Tribalism is the hot topic of the day, from who has which land rights to who controls the budget. Is Museveni favoring Westerners? Have Northerners or Easterners been left with mere crumbs of the national cake? One’s ethnicity may play a role in determining one’s opportunities for advancement or economic prosperity, but do you really know who is from where and belongs to which tribe?
It is often assumed, both on the street and in the Ivory Towers of academia, that ethnicity is clear-cut and ethnic groups are easily identifiable. But how true is this assumption? If you see a man on the street, with how much certainty could you guess which “tribe” or ethnic group he is from? What if he spoke a sentence in Luganda? A sentence in his native tongue? Told you his family name? Would you be able to correctly identify the part of the country from which he originated? If he were pretending to be from another group, would you be able to call his bluff? These are precisely the sorts of questions a team of political scientists from universities across the U.S. set out to answer here in Kampala in 2005.
The study, carried out by Professors James Habyarimana, Macartan Humphreys, Daniel Posner, and Jeremy Weinstein, involved 300 subjects from the Mulago-Kyebando area of Kampala. The demographic distribution of the subjects roughly mirrored the distribution found in the population of Mulago-Kyebando, with the largest groups represented being the Baganda, Banyankole, and Bafumira. Subjects participating in the study were shown either a photo or a video of another subject and provided with varying levels of information about the person. At the lowest level of information, only a headshot was provided; at the highest level, the person greeted the camera in their primary language and also revealed their family name. The subject then tried to correctly identify the ethnic group from the individual came. In some cases, the subjects being filmed were asked to pretend to “pass” as a member of another group.
What were the results? It seems identifying one’s tribe may not be as simple as it seems. On the whole, subjects from a given ethnic group would miscategorize someone from their same ethnic group 33 percent of the time. They would miscategorize someone from a different group 65 percent of the time. Additionally, those from certain groups, such as the Baganda, were nearly always correctly identified while others, such as the Bakiga, were frequently confused with another group (namely the Banyankole in this case). There were varying levels of the extent of errors of exclusion across groups, with Baganda subjects failing to identify fellow Baganda 30 percent of the time, while Banyarwanda failed to recognize fellow Banyarwanda 76 percent of the time. There were also significant errors of inclusion – Banyankole subjects thought Bakiga were actually fellow Banyankole 44 percent of the time, and Baganda subjects thought Bunyoro were fellow Baganda 35 percent of the time.
The authors note that the variation of people in ability to correctly identify or “pass” as someone from a different ethnic group “has substantive implications for collective action within and between groups. It suggests one reason why collective action may be easier for some ethnic groups than for others. If identifiability is imperfect, then the ability of groups to police their members will be weakened and the advantage that ethnic groups have for collective action…will disappear.” Could this partly explain why some groups have coalesced and succeeded in promoting their own interests while others have failed?
In any case, the study calls into question the meaning of ethnicity. What role does ethnicity or “tribalism” play in society if one cannot reliably identify the ethnic background of others? What does it mean for a society if some groups can more readily identify their own members than can other groups? Could the failure of minority groups to identify co-ethnics place them at an even greater disadvantage than they already face by limiting their possibilities for collective action? The answers to these questions, while elusive, may prove enlightening in explaining the development and predicting the future of Ugandan society. In the meantime, think twice before you are sure you can tell a Muganda from a Munyoro.