Humour in a time of humbug

Mbabane, Swaziland | 12 March 2014
Bill Snaddon

Humour can be a good way of telling the truth without actually telling the truth. For many people who lived under the Soviet Union, a bloc of nations led by Russia that experimented with Communism, humour was a way of life.

In the Soviet Union, where people were forced to obey a nice-sounding but regressive ideology, the quiet jokes offered an outlet to express oneself. But this quiet comedy was dangerous. If “citizens” in a Soviet nation were caught telling unsanctioned jokes they might be put to death. But humour isn’t always so subversive or dangerous.

Humour can also be, well, just humour. No more, no less. It can also be an attempt to throw some lightheartedness into the frying pan – to poke fun at something absurd or to expose ignorance. That may explain why leaders in the Soviet Union didn’t very much like humour.

On the topic of suppressing jokes, the American comedian Robin Williams was once interviewed on German television. He was asked why he thought there weren’t many funny people during Hitler’s Nazi regime. “Did you ever think who killed them all?” replied Williams.

I’ve always found the best way to counter a joke I don’t like is to laugh at it. But then, after a big belly laugh, I’ll tell the person who told the joke that I didn’t like it. If I ask for an apology I tend to look a bit like spoiled kid who had a humour bypass at birth, or possibly an anti-discrimination activist.

But this column is not about humour in repressive regimes or how I deal with offensive jokes.

It is about the power of humour – via the medium of words and language – to illustrate larger truths. And it was an article published by this newspaper that got me thinking about this.

The article, ‘Casting call for Kenya’s briefcase NGOs’ and sourced from the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, is about a new TV show, The Samaritans, which depicts the life of NGO workers in Kenya.

“Ben Okoth, 45, was born and raised in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, situated outside Nairobi,” the article begins. “Over the years, he has encountered many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to improve the plight to the poor who live here. But, Okoth says, there are also those NGOs that have done nothing more than use the slum as a ‘money-minting machine’.”

The article quotes Okoth: “They often rent a small structure and write the name of the organisation on the door. Then they disappear. The next time you see them, they will be accompanied by white people and they will be telling them about great things they have been dong in the slum.”

It is this kind of scene, the “absurdities of one dysfunctional NGO”, specifically, and the “ineffectiveness of NGOs in the East African nation” more generally that the producers of The Samaritans “have been poking fun at lately,” says the article.

“The main characters are the staff who have to deal with the odd demands and decisions of the head of the United Kingdom Aid for Aid office and hopelessly inept local bureaucrats, while trying to write as many useless reporters as possible, all under the guise of ‘saving’ Africa,” says Hussein Kurji, a producer of the show. The trailer has been viewed more than 200,000 times online.

Kenyan NGO worker Mary Anne Karami is one of those viewers.

Karami says the show explores the “typical NGO language, so much jargon basically saying nothing in particular”. The Samaritans mirrors real life, admits Karami, explaining how in her real job she spends “the whole day in meetings in five-star hotels talking about big things like ‘capacity building’ and ‘empowering’, ‘alleviate’, and so on. It all sounds good on the tongue and looks good on paper, but that’s where it stops,” she says.

To bring the discussion (and the jokes) closer to home, perhaps Swazi TV could buy the rights for the show?

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on March 12 2014

#13_Humour in a time of humbug_12 Mar 2014

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