Are humour studies emerging in African universities?

Are humour studies emerging in African universities? I answer quickly, somehow, perhaps! But, I shall also add, not in a pronounced way. Which ‘Africa’ is implied by this question and why, one may ask? In this article, my focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa, from the Cape to the Coast, better called ‘Bantu Africa’.

This choice of words is because of the commonality of many spoken languages used here as belonging to the Bantu language group, and because of the fact that even before the recognition of the Sahara Desert, the same group of people might have occupied the upper part of what is today called the Sahara.

My sole reason for focusing on this part of Africa in this essay is that I am more familiar with the worldview of this part of Africa than the rest of Africa. In South Africa, for instance, humour studies appear to be emerging distinctly.

This is exemplified by the recent seminars on humour launched by the research project on Identities and Social Cohesion at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. This, no doubt, has produced a number of lectures and data, through seminars, on humour. But a similar story is yet to be told of the rest of Bantu Africa.

Yet, in Bantu Africa, it is often said, “We dance the other, we feel the other”! This axiom, part of which characterises the (in)famous theory of negritude that sought to provide a starting point for a programme of action for African thought, action and renewal, at the onset of the decolonisation project in Africa, provides a platform for the place of humour in African social life.

Producing valuable emotional outcomes and gains

If music that produces dance is defined as organised noise, humour could be held to be part of that supportive agent that gives music an order in our lives, enabling it to produce valuable emotional outcomes and gains.

This theory, or ideology, made famous by the pioneer president of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, attempted to capture the distinctive features of the black world, and how or why Africa should be seen and read differently.

But the theory suffered a number of criticisms because its characterisation of reason for the African was heavily misunderstood to mean that emotion has the same function as expected of reason for the African.

If celebrating life is an eloquent aspect of African life why is humour still standing in the background in the academy. Why the paucity of the discourse on humour in the universities, one may ask?

Reasons for the paucity of the discourse

There are probably a number of reasons for this. The first is that there are a number of hidden knowledge challenges that could spur a vibrant modernity that African universities are grappling with as they re-invent Africa. While humour may be one, Africa is addressing the burdens of colonial and neo-colonial modernity at a non-humorous (call it serious) level to enable her to achieve the desired agency and commitment.

This is notwithstanding what appears to be a heavy obliteration of this challenge by, yet again, the forces of globalisation at the moment. Africa cannot afford to be global at the expense of being creatively local!

The second is that the global or wider world may even be harbouring subtle, heavy but hidden challenges that demand an African agency and contribution which Africa might wish to address before a humour curriculum may succeed in African universities.

Africa prides herself as the birthplace of homo sapiens and human civilisation where being human is a norm, a belief, an order, an ethics, a value, or a principle, and where being human is allowing, letting and getting others to be human!

You will locate this in the Madu(mmadu) – the beauty of life ethics of the Igbo of Nigeria, in the Taranga ethics of the Wolof of Senegal, and the Ubuntu ethics of South Africa.

Africa, given the longstanding belief in this idea of being human, suggests that enabling her ethos to function at a stronger level may be the route to a safer, peaceful world. Should someone find this claim spurious, the candidate might give a long thought on one of the emergent ideas and ideologies that contextualise the human idea at the moment, such as posthumanism.

“Broadly speaking, posthumanism”, as Agnes Theresa in Posthumanism: A Philosophy for the 21st Century? (November 2021) articulates “is a philosophical framework that questions the primacy of the human and the necessity of the human as a category”.

Imagine if, and when, the human idea begins to contest itself and the possible outcome of this project? How does it look and sound that the philosopher suggests further: “As we acquire greater powers through scientific discovery and technology we also fall into ever-greater danger of making ourselves disappear.”

What should this lead to: humour or grief? If human beings become tired of being called human and seek alternative ideologies that can drive the world, suggesting the post-human option, what intuitions can/should be made from this?

Humour is everywhere

If the claims above have affected humour in Africa it does not mean that humour is out of the African space. Humour in Africa today is everywhere. It circulates and runs across the pages of newspapers, in the streets, in the churches, in the bars and restaurants, in the highways and in the motor parks.

You probably would read more items that would motivate humour and laughter on social media platforms in Africa than other equally urgent items such as investigative journalism, documentary or even debates. Call it the force of post-western modernity in Africa and you might be right. But Africa’s modernity is on its way. As the Igbo (African) proverb puts it: “a borrowed cloth does not fit tightly on the borrower”.

