his sons to increase and fill the earth.”[23]  In the same line we can trace the origins of the tribe to the creation of the world itself (Genesis 1: 27…31).  

From an anthropological point of view the ethnic reality, as we know it now is a process that happened is history.  People were living in isolated human groups that had been ‘ethnicized’ in the course of history.[24]  This leads us to the next question: if ethnicity is part and parcel of human existence[25] and should be accepted as natural and normal, are the conflicts in Africa ethnic?

Are there ethnic conflicts in Africa?

When we were in Rwanda in 1997-1999 the official position of the leaders was: “The colonialists and the missionaries are the one who politicized our ethnic ‘differences’ and transformed them into conflicts.”  Many people even the Rwandan bishops believe that there is no ethnic hatred between Bahutu and Batutsi.  What happened in 1994 was a political struggle for power against the monopoly of the power by a political party but not by an ethnic group.  

Following this position many people believe that conflicts in Africa are not tribal as such but they are political, economic…with tribal color.  Indeed the war in Rwanda cannot be attributed only to ethnic reasons in the sense that Bahutu and Batutsi hate themselves so much that they cannot live together.  A Muhutu did not kill his or her neighbor Mututsi only because he or she did not like his or her ‘tutsiness’.  The so-called interethnic conflicts or clashes in Africa are very complex involving many factors.  

If it is true that we cannot attribute the many conflicts to ethnicity, we have to recognize that there is a problem somewhere.  What is happening now is a manipulation of the ethnic reality.  The interethnic conflicts are based on a politicization of ethnicity and a manipulation of ethnicity for selfish political and economic gains.[26] This is what happened in many African countries in the 1990s when the introduction of the multiparty system was accompanied by politically motivated clashes.  

In traditional Africa, ethnic groups did not have the strong social meaning that they have today.  What happened is that slavery and colonialism gave a final mould to ethnic groups and sharpened tribal antagonisms.  Following the colonial administration, the independent governments in Africa continued the ethnic power play.  The parties rely on an ethnic power-base.  The multiparty system exploits interethnic rivalries and the political power is gained from an ethnic constituency.[27]  

Contemporary Africa is experiencing the radicalization of the ethnic identities that is damaging seriously relationship in the society.[28]  And this called for our response.  

Ethnicity and the Christian message

The Christian message cannot but challenge ethnicity in its exaggerated forms.  “The gospel tries to change hearts, and help people see each other as gift, rather that threat.  It induces people to co-operate with, and care for one another.” [29]Being created by the one God, we are all equal in the eyes of God our Creator.  We owe to him our differences but these differences are not to be used at the expense of other.  Genesis chapter 10 stresses the oneness of the human race:  “in spite of the diversity of peoples the human race is one: descended from Noah’s three sons.”[30]  Jesus, of course, challenged ethnicity.  The best and most powerful challenge of Jesus on that question is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-34).  Through the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was calling us to rise beyond our differences of race, tribe, color, religion and social class and to actively treat each other as brothers and sisters.  In Galatians 3: 26-29, Paul does not abolish or deny the differences between people but he “argues that in the Christian fellowship no discrimination or inferiority in status or function can be admitted on the ground of sex, race, colour of skin, nationality, tribe or class”[31]. This teaching is also expressed in Revelation7: 9 in which the vision of a church as a “great multitude, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” points to “the community in which we can appreciate the dignity and value of each person as a child of without distinction of race, colour, sex or status.“[32]

In conformity with the Christian message the Church has challenged ethnocentrism.  The African synod reacted strongly against ethnocentrism and launched an appeal to stop any ethnic conflict and to promote reconciliation.   It suffices to quote the message of the synod: “The synod denounces and emphatically condemns the lust for power and all forms of self-seeking as well as the idolatry of ethnicity which lead to fratricidal wars.”[33]

The statement of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission on racism in 1988[34] condemns the various past and present forms of racism.  It emphasizes the equal dignity of every person and every race (#17) and the unity of humankind (#20-21).  The document calls for respect for differences, fraternity and solidarity (#23).

What is our mission today in relation to ethnicity?

The document of the Pontifical commission on racism stresses the importance of uprooting of any form of racism in the heart (#24); the protection of victims of racism (#26); the preparation to a change in mentality that enables structural change (#27); the formation of non-racist consciences (#28); equal and just laws that guarantee basic human rights (#29); international and juridical instruments to combat racism (#30).[35]

 It is important to start with the positive aspects of ethnicity[36].  The strong sense of identity, the sense of belonging and the uniqueness can be utilized and applied today in promoting interethnic reconciliation and coexistence.  The promotion and defense of human life for its own sake is a challenge for the new evangelization.

There is a need to rediscover or revise the African cultures taking into consideration the demands of a pluralistic society.  This “cultural learning process by which a person is inserted into his or her culture” is called enculturation.[37]  Our social structures should be based on meritocracy and equal opportunity for all.  It is important for people to talk about their differences in times of peace instead of waiting when things are apart.  Interethnic marriage should be encouraged.  

