Reading List: Daniel Hammett, Laura S. Martin and Izuu Nwankwọ

What is the relationship between humor and politics in Africa?

Public Domain image credit Bernard Spragg via

Why write about Humour and Politics in Africa you might ask? In so doing, are we risking the perpetuation of a homogenous view of Africa (as a country)? Are we trivializing serious issues or maintaining stereotypes of the continent and her peoples? We certainly hope not, and our intention in exploring the relationships between humor and politics across the continent was to simultaneously recognize and explore the multiple ways in which humor is understood, used, and received in different contexts while offering a counterpoint to dominant narratives of humor that are rooted in the experiences of the Global North. At the same time, we wanted to write this book not only to recognize and explore humor as more than just resistance. Jokes, satire, and laughter (and the absence of laughter when a joke is told) are fundamental to social relations across societies, facilitating interpersonal exchanges and fostering communal well-being, or as coping mechanisms in times of stress and anxiety. 

At the heart of our book is an effort to think about humor as more than simply a site of resistance, while building on key works by scholars such as Ebenezer Obadare, Peter Limb, and others. Our starting points, and literature we returned to time and again, encompassed an array of materials—from theater and performance studies, through political science and political geography, to philosophy; and from joking-as-pavement-radio through stand-up comedy to political cartoons. Each of these literatures emphasized the political power of humor but often reduced its role to resistance: a space or moment of opposition, an indicator of the democratic health of a country. Unsurprisingly this emphasis on resistance—particularly in literature on African humor—repeatedly returned to Achille Mbembe’s work On the Postcolony. Consequently, we also did, but offer a subtly different reading of Mbembe’s work: we depart from the interpretation of affect that reduces humor to “potholes of indiscipline” and the “zombification” of the populace. 

While recognizing Mbembe’s emphasis on the role of state institutions and functionaries in informing citizen behaviors and the exercise of power that may co-opt or reduce humor to reinforce the state, we find commonality with Francis Nyamnjoh and Ebenezer Obarare’s arguments for the accretive work of humor as facilitating longer-term change. Or, as we develop further in the book, humor is doing various forms of political work—work that may be progressive, regressive, aimed at conserving the status quo, or at seeking change, but also simply as a mechanism for coping with difficulties and challenges.  

What was particularly intriguing in the literature review was that although Mbembe did not necessarily advocate for the “humor as resistance in Africa” framework, he is often credited or cited in relation to it. We noticed in our reading of texts on politics and humor in Africa there was quite often a nod to this debate. This has resulted in a self-perpetuating discourse where many scholars seem to be on the same page and yet this “nod” remains important and central. Furthermore, those who do argue its role as resistance is at least in part because it is in our (human and humorous) nature to want to “cheer for the underdog” and thus we want to hope and see that jokes can do good political work when in actual fact, this “funny” political work has a range of both positive (and negative) consequences. 

Our book also aims to expand and build upon an already rich literature by engaging with a host of countries and their respective politics, which can themselves be quite funny and absurd. People such as Obadare, Ibukun Filani, Ignatius Chukwumah, and Izuu Nwankwọ have written extensively on humor, but frequently with a focus on a particular national context, mainly Nigeria. 

Turning attention elsewhere, scholars such as Robin Crigler and Amanda Källstig look more at South African and Zimbabwean contexts. These scholars examine the politicization of humor in both “formal” stand-up settings, as well as the sociological role it plays in the daily lives of Africans, which may or may not be intentionally political. Indeed, as Obadare argues, regardless of the in/formality of the expression and use of humor it remains powerful nonetheless. Meanwhile, scholars such as Wendy Willems remind us that humor also “fulfills a self-reflexive role in which those subject to power reflect on their powerlessness.”

Ultimately, we aimed to build and expand upon these ideas by demonstrating the depth and breadth of the work of humor—looking both at a wide range of countries and circumstances, as well as the multifaceted nature of the political work of humor and ultimately how this can be consequential in both positive and negative ways.

About the Author

Daniel Hammett is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, UK, and a senior research fellow in the Department of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Laura S. Martin is an assistant professor in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a research affiliate and advisor at the University of Makeni (UNIMAK), Makeni, Sierra Leone.

Izuu Nwankwọ is an assistant professor in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada, and holds fellowships of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany, and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), South Africa.

Further Reading