Dr Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
“MY children have the humour and laughter of English people,” said my cousin Reuben, the one who lives in Australia. “And when I tell them funny stories from the village, they look at me and say, huh? Then they say, “That’s not funny dad.” And they walk away, just like that.” Reuben told me this when we spoke on Skype a few weeks ago. “Then when you see them watching American or British comedies on television, they laugh their heads off at something that is not remotely funny,” he continued.
I could relate to Reuben’s feelings. I had been there myself. Humour is cultural and it has a lot to do with language. How many times have I tried to translate a joke to my English friends and they simply smile politely and then say nothing? That silence means, thanks but honestly, what you just said is not funny. So I have since stopped translating Shona jokes or African type jokes into English.
I recall, many years ago, when I was a student in Australia and I went to see a film called “Death in Brunswick.” I was with my Australian friend Alison. In the film, there is a scene whereby a man walks around a graveyard and digs up one grave. Then a ghost skeleton with some flesh rises up, oozing horrible fluid. I almost jumped out of my seat with fear and turned away from watching the screen. My friend Alison and the rest of the audience went into hysterics with laughter.
“If your children spoke Shona they would be laughing more,” said my cousin Piri, standing behind me and speaking on to the computer screen to Reuben on Skype. Then Reuben and Piri started arguing. Piri said Reuben and his wife had failed as parents to teach Shona to their Diaspora children.
How could they expect them to laugh at Shona jokes even if these jokes are translated into English?
Reuben tried hopelessly to defend himself, saying he went to Australia more than 10 years ago and at that time, his children spoke Shona fluently. But too much work, absence from home and the environment had made it difficult for him to maintain the language and the Shona humour in his family. “Ah, how we used to laugh back in the village,” said Piri. She then started laughing as she reminded us of the day when a tall woman from Manhika, the valley along the Save River once burst into our grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa’s kitchen hut.
I recalled that time too. It was just after sunset and outside, it was about to rain. We all knew the tall woman as the one who had gone to prison in Enkeldoorn (Chivhu) for some time when she was arrested for growing marijuana.
The woman was unusually tall and skinny. Unannounced, she burst in singing: “Chenjerera, mhuka inonzi munhu, yakaparadza Sodom ne Gomorrah iwe!” The tall woman danced in the middle of Mbuya’s hut without formally greeting anyone. Then she leapt into the air, clapped her hands and shook her small bottom. Her bare cracked feet made thunderous sounds on the mud kitchen floor. We sat on the bench as Mbuya kept on laughing while preparing pumpkin leaves for our evening meal.
Mbuya then put aside the vegetables and stood up to join the tall woman in the song and dance. Suddenly, there was a show going on. We clapped and sang along with them. After a while, the tall woman stopped singing. Breathless and sweating, she greeted Mbuya with both hands. They laughed, hugged and shook hands. After a brief formality relating to health and general well-being, Mbuya then said, “You are back from prison?”
The tall woman laughed again and in great humour, she told us how her husband has been growing marijuana along Save River for years. One day someone told the police about it and he got arrested. But they had already agreed between husband and wife that if he ever got caught, she would be the one to take the blame because women breast feeding were given lesser sentences than men. She was sentenced to three years jail but she served for one -and-a-half years only.
“Ndaive bhanditi rine tsika,” she said, meaning she was a well-behaved inmate in prison. And she laughed so much about her experiences though they were painful.
Humour eased the pain.
Piri was unstoppable. She kept on laughing, reminding us of one humorous village incident after another. “But we are not in the village any more. When we lived back there, everyone was a comedian. Everyone had a story to tell,” said Reuben. “And when we came to town, there were all the television dramas,” Piri said, recalling the humorous dramas of Safirio Madzikatire as Mukadota and Katarina and other dramas with Chibhodhoro and Mutirowafanza.
“Send me some videos so I can laugh,” said Reuben.
Instead of reassuring Reuben that we can get him some humorous videos, Piri just made it worse. Looking at Reuben on the Skype camera she said, “Iwe, humour yakapera nechurch. Zuva nezuva vanhu vanofunga chekudya, zvitadzo zvavo nekuenda kudenga. Vanowanepi nguva yekuseka? Kusekei? ” meaning the people’s humour has been taken away by the church. Day after day, people think about what to eat, their sins and going to heaven. Where would they get time to laugh?
She walked away from the computer to twist open her bottle of beer and talk to someone on the phone.
She was gone for a while.
By the time Piri came back, she found Reuben laughing his head off with eyes looking at me and also at the screen on his other computer. I had just introduced Reuben to Anne Kansiime, the Ugandan comedian whose humorous video clips make many people laugh so much.
I discovered Anne Kansiime a couple of years ago. She uses a Ugandan accent to speak in English. Sure, it would take some time and serious interest for a Westerner to understand Anne’s humour. But this 28-year-old girl, can cross any African language barriers with her comedian skits.
One of her best short piece is the incident of the girl in a miniskirt.
Anne is walking down a lane way in Uganda, which looks like any other place in Mbare or somewhere in Africa. She meets a young girl wearing a very short skirt. Anne immediately asks the girl where she thinks she is going wearing that short piece and revealing so much of her thighs.
“Those are not legs, but arms,” Anne says. While the girl stands there trying to pull down her skirt, Anne continues, “You think some of us who do not show our legs do not have them?” Anne pulls her skirt up a bit and says her legs are even better than those of the girl and tells the girl that if she continues walking down that lane way, Anne would make sure there was a riot against the miniskirt.
In another short clip, Anne is campaigning to be an MP. There are people listening to her speech. Behind her is a pile of shoes that she wants to handover to people as gifts. Her audience is listening to her and shouting slogans in support of Anne. Then Anne pauses and asks them to look at the shoes. She lifts one shoe and tells them that they will get shoes today. The people are excited. “But wait,” Anne tells them. “You always say you will vote for me and you don’t. This time I will give you one shoe as deposit and when I win, you can have the other shoe!”
Apart from Anne Kansiime and other African comedians, we are beginning to see that there is universal humour if both the African and the Western contexts are merged well. African American comedians have crossed these cultural and racial boundaries. Bill Cosby, Will Smith and Whoopi Goldberg are among the funniest ones.
South Africa has produced Trevor Noah. He is able to laugh at his mixed race upbringing and merge it with the Zulu or Xhosa contexts. Americans of different backgrounds have embraced him. The British have produced Mr Bean and of course, the classic Faulty Towers and many others. As some of us move more and more to the Internet and digital age, that village communal humour is fast disappearing.
We are forced to enjoy humour that crosses boundaries of race, language, culture, the city and the village.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.