What comedians as funeral mourners are telling researchers

The emergence of comedies that are performed at funeral rites in cities across Sub-Saharan Africa as business side hustles are getting the attention of researchers of African humour, according to Professor Katrien Pype, a social anthropologist at KU Leuven University in Belgium.

In a recent presentation, ‘Funerary Comedies in Contemporary Kinshasa’, Pype focused on the flourishing popular culture whereby comedians and musicians are being paid after performing in mourning rituals. It was part of a seminar on humour in Africa, organised by the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

According to Pype, the unfolding funerary joking in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and other cities in Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly enacted by comedians unrelated to the bereaved, a clear departure from customary funerary humour where accepted jokers are socially related with the bereaved.

Pype explained that what is emerging is that different types of comedy performances in Africa are being treated as commodities, or economic opportunities.

In this respect, new changes in the social organisation of mourning rituals, especially among the rich in Kinshasa and other urban areas in Africa have transformed funerary joking into a business activity.

Contrary to traditional funerary jokesters that considered themselves grieving with the bereaved, modern funeral comedians regard themselves as workers that have to be paid for their services.

In a study ‘Funerary comedies in contemporary Kinshasa: Social difference, urban communities and the emergence of a cultural form,’ Pype found that many funeral jokers in Kinshasa describe their performances as work, or mosala.

Grieving as a job

“The ambition of funeral jokesters is to become either stand-up comedians who can perform in cultural venues or actors in television dramas,” stated the study.

However, what is intriguing to the researchers is how the newly found social position of funerary jokers as actors is primarily based on flattery and recital about the riches of Kinshasa’s elite crowd, some that plunder and embezzle public resources for their own benefit.

The issue is that although some of the most studied comedy genres in Africa tend to express frustrations about misrule, corruption, social injustices and how to cope with economic hardships and political degeneration, Pype found that Kinshasa’s funerary comedies are just the opposite because funerary comedians in this Central Africa city shower praises to wealthy mourners.

In this regard, comedians prefer to attend mourning spaces for the rich because they are likely to make more money from audiences in such places compared to those mourning poor people.

A-political comedy?

According to Pype and other researchers such as Dr Pierre Petit, a senior research fellow at the University of Brussels and Georges Mutambwa, a lecturer at the University of Lubumbashi, most of the funerary jokesters in Kinshasa turn a blind eye to the origin of people’s wealth, especially if the rich had been showing generosity to a football team, a church, or an ethnic organisation.

Further, societal differences are expressed and confirmed in the performances because the rich in the city are portrayed in a better light while the poor are mocked for lack of basic cosmopolitan knowledge.

The significant part of the comedians’ jokes, locally referred to as masolo, are ridden with stereotypes of ethnicity that describe some people as too short and others as having bent backs.

Subsequently, people attending funeral rites, or matanga, the Kiswahili name for mourning spaces, laugh hilariously at humour that ridicules urban youth that fail, women that cannot feed their children and disabled persons for failing to be streetwise, weak and poor.

In Kinshasa, funerary jokes also tend to celebrate the yankees, the streetwise and cunning people and mock the Yuma, the people who do not possess the skills to survive in an urban environment.

However, whereas the funerary comedians in their masolo might be portraying the grim picture of life and competition for survival in Kinshasa, urban sociologists are worried about the emerging urban sociality in Kinshasa and other cities across Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The theme of the little man who manages to beat the system stands out, more or less, like the clever hero in most African tales,” said Pype, quoting an earlier study co-authored by Petit and Mutambwa.

Quick money from strangers

However, unlike most of the stand-up comedians in Accra, Ghana, that are more or less preachers of urban morality, Kinshasa funerary comedians are not interested in transmitting an ideology or good morals. Rather, they want to earn quick money by using their own street intelligence, body and voice in spaces made available by the city’s political and business elite, according to Pype.

Incidentally, funeral jokers in search of mosala don’t need an invitation but invade matanga that have become more open to strangers in Kinshasa and other cities in the DRC, such as Lubumbashi and Kisangani, where mourners are addressed as audiences.

According to Pype, most comedians arrive unexpectedly at these mourning events and perform for about twenty minutes for a crowd with whom they have no personal ties and then pass around the spectators a few times collecting money before going away to look for another matanga.

“By walking through the crowds after their performance collecting money from the bereaved, the comedians turn their speech into a commodity that in itself has a monetary value,” said Pype.

Describing the nature of the performances, Pype said the content of the jokes could be qualified as urban because mostly they address issues inherent in urban environments.

Mostly the masolo highlight the state of individualism in an urban context and relationships of different social and ethnic groups in the city.

The construction of the audience is typically urban, but the public in a mourning space appears to be an anonymous crowd because not every mourner or supporter is known by the bereaved family members.

During the presentation at the seminar, Pype and other academic experts on African humour recognised that the new urban cultural forms are being created by the urban youth.

Against that backdrop, researchers are divided as to whether comedians in Kinshasa are usually doing something good by bringing humour to sad events, or whether they are being used by rich clientele to mask nepotism, kleptocracy and corruption within the Congolese urban society.

However, all seem to agree that whereas Kinshasa’s funerary comedians might be outside the realm of political humour in Africa, they are eking out a living from the rich in new and unusual ways.

Notes on the words

Matanga is a standard Kiswahili word for mourning spaces. The word is widely used in the DRC, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Mosala means work in Kinshasa.

Masolo refers to funerary jokes that are cited in mourning spaces in Kinshasa.

Yuma is a mocking word for people who do not possess the skills to survive in Kinshasa.

Yankees are the cunning and streetwise people of Kinshasa – someone with a lifestyle like that of an American cowboy.

Apart from matanga, the other words mosala, masolo and yuma might have been derived from local languages in Kinshasa or DRC Kiswahili, which is not standard Kiswahili.

According to the paper, these words are being used by social anthropologists as they study the emerging urban culture in cities in the DRC.