Our Timeless Quest for Humankind

As I walked up to sit among the panellists of Funny Women’s discussion of women’s humour across cultures on 7th March, I felt like the devil preparing to talk about being an angel. I grew up in Cameroon utterly convinced that I was not able to communicate with people, let alone amuse them. To picture me as a teenager, one has to recall those typical nerdy children depicted in movies, wearing big glasses, and always reading books alone. The other teenagers found me too annoying, as for example, they would be talking about going to the disco, and I would suddenly interrupt them to ask: “Guys, what do you think will be the implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union?”

Nevertheless, I wanted to participate in this discussion to provide an insight into ways in which sub-Saharan African women use humour, and the parameters within which they have to operate nowadays. As most sub-Saharan African societies had an oral, rather than a written tradition in the past, public performances played an important role in these societies, and humour was essential to keep people interested and entertained. Talent was the main attribute to become a public performer, regardless of whether one was a man or a woman. Women actually had an extra public function as moral arbiters, because they were the ones who would compose comic songs making fun of individuals the communities wanted to mock.

Traditionally, in almost all sub-Saharan African villages, there were court jesters for the village chief, and storytellers, called griots in West Africa. The criteria for being a court jester were to be funny and witty. In order to perform in public as a storyteller, one needed to be very entertaining, as well as aware of the history and background of the chief and the villagers. For centuries and centuries, gender was never an issue. Anyone who fulfilled the above criteria could become either a court jester or a storyteller.

However, things changed with Western colonisation in the 19th century. I often mention colonisation in my discussions of African topics. But I never do so as part of a cheap, stupid blame game. It is simply that if, for instance, one cannot understand what the UK is today without referring to the Norman Conquest that took place nearly a thousand years ago, one can neither explain nor understand Africa without referring to Western colonisation, a similar phenomenon that was happening there until barely a few decades ago.

The prejudices against women that were prevalent in the West in the 19th century in terms of confining women to the domestic sphere, forcing them to cover up, not allowing them to speak in public, and so on, were exported to Africa and ingrained in the African psyche. This was done so successfully that to this day, in many African countries including my native Cameroon, men are reluctant to let women speak in public. Furthermore, a woman cannot enter a public building if she is wearing a mini-skirt or trousers because these clothes are deemed indecent and disrespectful to African women. Yet, before Western colonisation, most African women used to walk around with nothing but a tiny loincloth. How absurd is that?

Nevertheless, more than the legacy of Western colonisation, the current biggest threat to millions of African women’s freedom of expression, be it through humour, public speaking, or clothing is the financial, mental and spiritual colonisation coming from the Middle East. Since the Middle Ages, in Nigeria, Mali and many other African countries, people have been practising an enlightened form of Islam respectful of African traditions in terms of men and women being educated, singing, dancing and not debasing the female body by treating it only as a sexual object. But there are now barbaric practices being imposed there by radical Islamic groups like Boko Haram, Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Women living in African territories controlled by these groups are routinely forced to stay indoors, or go out only if they are wearing burqas and heavy dark cloaks that are genuine torture under the hot African climate, and a huge insult to true African men. For in the African tradition, a real man is one that can show that he is superior to an animal and can control his impulses. So it is an aberration to view an uncovered woman or a female public performer as a temptation in this context.

I was enlightened by the interventions of my co-panellists. Lynn Ruth Miller narrated how she became a stand-up comedian in her 70s because her gender had barred her from doing so sooner in the USA. Though they came from very different backgrounds, Amisha Ghadiali and Andrea Mann had experiences that made them see that in comparison with their male counterparts, female stand-up comedians were disproportionately judged by their appearance. Vanessa Vallely discussed her efforts to inspire the next generation -including her daughter- to perpetuate the tradition of performing in public for charitable purposes, and wearing the highly ornate Pearly Queen outfits, despite modern prejudices.

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell is the Founder and Executive Director of the think tank African Peoples Advocacy (APA)

Pictured: Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell