An idea I tend to harp on is the irreducible messiness and variety of the human world and the importance of dealing with it by digging into the details and using a variety of perspectives rather than by trying to cram it all into a simplistic schema. For that reason I was delighted to read the opening to Chapter Two, “Language Groups and Social Organizations,” of George E. Brooks’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630, which I’ve had for years but am only now starting to read:
Scholars studying western Africa are challenged by conundrums involving relationships between languages, social groupings, and cultures. People in western Africa define themselves principally according to kinship and occupational affiliations and only secondarily in linguistic terms. Indeed individuals and families change their languages and modify their social and cultural patterns in ways that are often perplexing to outsiders. Individuals may change their family names to assert their affiliation with elite families (captives once adopted slavemaster names), to express client relationships, apprenticeships, or religious affiliations, and for other reasons [...]. In his study of Senegambian oral traditions concerning Mande- and West Atlantic-speaking societies, Donald R. Wright remarked, “Determination of one’s ethnicity seems to have been more a matter of cultural lifestyle than of parentage or ancestry” [...].
In his discussion of West Atlantic- and Kruan-speaking societies 1,000 km to the south, Warren L. d’Azevedo commented that interrelationships between groups in the past “did not involve confrontations between massive and unitary entities.”
It involved, rather, interrelationships among small independent human groups spreading out and merging with other groups to form new units in which any one of a number of “ethnic” traditions might predominate, depending on historical circumstances. In such a context the term “tribe” in its standard definition can scarcely comprehend the realities. Cultural pluralism, multilingualism, and multiple local traditions of origin and “ethnicity” obtain within situations that are only superficially—and frequently only temporarily—characterized by a predominant “tribal” orientation. . . . Throughout northern and western Liberia institutional structures and most cultural features are so generally distributed that it is no exaggeration to suggest that tribal identification is as much a matter of individual choice as of the ascribed status of birth, language, or distinctive customs (Azevedo 1971:18).
In short, western Africans opportunistically redefine their identities in response to changing circumstances. Remote, even fictive, kinship ties, special bonds between groups such as “joking relationships,” indeed any social or cultural advantages one can claim or contrive have for centuries facilitated human relationships and expedited trade, travel, migration, and settlement in western Africa.
It can’t be said too often: there are no fixed identities; people, like languages, are constantly in flux.