More lazy and damaging Africa stereotypes: Maasai + Bemba / African = the same

African Tribe practise forgiveness

The picture above is a screen-grab of a story that’s doing the rounds on the web and on Facebook. You can see why people share it – it’s a heartwarming tale and we can all learn from its lessons of seeing the good in ourselves and practising forgiveness. But there is another – slightly less obvious – lesson here…

Morris Dancing. Practised in England. Unlike FadoIf I wrote a story about a custom from some ‘European People’ and then illustrated it with a picture of a different ‘European People’ engaged in an unrelated custom – e.g. showing a picture of English people Morris Dancing to illustrate a story about the Portuguese Fado, everyone would be up in arms.

Yet in the original piece the quote below the photo says ‘I was recently told of an African tribe’.

Which African tribe? The picture shows the Maasai. But the ritual shown is the Adumu, a coming of age ritual for Maasai boys/men, that has nothing to with the forgiveness story described.

So I looked around the internet and found lots of versions of the story that didn’t say ‘an African Tribe’, but rather that it was a forgiveness custom performed by the Babemba people of South Africa. Not the Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya at all.

For example, the story is quoted by the American author Alice Walker in her book We are the ones we have been waiting for. And it is expanded upon in more depth in the Tennessee local newspaper, The Chatanoogan.

Trouble is, there’s no Babemba tribe in South Africa. The Bemba (or Babemba, meaning people of Bemba) come mainly from Zambia, to the north of South Africa. You can read more detailed information about their practices and customs here and here.

There’s very little about this custom anywhere that I have looked that isn’t just paraphrasing the version of the story as seen in Alice Walker’s book. However, its first reference appears to be from way back in 1979, in an out of print book called: Contact: The First Four Minutes, by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin. It got repeated by motivational author and speaker Dr Wayne Dyer more recently and this appears to explain its presence on a lot of self-help and positive thinking / spirituality websites.
However, there’s nothing about it in either of those two more encyclopaedic and anthropological entries in the previous paragraph. Of course the absence of evidence doesn’t for one second mean the custom doesn’t exist. If someone finds more about it I’d love to know if any group of people, Bemba or whoever, do perform this ritual.

However, what we are left with is that currently the internet is circulating various versions of an unverified story about an African tribe that doesn’t live where the story says they do and using a photo of a different African tribe performing an unrelated ritual to illustrate it.

So what, you might ask? It’s a nice story, what’s the harm in spreading it?

As a story, nothing. But by doing so in its current form we are also reinforcing the fact that most people in the West/North don’t really care that there are many different African tribes and countries. It’s easier to conceive of ‘Africans’ as some generic and interchangeable ‘other’, who can then provide us with a handy shorthand for either timeless earth wisdom when we want to be positive about ‘them’, or primal savagery and an inability to self-govern when we don’t.

Why take the time to discover the various truths of their lived existence? It’s much easier to appropriate some story – whether it is true or not – and use it to suit our own ends.

  • David

    Thanks for this. I’ve also seen this making the rounds, and cynic that I am, have been trying to track down any sort of veracity to the story. Yours is by far the best examination that I’ve found

  • After reading about this supposed custom, I too wondered which tribe was being referred to and in which country. Though I find the story a beautiful lesson, I’m interested in learning the specifics.

  • Thank you. I noticed this post as you linked to my image of the Adumu. I am also trying to be as clear and correct as possible when describing cultural and geographical aspects. If misinformation gets spread, misunderstanding follows.

    Your backgrounds and corrections to the story that is doing the rounds is very much appreciated.

  • Thank you for this post! Africa is a continent of diversity – but thanks to Western media many do not understand that 🙁 – I thought you might like to know that I could not find the quote in the book you suggested but I did find it related to this book: Sent By Earth – A Message From The Grandmother Spirit – by Alice Walker:

    …”Where do we start? How do we reclaim a proper relationship to the world?

    It is said that in the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, about all the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.

    The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.

    This will not be the fate of Osama bin Laden,…”

    Cheers! ^_^

    • disqus_9hGcgJwej7

      Sounds even more made up than the original 2 day claim. How can an entire tribe of hunter/gatherers stop work for 7 days without dying? What kind of error can make a person go into the circle? It must not be often because it would endanger their survival as a group.
      I don’t think Alice Walker is a reliable source when it comes to African customs. Her career as an author is making up interesting stories and she’s good at it.

