Comedy in Africa used to ‘get even’ with political elite – Studies

In the Western academic tradition, the study of humour has developed from the time Plato (428-348 BCE) taught students in Athens how to inject irony into political debate into a subject that through the centuries has attracted the attention of scholars in anthropology, film production, literature, political science, philosophy, psychology, religion and sociology.

Exploring the concept of humour in Africa recently during a seminar held by the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cambridge, several researchers noted that humour, through comedy and satire, though less studied on the continent, was inadvertently playing a major role in people’s lives in entertainment, political resistance and the fight against social injustice.

According to Dr Amanda Källstig, a former lecturer of international studies at Stockholm University and a researcher on humour in Africa, comedy is increasingly being used as a form of resistance in repressive societies. However, there is often a danger of retaliation.

In this context, Källstig in her PhD thesis ‘Humouring the state? Zimbabwean stand-up comedians as political actors’, submitted to the University of Manchester last year, explored how comedians in Zimbabwe continue to challenge powerful and repressive political regimes under difficult economic hardships.

The danger of stand-up comedy

Political stand-up comedy has spawned rapidly in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, ostensibly eliciting laughter from the audience, yet at the same time upsetting state power by trying to disrupt and ridicule systems and persons that legitimise the authority.

Källstig pointed out that it is dangerous to be a stand-up comedian in Zimbabwe, especially one that performs political comedy, because there are repercussions to being perceived as supportive or critical of a party or person that is deemed to be politically incorrect by those in power.

“Although the government maintains that it supports freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution [where] artistic expression, satire or even dark comedy, is part of that freedom, comedians continue to get arrested and abducted because of their comedy,” states Källstig in a study ‘Laughing in the Face of Danger: Performativity and Resistance in Zimbabwean Stand-up Comedy’, published in Global Society, a peer-reviewed journal.

Political comedy is thriving

However, despite the risks involved, political comedy is thriving in Africa. Most comedians feel empowered on stage, especially when performing for large audiences because they feel they are talking the truth about oppressive regimes in their countries.

Political satire in postcolonial societies in Sub-Saharan Africa appears to have its roots in literary works such as Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross and Wizard of the Crow, as well as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Prisoners of Jebs, among others, that use imagery, irony, exaggeration, impersonation and mimicry not just to poke fun at Africa’s political elite, but to be defiant against corruption and misrule.

According to Dr Ebenezer Obadare, a senior research fellow for African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank on international relations, such tenets of satire allow persons in postcolonial Africa to imagine a place and reality that is radically different from one of widespread abjection, poverty, constant humiliation and desperation.

In this regard, Obadare sees humour in Africa, as one of the vital means by which the majority of people get even with, and try to resist, the ruling power elites. “Humour has the capacity to ruffle the social matter and rupture hegemonic narratives,” said Obadare, who is a former professor of sociology at Kansas University and one of the researchers that attended the seminar.

In a study ‘The Uses of Ridicule: Humour, ‘Infrapolitics’ and Civil Society in Nigeria’, published in African Affairs, a journal published by the University of Oxford, Obadare highlights an incident of how a Nigerian broadcaster and jokester caricatured the tyrannical era of the late General Sani Abacha.

“Following Abacha’s death and arriving at the gates of heaven, the jokester told his listeners, the general was told that his place was in hell and as he made his way to his new abode, the late victims of his terror followed in hot pursuit and furiously rained blows on him,” said Obadare.

To Obadare, those that listened invariably quivered with laughter, clearly enjoying the jokester’s description of Abacha’s bad rule in Nigeria.

“It was not just a telling critique and reminder of Abacha’s tyranny, as it was also a discourse and a communication, as well as a celebration of the relief that was felt by Nigerians in the light of the sudden and gratifying collapse of Abacha’s homicidal authoritarianism,” said Obadare.

The dark side of comedy

However, humour in Africa is not all about political resistance, being funny and fighting for social justice. Satire on the continent often degenerates into crude racism and ethnicity diatribes, as well as sexism and hate because it amplifies the biases of those who use it to mock perceived rivals.

According to Katrien Pype, an associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at KU Leuven University in Belgium and one of the seminar participants, sycophancy and the flattery of politicians is also emerging as part of the culture of African political humour.

However, unlike most of the satire in Western scholarship, African political humour is loaded with metaphorical messages that can only be understood by those that it is meant for. In this regard, Sisonke Msimang, a South African writer, says African satire is more than laughter and tragedy.

Although political satire is the most studied genre of humour, especially in African universities, other sorts of contemporary humour are also taking centre stage in African societies, albeit outside theatres and classrooms in academia. For instance, video comedies from Nollywood in Lagos are providing comic relief to millions in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the diaspora.

Comedy and popular culture

According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, the issue is not about the quality of production of Nollywood budget films and others that are being produced in Riverwood in Nairobi, but the ability to provide humour and entertainment.

For instance, Netflix’s African movies such as the King of Boys, Meet the In-laws, Three Thieves, Your Excellency and other film productions and television series produced across the continent reflect, through humour, on issues such as gang culture in African cities, tribal tensions, corruption, unemployment and other problems that ordinary people encounter.

According to Dr Robin Kincaid Crigler, a humour scholar who is an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University, or MSU, says African contemporary humour has found its way into social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

During his research for his PhD thesis, ‘Laughter and Identity: A Social and Cultural History of Humor, 1910-1961’, that he submitted to MSU last year, Crigler noted a booming stand-up comedy industry in social media that was attracting a diverse array of performers and spectators.

“Meme groups on social media, some with over a million followers each repost content from South Africa’s Black Twitter, whose followers are overwhelmingly young, a factor that reinforces the idea that South Africa is a uniquely funny place with uniquely funny people,” stated Crigler ,who was one of the seminar participants.

The point is that with the adoption of social media African humour has entered a stage whereby satirists are using virtual spaces to express bitter political irony. Perhaps this is something that would have been envied by Plato’s acolytes at the Forum in Athens, or by Marcus Cicero (106 BCE-7 BCE), the Roman statesman who loved to cast humorous jibes at his fellow senators in ancient Rome.

While Africa’s humour might be unexplored, or less studied in academia, it is nonetheless becoming a powerful weapon to undermine political propaganda, expose abuses of power and ridicule ethnic and social taboos that promote exclusion in most African societies.