There is need for more interaction between ethnic groups[38].  This requires the humility to accept others as they are and more than that it means developing a genuine interest in, and love for others in their difference.  People need to be educated culturally about how to accommodate other cultures and traditions in a spirit of dialogue.  The new agents of evangelization need to be formed in a multiethnic context so that they acquire an interethnic mentality necessary for the relevance of the Christian message they are sent to proclaim with their whole life. 

The evangelization of ethnicity is an essential task[39].  This will be a real inculturation.  In this process of inculturation attention should be given to social issues that all the tribes face in a nation for an integral human development.  The response will foster a sense of belonging to the same nation.  Unless the different ethnic groups meet really they will never transcend their antagonisms.  

The integration of the different cultural riches in our liturgical celebrations should be emphasized.[40]  Our liturgies should be more liberating and integrated.  We need to build multicultural liturgies in which people from different tribes can develop interest in different vernacular songs, respect and admiration for other creativity and also tolerance.   

The Church has the role of accepting and tolerating ethnicity but not to ‘become too tied to tribal loyalties'[41].  Because of her internal ethnic divisions, the Church has to pay more attention to the ethnic factor in drawing the dioceses and in appointing pastors.  Her fight against tribalism is non negotiable.  It is a must. And it has to be reflected in her ‘refusal to manipulate or oppress ethnic cultures’.  All the groups, the associations and the communities even and primarily the religious communities and the clergy, in order to be effective witness of Christ, should be interracial and interethnic and should foster a real fellowship.

Some of the many propositions of the African Synod are worth to be mentioned[42].  The African Synod called for a deepening of the faith (No.47). The African synod mentions also a honest dialogue as a means to heal the various forms of divisions, an application of the gospel to concrete life (EA 51), a formation of the whole community and especially of the lay faithful that will enable them “to consider social-political problems in the light of the Gospel and of faith in God (EA 54); a new evangelization (EA 57) centered on the proclamation of the hope of life, on a transforming encounter with the living person of Christ, in which individuals and society are touched in every aspect of their existence.  This points to the importance of an integral human development: the development of every person and of the whole person (EA 68).  And finally there is the call to build up “the Church as Family, avoiding all ethnocentrism and excessive particularism, trying instead to encourage reconciliation and true communion between different ethnic groups, favouring solidarity and the sharing of personnel and resources among the particular churches, without undue ethnic considerations.” (EA 63).

Another important task is the necessity to speak out the ethnic differences[43].  The ethnic divisions or antagonisms should not be a taboo.  Tribalism must be exposed openly.  And everywhere people should be educated to know who they are and who is the other, why are they different and how they can love each other and they should be explained why tribalism is a deviation of what they are and what the others are.  

Conclusion

“Ethnicity is a blessing but ethnocentrism is a curse”[44]. The more and more affirmations or exaggerations of ethnic identities are utilized in such a way that ethnicity becomes central to the conflicts in Africa.  The very fact that ethnicity can be utilized means that it has a problem in itself.  The case of Rwanda questions seriously the Christian faith and the reality of ethnicity.  There is need for an evangelization in depth of culture with a particular attention to the ethnic reality.  With the increasingly growth of strong ethnocentric and nationalistic feelings, the Church has the urgent task to destroy the several towers of Babel built by self-centered people: “the tower of corruption, the tower of power-drunkenness, the towers of tribalism and of hedonism, the tower of the pathetic spectacle of millions of displaced and homeless people, the tower of lies, the tower of intolerance, the towers of hostility and brutality, the towers of senseless fratricidal wars, the towers of bribery, corruption, nepotism and favouritism, the towers of arrogance and pride, in short, the tower of sheer iniquity.“[45]  The Church must offer to this culturally confused and disoriented world the unconditional and non-exclusive love of God.  “It is a strong call from God to build humanity as a rainbow, extending almost indefinitely from one end to another but connected to the sky above, spreading out its awesome beauty for everyone to witness God’s glory“[46] and love.   It sounds like a dream! “I believe that what self-centered persons have torn down, other-centered people can build up” (Martin Luther King).  The dream can become reality by the power of God because “Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build” (Ps 127:1).  This is our faith and our hope.

Bibliography

a.       Reference book:

The African Bible, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999.

b.      Books:

Bourdillon, M., Religion and Society, Gweru,Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1990.

Shorter, A., Christianity and the African imagination, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1996.

Shorter, A., African culture an overview, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999.

Shorter, A., The African Synod, a personal response to the outline document, Nairobi, Kenya: St Paul Publications Africa, 1991.

c.       Compilation of messages

1. Lettres pastorales et autres declarations des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda (1956-1962), édité par le Secrétariat Général de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda, 1999.

2. Recueil des lettres et messages de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda publiés pendant la periode de guerre (1990-1994), édité par le Secrétariat Général de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda, 1999.

