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There’s a grain of truth in every joke

June 15, 2017

Mama Suzie is crumpled in a heap on the ground,

Her kitenge covering her face.

Mama Francis points my attention to the situation with her eyes.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t know. She was joking with Shabani like always, but now she is crying. I don’t know why.”

“Maybe I should go to her.”

“Yes, go to your friend.”


I don’t know if Mama Suzie is my friend.

I think she likes me.

She acts annoyed if I arrive without greeting her.

She is loud and happy and playfully shouts at me, wagging her finger.

She also often backs me into verbal corners when we are talking,

Trying to put words in my mouth, especially about other people.

But she’s got this great, warm smile, and she seems to feel deeply,

Which I appreciate.


I go and sit on a table near the corner of the market where she sells

And I scratch her back a little,

Not knowing the culturally appropriate way to communicate without speaking.

Others are curious about her condition.

They stop in, asking, “what’s wrong? Why is she crying? What happened?”

I tell them the truth:

I don’t know.


Behind us, Shaban’s voice blares from a megaphone:

Elfu moja moja nguo hapo (One (one) thousand for clothes here)

Elfu moja moja (One (one) thousand)

Moja bei moja bei nguo hapo (One price, one price for clothes here)

Moja bei moja bei ndugu yangu (One price, one price, my relatives)

Elfu moja moja na yote asara (One (one) thousand and all high quality)

Shilingi elfu moja moja bei hapo (One (one) thousand shillings is the price here)

He has recorded himself and set it on repeat.

I feel suffocated, knowing that Shaban has made her upset

And that she cannot escape his voice.



Shaban is one of few male vendors in this area of the market,

With the largest table and usually a tall chair to sit on,

Which places him far above the rest of us, sitting on the edge of tables

Or on wooden stools on the ground.

He sells children’s clothes and dresses very well,

Football jerseys and dark washed jeans and boots with pointed toes.

He and Mama Suzie are friends.

It’s true that they joke daily, but I’ve seen them both turn fierce when things don’t go their way.


Mama Suzie reaches her arm under her kitenge to her fanny pack,

Where she keeps her money and her tiny notebook of sales and expenses.

She hands me a 2000 shillling note and says something in a small voice.

I have to ask her to repeat it three more times before I hear it: maji.

I buy her a bottle and she sits up, one side of her face still covered,

And washes her hands.

She reaches out to where I’m sitting and picks a splinter of wood from the table

And uses it to clean beneath her fingernails.

She pours water over her hands again, then splashes some on her face.

She sits up a minute, then retreats under her blanket again.

Later, she makes a call and a motorcycle comes to pick her up.

When she returns an hour later, she is all joy and teasing again,

Reaching her hand over to Shaban and demanding an apology.


I learned the rest in pieces throughout the day.

Shaban had made a sexual joke about Mama Suzie,

Announcing on his megaphone that they were leaving together

To find a hotel in town.

But Baba Suzie has just left her, just recently,

After months of cheating and lying.

Now that she’s alone, she’s finding she doesn’t have male friends she can trust.


Kutania means “to joke with” or “tease,” and this happens often in the market, especially between men and women. In the beginning, I often thought people were fighting, and my friend would nudge me and say, “They’re just teasing.” This brings to mind a few classic anthropological pieces. First, in T.O. Beidelman’s “Utani” (1966), he analyzes formal joking relationships among the Kaguru of central Tanzania. The root word is -tani : kutania is to joke, utani is a joking relationship, and mtani is a joking partner. Among the Kaguru, and in several other Tanzanian groups, there are formal “joking” relationships between people of different clans or tribes - often those who intermarry. The jokes generally occurred in the form of insults or play-fighting, as I have witnessed at the market, but seem to have been much more formal in the past.


Beidelman concludes that these relationships are closely tied to concepts of pollution: in situations closely related to sex and death, joking partners were responsible for reestablishing moral order. When I stayed in southern Tanzania and studied grief and mourning, I was told that someone’s mtani would be of a different tribe and was responsible for bathing their partner’s corpse before burial. This and other manifestations I saw there of utani seemed (to me) to be manifestations of tenderness and respect. When I asked Mama Francis about joking relationships in this area, she explained that there’s a difference between kutania and utani. If someone died, or if someone got married, their mtani could block the way between their partner and the grave, or the altar, loudly demanding money before the ceremony could occur. This, she explained, was the role of the formal mtani.


However, informal joking relationships happen whenever people are in close proximity (some of the staff at my hostel confirmed this for me). Often they occur between men and women, and the jokes are of a romantic nature. There is one very old, cross-eyed man who comes to the market every few days and stops in at our booth - he is her husband, Mama Francis explains. An Pare woman makes to steal money or wares from a younger man, saying, “this is my due! I am your wife!” Laughing, he pulls the blue jeans he sells from her hand, or even chases her away. When someone pushes too hard asking me to marry him and I get annoyed, Mama Francis’s nephew pulls me aside and says, he’s just joking with you, it’s okay, don’t get mad. These aren’t jokes I am used to yet.


Keith Basso’s Portraits of “the Whiteman” (1979) also speaks to the particular occasion I described above. Basso provides examples and  analysis of jokes Western Apache told about Euroamericans in the 1970s. These jokes involve mimicry and exaggeration of traits associated with white people, like asking intrusive questions, moralizing, and overusing the word “friend.” They are generally told between friends and relatives, but are not always well-received, particularly if they hit too close to home. He explains: it’s acceptable to joke about someone’s immorality if they are known to be chaste, but not if they have a reputation. In the case of Mama Suzie and Shaban, Basso’s analysis came to mind. Jokes about sexual relationships proliferate, as kinship and marriage are at the forefront of people’s minds (how many times per day is marriage proposed to me, or to one-year-old Sabrina?). But when Mama Suzie’s own marital situation fell apart, she no longer found jokes about promiscuity very funny. Shaban’s insistence, “I was just joking with her, nothing unusual or different,” and gossiping neighbors’ opinions, “Mama Suzie shouldn’t joke so much if she can’t handle the consequences” and “she has a lot of anger, that one,” faded into nodding and closed lips when the reality of her situation trickled out.




A few days before all this, I had drawn a portrait of Mama Suzie in red pencil.

Looking down at the page when I was done,

I was surprised to see how sad her eyes had come out,

This woman who was all boast and swagger at the market.

I looked closely at the reference photograph

And saw that somberness was there, too,

Or exhaustion,

Or something.

I want to do the kind of anthropology that gets to that.


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