Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – sense of humor

One of the observations you cannot fail to make when you spend a long time in Tanzania is how very different their sense of humour is compared to those with a more Western background. Obviously that is a sweeping statement and not true of all Tanzanians, but I know that my Tanzanian readers will recognise many of the stereotypes I’ll illustrate today and I’m pretty sure I’ll be forgiven as they’ll be laughing right along with everyone else.

Let me start with the story that triggered me to write this week’s column – plus it’s highly topical as we start April this week. OK so a local radio station features a story on a terrifying murderer who is combing the area for children. He captures them, tortures them, skins them and then leaves the remaining little body out to dry as a warning to others. Pretty sick. Obviously parents all over the area reacted by wanting to ensure their children were kept close in order to protect them. Many children were kept home from schools all over Mwanza and the school I was teaching in kept everyone inside the main hall until every parent had been to collect their child. It was pandemonium for several days, and then the whole thing seemed to just blow over.

It was months later that word finally got around, the entire thing had been an April Fool’s hoax.

Was there a public outcry against the radio station? Did anyone react at all? Nope. They thought it was funny! Now if this wasn’t the majority’s perspective they would never have got away with it, so I hope my case for a bit of stereotyping is made!

So the first aspect to understand is that the Tanzanian sense of humour somewhat more macabre than what may be deemed appropriate say in the UK.

One excellent, if a little disturbing, example was told to me by a friend who looks after many young babies in a local hospital.

On one occasion a tiny baby came in with such extreme malnutrition that he was not going to survive. This is always distressing, but she tells me – without sounding callous – is easier if you don’t already know the little character. When the child died that night she paid herself for a little coffin to be made as the parents were nowhere to be found. The paint was still a little tacky when it was time for her to take the child to be buried.

The tiny box was taken to some local mamas so the child could be washed and dressed in decent clothes before the burial but when she came to open the coffin the child’s hair had become stuck in the wet paint and it ‘sat up’. The mama shrieked, believing this was some sort of voodoo, but once she’d calmed down she quickly realized this had potential for a fantastic joke. She invited each of the other mamas in, one at a time, and asked them to lift the lid – laughing hysterically every time they got a shock! Tasteless? Yes, perhaps. But here it is sometimes important to laugh at death and to lighten this very distressing subject. Life expectancy here is only 53, and everyone has been effected in some way.

Tanzanians also seem to love anything slapstick. Fall down, or hit your head and everyone will openly laugh at you! (They will also say ‘pole’ – sorry – and mean it! They aren’t being mean, only honestly and innocently amused!). One friend recently was at a night club where three muscle-bound male dancers were doing some seriously cool street dancing, and a little skinny guy was off to one side parodying the moves. She said the crowd were howling with laughter, whilst she was cringing and could barely raise a smile.

There’s also nothing funnier, it seems, than a mzungu (or white person) freaking out. If you are attempting to complain or getting frustrated with the service and you fail to remain calm it is more than likely you will raise a smile. Now, when you’re angry this can be enough to ignite a full on fury and we have no idea how funny we look. On reflection, I have to admit – it probably is hilarious.

My all time favourite story to illustrate this actually resulted from the language barrier, rather than a complaint and I was told it just recently. A good friend of mine came home from work and overheard the gardener talking to the askari – guard (I should point out that most people here have staff, it is almost expected, even the staff have staff!) – the two were chatting in Swahili “blah blah blah prisoni blah”. Her ears perked up and she grew a little concerned that her askari, assigned to protect their house, had in fact been in prison.

Sometime later she decided to ask the gardener what they were talking about.

“Uli sema prisoni, kwanini?” (You said ‘prison’, why?)

“Kwasababu ana kaa mwaka kumi.” Shrugged the gardener. (He was there for ten years)

“What!” At this stage she freaked. Totally flipped out. Repeating ‘mwaka kumi’ several times she called in her house help and asked her too. Oh yes, she agreed, ten years.

On the verge of storming out to fire the guy she yelled “He was in prison for ten years! This is ridiculous!”

At this all the staff fell about laughing, they had just realised why she’d been going so crazy… “Ana kaa” is somewhat open to translation – literally ‘he sits’ but it is used to ask where you come from, and in this case they had meant he had worked at the prison! She still hasn’t quite lived it down!

Something I’ve discovered to be universal in East Africa is the never ceasing joy of telling foreigners they are fat: “Oh my, I see you had a good holiday Mel.”

“Well, yes I did thank you, do I look tanned and relaxed?”

Blank face “You look very fat!”

I am told somewhere along the line that it was a compliment since the fuller figure is preferred by many here, but many have worked out that it gets us all in a tizz and it is generally followed by a big belly-laugh (not from me, in case that needed explaining!)

Swahili first language speakers also fail to grasp sarcasm (my readers aside of course – not sarcastic by the way!) which can further significant miscommunications. When a young kid asked my friend for the millionth time: “Is that your guitar?” and he finally responded “No it’s my bath” the poor child was completely confused.

You may be thinking it’s a miracle we can communicate at all at this stage. But I must add, to close, that I have laughed so often and so deeply with many wonderful Africans. And it’s true what they say about the African smile – I have never seen anything so full of joy and life, it is infectious.


Your turn

Anything you can add, any little anecdotes, are always much appreciated. Plus you know I love getting your comments.

Also, don’t forget the competition for 2054 inventions closes this week. I’ve had some fantastic entries so thanks to those of you who’ve already entered. If you want to find out what it involved check out my last ‘write time’ post and email me by Monday! Thanks.


6 responses

  1. 3lln

    Haha I must admit, this is so very true of Tanzanians! I should know. I guess we are too happy a nation, sometimes 🙂

    March 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

  2. You can never be too happy 🙂

    March 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm

  3. carriepots

    Well expressed Mel … once again I feel I have ‘been there’ with you … difficult not to be
    shocked by the baby story … it may well haunt those of a more sensitive disposition!!

    But you illustrate well the totally different approach to humour out there in the wilds
    of Africa! Thank goodness we are not all boringly alike!

    March 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    • Yes, there is so much that is shocking out here we get horribly immune in many ways. Just read about a guy who was shot by poachers and had his leg amputated in the bush. They put the leg aside so they could extract bullets later and identify the poachers but a hyena took it! Yuck! Thanks for commenting, it’s always great to hear how all this impacts readers. x

      April 13, 2012 at 9:45 am

  4. These are crazy stories! So glad I stumbled across your blog. Can’t wait to read more!

    May 7, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    • thank you! There have been a few bonkers moments in life between countries! Very impressed by your blog too – I love the layout and the way people can navigate to the posts that work for them. Looks as though you have a wonderful family and appreciate the abundance – great to meet you!

      May 7, 2015 at 4:38 pm

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