Laughter and Literature

All Africa

Humour is both universal and rooted in place, shared history, culture, politics, social norms. It illuminates so much about how a society is structured, the values it holds, who and what is included and who and what is not. And humour comes in many forms. The Huffington Post identifies 9 types of humour: physical (slap-stick), self-deprecating, surreal, improvisational, wit-wordplay, topical, observational, bodily, and dark.

Writing this post (which hasn’t been easy), got me reflecting about how much I laugh when I’m in Africa. In a way, that’s an odd comment because Africa is such a huge continent with all the complexities and nuances of different types of humour. My experience though has been more of observational, witty and topical humour that are part of everyday life. Get on public transport anywhere in Africa, or a taxi or engage with vendors in a market or listen to the conversation over of colleagues over shared breakfasts and lunches, the ring of laughter is always there. Often without too many words and seldom with an actual joke. It’s lies somewhere in the shared observations of the challenges of life, or the subtext of the situation with all its political or social complexities, in the movement of eyebrows and the unique sounds that express incredulity or irony or just a fact. Humour is often in the unsaid.

I still remember the surprise and release I felt laughing with Mama Aisha, the matriarch of the family hosting me, sitting on stools in her courtyard in Banjul more than 30 years ago. Laughter was a language we shared. What got us laughing, I don’t remember. But the uninhibited depth of Mama Aisha’s laughter has remained with me. I remember thinking I’d never laughed that way before, with such abandon, so deeply, with a real sense of liberation. When I’m in Cairo, I find myself laughing in every taxi, or with the waiters, and with friends. Egyptians are renowned for their sense of humour and wordplay, maybe because it lets off steam from the grind.

Stand-up comedy is taking Africa by storm, same as everywhere else. There’s Trevor Noah’s global renown and others like Daliso Chaponda (Malawi), Basket Mouth (Nigeria), and Eddie Kadi (Congo/UK) with growing followership in the UK and in their countries. For a very different style and one that speaks more to me, check out Kansiime Anne, the prolific Queen of Comedy from Uganda who captures the funny in everyday lives.

In a fascinating blog called African Heritage, run by Dr. Y, I found this clever gem that reminded me of how, so often, I’ve heard people weave in so much complexity into seemingly simple exchanges. The blog is great too so I hope you’ll explore it – and the legendary African authors featured.

A teenage girl is seated next to her father in the house when she suddenly sees her boyfriend approaching. Knowing that her father is very strict, she decides to strike a conversation with the boyfriend.

Girl: Have you come to borrow the book “Dad is in the House” by Jean Pliya?

Boyfriend: No, I want your book of songs called ‘Where should I wait for you?” by Bernard Dadié.

Girl: Oh. I don’t have it, but I have the one titled ‘Under the Mango Tree” by Chinua Achebe.

Boyfriend: Good but please don’t forget to bring the poem “I will call you in 5 minutes” by Aimé Césaire, when you come to school.

Girl: OK. I will also bring Olympe Bhely-Quenum’s new book “I will never abandon you”.

The father (to his daughter): These are a lot of books, will he read them all?
Girl: Yes. He is a good and excellent reader.
The father: Ok. Don’t forget to take him the book titled, “I am not stupid. I understood everything!” by Cheikh Hamidou Kane and also the one called “Be ready to get married if you get pregnant” by Séverin Cécile Abega.

Jean Pliya (Benin), Bernard Dadié (Ivory Coast), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Aimé Césaire (Martinque), Olympe Bhêly-Quenum (Benin), Séverin Cécile Abega (Cameroon), and Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal) are all great African writers. Of course, the book titles are fictious!

Visit African Heritage blog for great African Humour and much more…

Do you have more humour to share from Africa and beyond?

Rating: 1 out of 5.


  1. I found myself chuckling at the story between the daughter, father and boyfriend. I can’t help but this this needs to be shared with schools across the country. Unless a student is of African descent, there’s no way any other student could come to appreciate this. I will be sharing this blog with my educator friends, and I hope the can find a way to incorporate it in their curriculum! Love these blogs, and I’m always left hoping the next one will come sooner than later.

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