I’ve had a heartache for the word “tribe” since I moved to Tanzania. Around East Africa, it represented an identity in a way I couldn’t understand. It impacted financial, cultural, linguistic and family systems, to name a few. It bound the people to the world differently than I felt bound. While I historically called myself a nomad, I humbly came to realize that even real nomads had a tribe. In Tanzania, a man on the bus and a government official each spoke this word like it had a mountain of meaning beneath it. It sent me momentarily adrift in the world as I acknowledged to these men that I didn’t have such a thing.
Like many young Americans I left home to seek my place in the world. My peers and I scattered to universities or the lights of bigger cities. I never heard anyone voice the opinion that one way forward might be through a commitment to an interdependent circle of people who would continue to raise and define each other. I moved around, meeting and loving many diverse and/or like-minded individuals. I left all these relationships in pursuing other adventures, partly because no social norms told me that the people were reason enough to stay. None of them were steering their lives around me, after all.
What I’ve realized over time is that in those years, while most of us wondered where we might live and what we might do, we were actually in search of our tribe. Trying to find an ancient sense of connection that compelled us to stay.
I don’t know how to explain tribe, but I do know that if we’re not born into one, there’s something missing until we find them. We Americans must define it differently from others in history, but I believe this is worth our time. It involves building ties that don’t fit neatly into our traditional relationship structures of romance, friend, or family. It definitely involves being vulnerable. I’ve met a few souls that I could have been platonically tethered to for life, and admittedly, it was a blow to my whole identity when it seemed like “my people” had better things to do than be my people. I’m sure I’ve accidentally done the same to others.
And yet. While tribe has become a primitive-sounding word with few applicable examples in developed society, at the core I believe it speaks to something central in our humanity. As much as we might try, we haven’t evolved out of our need for this deep well of belonging.
Last year, here in South Africa, between shared family runs and group meals, our friend Eric said out of the blue, “You know, I feel like we are different than friends. I sort of think of you all as, well, our tribe.” We were eating frozen watermelon, and sitting on the bumper of his car while our kids ran around. We’d never discussed this word or idea before. I nearly burst into tears.
So I am finally in a place of learning and treading tribal waters. Here’s what I can report back so far: For me, tribe is having a common vision of the best possible life and envisioning together how to get there. It is being different in ways that inspire each other. It is sharing children. It is showing what is behind our walls and fears, and even then having someone willing to uproot their plan and family to stay with us. It’s accepting their traditions as part of our own family system, and vice versa. My tribe recently moved into our neighborhood, because five kilometers was just too far away. They want to carpool, share appliances and gardens and socks and pizza-movie nights and meals many days a week. It is new life breathed into our days, and a new childhood for our son. We’re redefining this word for ourselves, together.
Have you found a tribe? Where? How? Share this post with them. Tell them they’re yours.