  • You had me until you lumped people into North/West the way you said those in the Norht/West shouldn’t regarding the tribes of Africa. I don’t think the message is diminished at al by not knowing which tribe, if any, this story comes from. I understand your issue with illustrating it incorrectly and agree, but the message is beautiful regardless.

    • Thanks for that. it’s a good point. I probably should have said ‘most people outside of the continent of Africa’, because there are undoubtedly people living in countries in the East and South who would think as I argue many of those in the North and West do.

    • Wendy T.

      I agree wholeheartedly. I am going to carry the message of that story with me today, regardless of it’s veracity. I am a teacher and the message inspires me to always see the good in the children I serve. To encourage the good in them is so important in their growth as human beings, and I needed to be reminded of that.

  • thanks Jeremy, you saved my time explaining to my FB friends how to avoid being stupid. I have spend some time in Africa and know a bit about the major tribes and was surprised never hearing about such tradition…

  • Kristi

    Thanks for this. I’m an anthropologist, and I saw this being circulated on Facebook. Of course it’s labeled as some obscure unverified African tribe (annoying as hell). I found out what tribe supposedly does this, and my hunt led me to your post.

  • Thank you for debunking this hoax that in May 2014 has again gone viral on Facebook, thanks to it being posted by Canadian, Natasha Kyssa (businesswoman, author, and public speaker) on her Facebook BUSINESS page. Only this time, the image has been replaced by one taken from a book, AMEN, by Jessica Hilltout, about soccer in Africa. The image has obviously been selected to elicit an emotional tear jerk response from readers. (This young footballer is called Tawfig . http://vervephoto.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/jessica-hilltout/ )

    In addition, the new following paragraph has been added:

    “Shikoba Nabajyotisaikia!

    NABAJYOTISAIKIA, is a compliment used in South Africa and means: “I respect you, I cherish you. You matter to me.” In response, people say SHIKOBA, which is: “So, I exist for you.” ”

    I am South African born and bred, and I can assure you that these words are NOT spoken here. In fact they don’t exist in any of our languages. The word ‘SHIKOBA’ is from the N American Choctaw language and means ‘feather’, whilst the word ‘NABAJYOTISAIKIA’ does not exist in any South African language. It is a combination of words lifted from the Assamese language (N India), one of which (SAIKA) is a common surname. Saikia – Saikia and its alternative forms – Saikiah, Xoikiya, Soikia etc. is a surname from Assam, India.

    Anyone who debunks the story and actually backs their comments up with FACTS has their comments removed from the page and is blocked from commenting further. Yet others referring to the anonymous ‘African tribe’ as ‘them’ and commenting to the effect of “and the West says they are uncivilised” are left in place.

    So much for truth and light and the so-called intended message of the fairy tale.

  • Maybe David W. Augsburger can help. His name is linked to the oldest reference to it that I can find – a mention in a 1997 (?) sermon. Augsburger has a Wiki page, and is on the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary. That old reference spells the tribe as Babimba. Babimba is a placename in Ruanda.

    I’d love the story to be true. But with nothing more substantial than that old reference, it may not be.

    But there’s the other possibility that it is true, and historians and anthropologists have distorted or diminished it such that its transmission is now partially incorrect, painting its reality with the smear of myth.

  • MaryS

    Actually, is the story not a first hand account made by Leonard Sunin in his book “Contact, The First Four Minutes” published int he 70’s? Seems to me that maybe the “lazy” is someone not doing their research before bashing a perfectly inspiring story.

    • jmcsmith

      Which I stated directly in the article: ‘However, its first reference appears to be from way back in 1979, in an out of print book called: Contact: The First Four Minutes, by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin’

  • OG Mally Bieber

    Yes – it’s popped up in my Facebook feed by the “soft-hearted” friends of mine – but I researched it and found it’s entirely made up. I wish people would stop putting these things out there that just “sound god”. It’s cheap and tacky – but hey, they’re sensitive souls. (buries face in hands)