It may seem odd to be discussing the taboo of interracial or inter-tribal relationships in 2012, but though everyone is now supposed to be totally relaxed about "mixed couples", there are still combinations that make some outwardly enlightened people uncomfortable for reasons cultural, religious, or other.
Our identity often set parameters for our choices, parameters that are set by what we feel is appropriate based on where we come from and what we believe in even if we don't realise we believe in anything at all. True, younger generations are steered towards greater tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance of difference than the generations that preceded them. They are guided to believe that race, sexuality, religion and tradition are personal matters, not subject to the judgement of others. That's the ideal, but judgement by others isn't easy to escape, or entirely withstand, in practice.
It is hard not to have some sort of reaction when you see an interracial couple. The reaction need not be negative, it may simply be one of observation, that you notice the couple because they are not of the same race. Nonetheless, noticing the couple for that reason isn't neutral. I believe setting or context plays a very big role in the response to or interpretation of a mixed couple. When I walk the streets of London, for example, I don't think I'm as observant of interracial couples, probably because interracial dating/marriage is so common. But when I see a "mixed" couple in Uganda or any other African country, I do more than just observe. I form an opinion, and the opinion has more dimension to it than just my awareness of noticing. The opinion is affected by my own culture and traditions, which do include stereotypes.
Inter-tribal wedding between a Hausa man and an Igbo woman, Nigeria
We are familiar with the worldwide definition of an interracial couple, but perhaps not so much with inter-tribal. It simply means two people from different tribes getting involved in a relationship, or getting married. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but they might speak different languages (though they'll probably have one language in common), have different belief systems, and be accustomed to different kinds of traditional dishes.
While it has become increasingly common for people to marry outside their tribes, it isn’t a preferable option for traditionalists. I was once told by someone whom I would describe as a devoted traditionalist, that instead of marrying a man from my country but of a different tribe, it would be far more acceptable to marry a man from an entirely different country altogether. Inter-tribal conflicts, stereotypes and history can make it hard for some inter-tribal relationships to enjoy immunity from judgment. The idea of someone marrying outside their tribe leaves some people feeling that their customs, values and traditions are being betrayed, that should a woman date or marry a man from a different tribe it gives superiority to that man’s tribe, an affirmation that her own tribe wasn’t good enough. If a man marries a woman outside of his tribe, it's because he thinks his ‘own’ women are not beautiful enough. People feel betrayed, which is interesting because while everyone else is feeling betrayed, no one considers the sense of betrayal those in the relationship must be feeling.
In this respect, when discussing inter-tribal relationships and the stigma and stereotypes that comes with them, Africans can come out sounding a bit backward, but our tribes are part of our heritage; they are important. A lot of Africans value their sense of tribal belonging as much as they do nationality or religion. Of course the degree to which this is so varies from one person to the next, but "tradition" has a way of surprising even the most "modern" of Africans.
Interracial relationships exist in Africa, too. They may be few and far between, but as our countries continue to attract international investments and businesses , the expat communities will continue to grow and interracial relationships will increase in tandem. In my country, the main stigma of interracial relationship is money. People assume that the black woman must be with the white man for money, they assume that the black man must be with the white woman for money - money, green cards, financial security, light-skinned babies, the list of "reasons" are many, and there are examples that confirm the assumptions. They might be the exceptions, but that can't offer much comfort to other interracial couples. It's can't be easy walking down the street hand in hand with your white partner, knowing almost everyone assumes you're a prostitute or a gold digger. In Africa, interracial relationships are constantly judged and observed, and I can see no other solution to this problem than time and numbers. I suppose, looking on the bright side, at least no one is being stoned or killed for dating a white man or woman. Idle gossip and awkward stares is surely something most people can manage.
I haven’t played by all of the ‘rules’ but I know those who have. Some people are more comfortable with the familiar, the acceptable, the "right" way of doing things and would never consider an inter-tribal relationship. Others make their choice regardless of tribal affiliations or what's "right". Neither is without its burdens.