The ability to laugh at one’s mistakes should be a sign of maturity and openness. In addition to that, joking creates humour and can be a good uniting force among people. The object of laughter may vary considerable, but there is always a great possibility that someone somewhere might get offended since jokes often target people’s weaknesses or foolishness. While the poor and the weak can hardly put up any fight when offended in this way, jokes about the rich and the powerful often display a great level of caution.
Every country has it’s own popular comedy shows, and African countries are no exception. Growing up in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s, the most popular comedy show was probable The New Masquerade created by James Iroha, and starred the famous Zebrudaya. The comedy was usually about the shortcomings of ordinary people: lack of money, stalking neighbours for food, husband/wife disputes, disability and so on. Whenever politics or government was touched, it was to show how the common man should be more understanding towards government policies like the austerity measures and structural adjustment programme. In those days, the only electronic media was TV and mostly state owned. Ridiculing the authority was probable a sure way to get your show permanently removed.
These days, with modern technology and very little investment, almost anybody can start a comedy show or just share jokes across. With such freedom, the question becomes: What do we joke about? and what do we laugh about? The Nigerian twittersphere, as ever, exploded over the weekend because a famous stand-up artist, by the stage name of Basket Mouth, made a joke that involved rape. Yes, I would understand people’s rage and anger. Rape is a serious and heinous crime and I can imagine that anyone who has experienced it would not find what there is to laugh about. This is especially in a culture where victims are either scared or shy to come out to report such crimes, and the society does not yet recognise the scar that this leaves the victims with.
The debate that ensued afterwards however was where to draw the line. Yes, it is mean to joke about rape victims. What about joking about the poor, the disabled, the old, villagers, the illiterate? What about jokes about people’s physical features like height, weight, facial deformities? These jokes are very common. What we forget is that there are a group of people through whose fault, the majority of our people remain stuck in poverty, underdevelopment, and poor health, when their countries can boast of huge deposits of natural resources. What about joking and ridiculing these people who fail to act in the interest of their people?
My two favourite shows these days interestingly are political comedies. Both Dr Damages and Keeping It Real With Adeaola are internet based and freely expose the inadequacies of leaders and politicians all over Africa. They are so funny as well informative. They expose the foolishness of government corruption and incompetence. I am tempted to conclude that this can be a unifying object for ridicule so than we can get our leaders to listen and change. It is shocking that so many people who would readily laugh at jokes targeting the poor and people with disabilities, find the jokes in these shows disrespectful. The hosts of these shows based in New York City, are considered brave by those back home. You might want to call it respect for people in authority, but I think this goes to show that we still see our leaders and politicians as objects beyond ridicule.