The various groups which are today collectively known as the "Bushmen" are perhaps the best example. Bushmen do not refer to themselves as either a tribe or Bushmen.
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This is a term used by outsiders to describe them. Indeed, people who study different groups of Bushmen insist that they represent a wide variation of cultural and linguistic groups, perhaps even more than one could find in all of Europe.
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Often such groups do not have a name for themselves, only for neighboring groups; and the names given them by neighboring groups are pejorative. Yet, they are the ones that have been used by colonists throughout the world for centuries for more on this issue, see "Letters to the Editor," this issue.
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Hence, because these people lived in the bush, they were called Bushmen. The use of "tribe" for small isolated groups is a way to reinforce the notion that larger groups are "progressive," becoming "civilized. Most African peoples, at the time of independence, were thought to be in the process of becoming ethnic groups and living in plural societies where cultural differences would be accepted.
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This has not happened. After independence, sub-Saharan African countries were expected to develop political systems styled after Western democracies.
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It was assumed that ideology and class alliances would counter the potentially harmful effects of tribalism. In fact, however, it quickly became apparent that the political parties which were formed in most new states rarely represented more than one or two cultural groups. As different parties came to power, they ruled with their own group's interests coming first.
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Plural societies did not develop. In an attempt to create the appearance of political unity, dominant groups began to ban, or make unconstitutional, other political parties. As a result, secessionist movements, one-party states and military governments became the norm. Today, of the more than forty sub-Saharan governments, only five allow opposition parties, the rest are divided equally between one party states and military dictatorships.
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The importance of the domination of most African states by one or two groups only becomes obvious as one examines the impact of government programs. Most African countries have state or district divisions that reflect cultural distinctions. All government monies are distributed to these entities and all revenues are collected from them. By examining the per capita expenditures and receipts by district one can develop a clear understanding of the relative power held by each group. Looking more closely at which districts receive development projects, credit, roads, communications networks, public health facilities, and schools completes the picture.
In Africa, administrative units often are as cultural specific as political parties. Discrepancies between regions are often thought to result from "differential development" rates.
It's simpler than that; they result from institutionalized discrimination. Some African states have invested considerable sums on public education in the belief that it would eventually eliminate racial prejudice most commonly referred to as tribalism. But, education imparts values and ideas - usually those of the dominant group - thereby reinforcing feelings of superiority or inferiority depending on the relationship of one's group to the central government. Education alienated many people from their own cultures, and at the same time, created unrealistic expectations of the state.
Kenya, for example, is teeming with educated people who cannot find jobs but who no longer know how or are willing to farm.
New African states made people dissatisfied with their own cultures while at the same time growing bureaucracies filled capital cities and attracted large amounts of consumer goods. Rural people began to flock to the cities. It is no wonder that the urbanization rate for the continent has increased so dramatically in the last 25 years.
Perhaps the most important reason that African states attack cultural identity is that the existence of separate or distinct societies poses threats to the centralization of power and control of resources. In some cases groups have been allowed to continue to practice certain cultural or religious beliefs if they agree to renounce their political and economic autonomy. However, as the power of states grows or is threatened, the rights of distinct cultural groups are curtailed even further.
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The groups that dominate the state and its resources also control the benefits accrued from recognition by other states - foreign assistance, investments, weapons, alliances. During periods of economic prosperity they rarely share assets equally with the dominated groups. During periods of economic austerity, such discrimination frequently accelerates into persecution, as dominant groups attempt to maintain their own economic, political and social positions.
As a result of persecution and discrimination, Africa has produced half of the world's refugee population. As a result of policies aimed at generating foreign exchange, African states have reorganized agriculture in order to generate cash crops for export. Africans in many drought-affected countries, now starving in unprecedented numbers, are not allowed to grow food crops. They are some of the most varied and eye-catching designs available anywhere in the world, and they have such a wide spectrum of meanings that just about anyone can find a tribal armband tattoo that fits with their life.
Tribal tattoos are native to the Hawaiian and Polynesian islands, and they were originally designed to create symbolism for each individual family, much like a coat of arms. Most tribal designs have deeper meanings associated with them, but modern tribal tattoos are typically chosen for their aesthetic appeal. Strength, family, love, and wisdom are the most common ideals meant to be illustrated by such tribal armbands.
These tattoos often include barbed designs of incredible intricacy, weaving in and out of itself as it surrounds the arm. The continuity of these tattoos helps show the never-ending cycle of life.