3. The African Synod, Pope’s opening homily message of the synod, Message of the synod, Message of the AMECEA and IMBISA bishops, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1994.

d.      Church document

John Paul II, the Church in Africa, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1995.

Pontifical commission Justitia et Pax, the Church and racism: towards a more fraternal society, 3 November 1988

The Synod comes home, a simplified Text, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1995.

e.       Compilation of articles

Mugambi, J. N. K., A.Nasimiyu-Wasike, eds., Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity, Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1999.

Walter von Holzen & Sean Fagan, eds., Africa the Kairos of a Synod, Rome, Sedos, 1994.

Various authors, “Ethnicity: Blessing or Curse”, Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999.

f.        Magazine

New People No. 50 September-October 1997.

Lenten campaign 2000, A Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Publication.


[1] Shorter, A., Christianity and the African imagination, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1996, p.12.

[2] Peter K. Sarpong, “Ethnicity. Who is my neighbour?” In: New People No. 50 September-October 1997, p.14

[3] Waruta D. M., “Tribalism as a moral problem in Contemporary Africa In: J. N. K. Mugambi, A.Nasimiyu-Wasike, eds., Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity, Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1999, p.120.

[4] Ibid., p.119

[5] Peter Gichure, “Ethnicity and enculturation” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.20.

[6] New People No. 50 September-October 1997, p.13.

[7] The African Synod, Pope’s opening homily, Message of the Synod, Message of the Amecea and Imbisa bishops, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1994, p.6.

[8] Ibid., p.11

[9] Ibid., p. 24.

[10] Ibid., p. 41.

[11] The African Synod comes home, A Simplified Text,  Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1995, p.12.

[12] Lettre pastoral de Monseigneur Perraudin, vicaire Apostoliaue de Kabgayi, pour le Careme de 1959, In: Lettres pastorales et autres declarations des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda (1956-1962), édité par le Secrétariat Général de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda, 1999, p.32. N.B. At that time  the term race was often used to speak of ethnic group.

[13] Message des Evêques Cqtholiques du Rwanda pour le Carême 1992, Convertissez-vous et croyez à L’Evangile, In: Recueil des lettres et messages de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda publiés pendant la periode de guerre (1990-1994), édité par le Secrétariat Général de la conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Rwanda, 1999, p.224.

[14] A. Shorter, “The curse of ethnocentrism and the African Church”, In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p. 30.

[15] Peter K. Sarpong, “Ethnicity. Who is my neighbour?” In: New People No. 50 September-October 1997, p.15

[16] Ibid., p.15

[17] Lenten campaign 2000, A Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Publication, p.7-8.

[18] Peter K. Sarpong, “Ethnicity. Who is my neighbour?” In: New People No. 50 September-October 1997, p.14.

[19] Peter Gichure, “Ethnicity and enculturation” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.23.

[20] Mary Getui, “At variance but in harmony” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.11.

[21] New People No. 50 September-October 1997, p.13

[22] The African Bible, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.38

[23] Ibid., p.38

[24] A. Shorter, African culture, an overview, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.18.

[25] Mary Getui, “At variance but in harmony” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.11.

[26] Mary Getui, “At variance but in harmony” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.

[27] Aylward Shorter, “The curse of ethnocentrism and the African Church” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.28.

[28]Mgr Bernard Bududira, “Inculturer l’ Evangile dans le quotidien”, In: Walter von Holzen & Sean Fagan, eds., Africa the Kairos of a Synod, Rome, Sedos, 1994, p.28. 

[29] A. Shorter, The African Synod, a personal response to the outline document, Nairobi, Kenya: St Paul Publications Africa, 1991, p.49.

[30] The African Bible, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.37.

[31] Ibid., p.1958.

[32] Ibid., p.2105.

[33] The African Synod, Pope’s opening homily, Message of the Synod, Message of the Amecea and Imbisa bishops, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1994, p.24.

[34] Pontifical commission Justitia et Pax, the Church and racism: towards a more fraternal society, 3 November 1988

[35] Ibid.

[36] See Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8

[37] See Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8

[38] See Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8, p.30-31

[39] See Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8, p.49-54

[40] See Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8, p.59

[41] A. Shorter, The African Synod, a personal response to the outline document, Nairobi, Kenya: St Paul Publications Africa, 1991, p.49-50.

[42] See John Paul II, the Church in Africa, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 1995.

[43] D.W.Waruta, “Tribalism as a moral Problem in Contemporary Africa” In: J. N. K. Mugambi, A.Nasimiyu-Wasike, eds., Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity, Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1999, p.131.

[44] Peter Gichure, “Ethnicity and enculturation” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No 8, Nairobi, Paulines Publications Africa, 1999, p.23.

[45] Peter Sarpong, homily at the closing mass In: Walter von Holzen & Sean Fagan, eds., Africa the Kairos of a Synod, Rome, Sedos, 1994, p.166.

[46] Francesco Pierli, “Ethnicity and human development: the missing link” In: Tangaza Occasional Paper No. 8, p.54.

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