The ABC of a Nigerian joke for Western audiences

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The self-deprecating joke is an art invented by Nigerians. I have studied cultures and I have been to places. No culture and no people come even remotely close to Nigerians in this specific domain of aesthetic expression. That is how we re-invent the human in the context of our extreme adversarial circumstances. In Nigeria, life is short and brutish (apologies to Hobbes) and there is little or no room for the pursuit of happiness.

Zero state. Zero governance. No social contract. You are on your own in Nigeria. The everyday is a nightmare governed by the decibel of bomb blasts and the crack of the assassin’s rifle. The soul relies on the ability of the imagination to mock the tragic. Trauma loses its bite to the liberating essence of the self-deprecating joke. In Nigeria, despite tragedy, despite trauma, despite sorrow, we banter and we laugh, therefore we are.

Yesterday, my friend, Soni Akoji, posted one such typical Nigerian self-deprecating rib cracker on his Facebook Wall. I quickly reposted it on my own Wall and people began to ‘like’ and ‘share’ it. Here is the joke: “A policeman arrested a man urinating at a place clearly marked ‘do not urinate here. Fine: N500.’ The guy gives the policeman N1,000 note. Policeman: urinate again, I don’t have change.”

It is immediately obvious why any Nigerian would crack up on hearing/reading this joke. Feeling left out, two of my otherwise quiet Western Facebook friends ‘inboxed’ me, asking why everybody was cracking up. They wanted in on what they were apparently missing. What’s funny about this particular joke? I responded by giving them the standard rote about the “untranslatability of jokes” but our little conversation got me thinking further about the intermesh of humour and cultural context.

Jokes are notoriously averse to border crossing. Jokes are the site where you could measure the degree of integration into his host culture by the immigrant. When does an African become a Canadian, an American, or a Briton? The answer is not when he goes to swear the citizenship oath of these Western destinations and – in the case of Nigeria – obtains freedom from the unending damnations of Nigeria’s green passport.

The African has integrated and has become a true citizen of the West the moment he genuinely feels that the jokes of these Western destinations are funny. You have integrated when you are no longer laughing a little louder than everybody else in the room in order not to look stupid. You have integrated when jokes you have secretly spent years of your immigrant life dismissing as “oyinbo jokes” that aren’t funny genuinely begin to crack you up.

To arrive at this condition of a free-flow of genuine laughter, you have had to overcome all the ramparts that jokes build. Jokes build ethnic, racial, and national walls around themselves to resist translation. Those are the walls of the cultural locatedness of jokes that you have scaled if you are a Nigerian now genuinely laughing at English jokes in a London pub.

To understand the joke about the Nigerian policeman, my two Western interlocutors will have to be familiar with the universe, registers, and atmospherics of underdevelopment. People who grew up in and have, maybe, never left a culture of public restrooms will have to try and imagine the postcolonial concept of pissing openly everywhere from the village to the city. They will have to understand that, when traveling, you don’t stop at designated and manicured rest areas to use the bathroom. You stop by the roadside and take aim if you are a man. The lady beside you goes a little further into the bush and bends down. They will have to understand that where a public wall carries a stern notice, “Do Not Urinate Here”, such a notice is sure to attract men who face the wall, unzip, aim, and shoot.

Then they will have to understand the universe of postcolonial policing. They will have to grapple with the idea of policemen “carrying change” around. They will have to understand the mental universe which made the author of the joke in question use the verb “arrest” as the first link between the officer and the urinating Nigerian. For it takes a lot for the Westerner and his cop to arrive at an arrest in the civic process. There are in-betweens like being pulled over, getting off with a warning, or getting a ticket. Such luxuries are not part of the relationship between cop and citizen in the postcolony. Every contact is an “arrest” that could lead you to the station if you don’t have change. Knowing what going to the police station means, every self-respecting, patriotic Nigerian carries “police change” around – ‘in case of incasity’!


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