The modern can only emerge reliably from and through the modernising group. In African cities there are humorists that live by generating and marketing laughter and this is turning into a noble art. These hundreds of comedians and entertainers live as members of upper elites just through the skill of laughter and humour.

Humour in Africa is certainly heavy, moving and defying boundaries and national states and even local cultures, affecting the social and psychological health of the society and illuminating the social and political space in Africa.

Drawing on some examples

I have at least two illustrations of a vibrant humour ethics in Africa drawing enormously from the Nigerian world where I am familiar with them.

In the Igbo world there is already a humour ethics waiting to be turned into a curriculum of studies on humour. It is the Njakiri ethics of humour.

The exercise suggests a way of developing courage by absorbing harsh, contemptuous words articulated through the medium of laughter. It is a game of laughter majorly among grown-up Igbo males, where two contestants apply a number of expressions in a jocular form to provoke laughter and entertain a crowd.

Njakiri is contesting laughter and laughter as contest – leading to courage, wisdom and tolerance. Each laughter is motivated and produced, and tends to diminish the force and volume of preceding production.

It is one of the social inventions of the Igbo that suggests that contradictions could be compatible – depending on who, where, when and what. To welcome an amusement through willing self-abuse, which Njakiri does, is something close to this, if it is not the case in its entirety.

This is the ethics of Njakiri.

There is yet another form of humour ethics that validates my claim of the vibrancy of humour in African life.

Call it laughter in the African political area. It is the humour of old, tired, worked out, inactive ministers hired by the Ugandan government sleeping at state functions, circulated by Ugandans themselves, or the breakfast of Kenyan leaders reconciling after brutal, bitter electoral contests that makes democracy in Africa produce more enemies than friends.

It is the humour of some leaders who gathered to discuss the political problems in Mali and tagged themselves ‘Council of Wise leaders’! Wise? You could humorously ask ‘endlessly?’ Did Ethiopian Zera Yacob, the legendary African sage, or the modern African sage Julius Nyerere famously called Malinwu (teacher) call himself wise, you may ask? Which wise people call themselves wise?

I recall a conversation between myself and a lady, a Kenyan conferee in Bamako. “Are you from Nigeria?” she asked. “Yes, I am”, I answered. “What is political higi haga?” she looked at me laughing voluminously?

“Who or what could that be?”, another person asked. The Kenyan continued, “have you not heard of gangatuan gaga?” These questions by a Kenyan conferee and colleague in Bamako, Mali in 2017, catapulted me into thinking on how far Nigerian humour had travelled.

They were talking of Honourable Patrick Obahiagbon, the Nigerian parliamentarian who had become (in)famous for officially speaking what experts in the English language would tag “bad English” at official gatherings such as the parliament.

Obahiagbon’s grandiloquent style, as Juliet Nkane Ekpang and Odoemelam Chukwuemeka Godwin write in “A Lexico-Semantic Analysis of Selected Speeches of Honourable Patrick Obahiagbon”, published in LWATI: A Journal of Contemporary Research in 2020, “is characterised by his use of coinages, compounding, archaisms, borrowed registers, irregular collocations, alliterations, intertextuality, grammatical and lexical deviations in a peculiar manner to express himself on social and political issues bothering on societal corruption, violence, indolence, partiality and inequality in the country. A combination of these features constitutes his style and identifies him as an idiolect.”

“What a shame? What a self-indicting admittal of the failure of governance? What a hocus-pocus? What an anathematous disdain for its citizenry? What an opprobrium? What a deprecable descent from the sublime to the ridiculous?”

These are the words of that honourable Obahiagbon, among many others, which are now widely published in the public library.

He is probably more of a linguistics humourist than anything else, but what is perhaps more humorous is whether, by doing this, he is not laughing at the duty of the parliament or inviting spectators to laugh at the institution in the post-colonial state seeking re-birth.

This is because if the state is such a revered institution, it remains a thing of wonder how a parliamentarian could in hallowed chambers, or in any other official place that advertises him, speak words that are unclear to the audience.

Lawrence Ogbo Ugwuanyi is a professor of African philosophy and thought at the University of Abuja, Nigeria, and founder of the Centre for Critical Thinking and Resourceful Research in Africa. He can be contacted at