I’m Funnier in Africa

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I’m funnier in Africa. I found this out when I went back to America for a few weeks and less people laughed at my jokes. I suppose this needs a preface: I’m not saying I’m funny in either continent, but as a means of comparison, more people were laughing in Africa at my barely thought out and haphazard presentation of “jokes,” and poorly planned puns than they were in America.

Maybe they weren’t laughing more at my jokes specifically. Maybe everyone is just laughing a little more in general, myself included.

The point is that after about seven months in Africa then a brief three week stint back in America, I was receiving this question a lot (mostly from hipsters with thick rimmed glasses drinking fairly traded tea in dimly lit coffee shops): “What is the main difference that you have noticed between rural Tanzania and the newly metropolitan Denver?” And I put a lot of thought into this question. I thought about my primarily rice and beans diet in Africa compared to my “cinnamon roll with Bloody Mary breakfast” I was practicing in Colorado these past few weeks (and the fact upon my arrival in Africa, a fellow Tanzanian employee told me “Wow! You ate so much food in America!”) And then I started comparing fashion choices, women’s rights, speed of life, and primary education, but those topics seemed exhausting paired with how much travelling I have done lately, even if it is the kind of answer a hipster would have appreciated. Therefore, the difference that I wanted to note for everyone is that I am funnier in Africa, and it seems as if we all laugh a little more here. And I have started to wonder why.

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Laughing at a traditional Maasai dancing celebration.

I came up with a few theories. The first is that there is something in the water that makes people funnier. This theory got nixed because most of the villagers drink water straight from the well, and the Americans are confided to the big blue bottles of water bought in town, yet all of us seem to laugh a little bit more.

My second theory was language barrier, and there is plenty of that where I live. Most students at O’Brien School are taught to speak Maasai at home, along with the Swahili basics. Once they arrive at school, they are quickly instructed in English, and they continue to brush up on Swahili. This results in trilingual seven year olds and some wonderful responses to everyday questions. A common one is a sick student complaining that their “head is painting,” or “stomach is painting,” their “tooth is painting” (the equivalent of a headache, stomachache, or toothache.) And I feel for them, because a painting stomach is never comfortable, but it is all I can do but smile as I listen to “paining and painting” used interchangeably.

Another favorite is the request to “get in” to the office/classroom (instead of the incredibly American “come in.”) This usually takes the form of loud and excited request, such as “PLEASE MADAM, MAY I GET IN?” as if I am barring the office closed with arms outstretched, standing in the doorway in my Chacos. In fact, I love the phrase “get in,” so much more than, “come in,” that I have started using it, too. Mostly because replying, “Yes, get on in!” sounds like something you would do to a safari jeep or a sailboat, or at least something way more exciting than a school day chat in the office.

Friday smiles

And I am certainly not immune to the interesting, yet often inconvenient language mishaps. I know on more than one occasions I have explained that the car, “Is hungry and needs to eat,” because I could not for the life of me recall the Swahili word for gasoline. Or, more recently, the American director Lizzy and I watched in anxious anticipation as a student with a bike lock stuck on his bike requested soap to get the lock off. He graciously accepted the soap, then politely explained he needed a saw, not soap, and how was he going to get a bike lock off with soap?

Maybe we laugh more because of the language and cultural barrier here, and maybe its because there is a little bit more thinking time, listening time, joking time, space to acknowledge the odd and awkward and comical. Maybe when the power goes out there is nothing more to do than think of funny stories or learn all the lyrics to Nikki Minaj songs. I know that much of what I have written on this blog has been heavy and often hard to digest, but while I compare life in American and life in Africa, something new becomes quite clear: convenience isn’t that funny.

I take that back. Convenience isn’t usually that funny. I saw an advertisement online for some type of tool that would cut a banana into tiny pieces with one press of the tool. You know, because cutting a banana with several knife strokes is so difficult. That is a funny convenience. But most of the time, either fortunately or not, it is the inconvenient stuff that makes you laugh. It’s pausing a school committee meeting because a goat has walked into the office; it’s putting shampoo into your hair right when the power goes out. It’s causing a minor explosion attempting to bake a cake in a crock-pot when power surges are likely, and plucking your eyebrows in the dark with a headlamp. From someone who has been there I can tell you honestly that grocery stores that always have cheese and tofu in stock, and restaurants that have something other than chicken or eggs on the menu are great, but they don’t make me laugh.

Uninvited office guests

I suppose that is the most accurate description of the difference between America and rural Africa: it’s just not as convenient out here in Kilimanjaro, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me smile. And while you can’t choose these inevitable and ever impending trials and setbacks (no matter where you are living,) you can choose whether you laugh or become distressed.   First hand real life experience told me that you laugh a heck of a lot more if you choose the former.

One day my Swahili will improve and these kids are going to speak perfect English in no time. And we may even stop having a cobra-near-the-shower problem, and the post office may stop having four-hour closures for lunch breaks, but until then, I like these inconveniences. I like laughing.

I’m also like the new recess game “pause and continue” the exciting equivalent to “red light, green light,” in a land where there are barely roads, let alone traffic lights. It’s wonderful and I am going to play it with my children one day. And when those kids are called to the school office because they don’t know the rules to “red light, green light,” I hope they knock on the door and ask if they can please get in.




6 thoughts on “I’m Funnier in Africa

  1. Hi Ella,
    I am so touched by our ability to put your experience into such words that it takes me back to some of my own mission work in Corazol, Belize. Everything is funnier too and smiles are rampant. Thank you for sharing your lifelong experience and thank you for the work you are doing to touch the lives of the African people.
    Your daddy’s lifelong friend,
    Kelly Mullis


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