Thursday, October 2, 2014

before you join a tribe part two: no black sheep

Welcome to part two of Before you join a tribe. If you missed the introduction and part one, you can find it HERE.

Today we are looking at a second area of tribal membership that is seemingly ignored by the fad-tastic tribal members of the United States, namely falling in line. What is this, the military? Kind of, and the venerated elders we talked about in part one? They are the generals. Tribal culture as led by the elders have right and wrong ways of doing everything. Specific practice, specific thought, specific procedure, and dissention is not tolerated.
In Aushi culture, when you greet, you use two hands. Sitting on the ground requires straight legs with ankles crossed. Kneel and clap exactly three times for the chief. Thine fro shall be no longer than two centimeters. Dad takes the first bite. The youngest non-toddler draws the water. Nshima is eaten only with the right hand. Don’t talk about bodily functions. Never sit next to your in-laws. Plant maize in mounds. Don’t show your thighs. This greeting for this situation and that greeting for that. No variation. No improv. No black sheep.

For several years we thought we were the awesomest, most convincing teachers ever because all of our workshops, seminars and programs were received with complete “agreement.” And by agreement, I mean people nodded and smiled and were all “uh huh, yeah!” and we did not realize for quite some time that in THIS tribal culture, there is no raising of the hand and correcting the authority figure. There is no posing of alternatives or voicing complaint. There is no heated debate. There is no telling someone off.

yes? we all agree? organizational unity? perfect!
In fact, people who find themselves in heated arguments almost always land themselves before the tribal leaders explaining their insulting behavior. In Luapula’s provincial police headquarters, administrative codes for common offenses are listed on a sheet of paper above the registrar’s desk. Offense include theft, murder and insulting. You can find yourself standing before the magistrate for crimes of stealing maize, axing your enemy and telling someone they are a stupid idiot. Really? People can’t stand to be insulted? No, because there is a right way and a wrong way and if we are fighting over something , then someone is ignoring the right way and needs to be corrected.

a skit about how to handle power confrontation
Every time I scroll through the comments section on any blog post – innocuous or contentious – there is always a span of thoughts and opinions ranging from “oh my gosh this is the best!” to “I’m un-following you because you are a heinous jerk.” American culture loves debate and contention and heated, overly-emotional conversation. This game of back-and-forth-until-we-are-blue-in-the-face is like the American national sport.

A few times our American-ness has brushed up against the Zambian tribal-ness and we’ve found ourselves asking the fatalistic question, “Why?” When the answer is inevitably, “Because,” we hem and haw and prepare to put up a fight and the patient souls around us remind us of where we are and that the law of the land is, “this is the way things are.” There is no room for gray and those who leave the realm of black and white pay for their defiance by donning a scarlet letter.

I think Impundu wants us to get over ourselves

Dear free thinkers, radical minds and professional opinionators – your tribe called and they want you out. Membership is not transferrable, so you’ll have to marry into another tribe and they will probably hate you for your contentiousness, but at least you can always use the internet as a debate-ready outlet.

Tribal societies that resist new ideas and innovation are at an obvious disadvantage in many realms of life. Oh the blog posts that could be written on this topic right here… But my point here is not to cast judgment or take sides or vote for who I think is the winner here because to do so would be exceedingly American and not at all tribal and THAT is my point.

What I will say though is that I think there is a sinful obsession in American culture with being RIGHT. Our demand to be heard and believed and agreed with is borderline neurotic. Most days the internet looks like one immature game of verbal king of the hill and this is happening in both secular and religious realms. I would be ashamed to let any of my neighbors eavesdrop on the cyber madness. The best advice I have ever received came from my neighbors and by extention their tribe, “Preserving the relationship is more important than being right.” How many relationships have been murdered in recent months over sexuality, modesty, doctrines of sanctification and roles of women, parenting philosophy and for the love of heaven PUBLIC BREASTFEEDING?

ok maybe she's a black sheep, but she's too cute to care.

Tribal solidarity is a product of relational commitment. I am willing to be wrong to preserve US. And most of the time, that requires some level of keeping our mouths shut. Very few people have perfected the skill of disagreeing nicely, which is why the most “tribal” thing your mama ever said was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Which is another reason why you should re-read post one and call your mom.


  1. I'm curious about "maize must be grown in mounds." Have Zambians been growing maize as their staple crop for ever and ever and ever - no questions asked?

    1. Rebekah, maize was a missionary introduction, so not forever and ever, but the mound technique is universal, regardless of soil type or field slope or average rainfall. And the current generation does believe that this is the way it has always been.