nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,

Joking Cousins and the usefulness of insults

Mali is notable in Africa for having much less ethnic violence than most of the continent, and it seems to be the result of an amazing piece of social engineering: joking cousins.


Here's how it works. Each of Mali's ethnicities has a few last names to identify it (not unlike meeting an O'Shaunessy or a Kowalski in the U.S.). My Malian name happens to be Yacouba Sidibe, making me an honorary Fulani, one of West Africa's nomadic cattle herders.

Each of these families has certain other families who form its joking cousins, the people that they tease upon greeting. Who jokes with whom forms a complicated web that I still haven't figured out. I'm always being blindsided by undiscovered cousins, who suddenly unleash a volley of insults at me and my kind over a round of Malian tea (strong enough that you drink in shots) or a bowl of "to" (ground millet with sauce).

The most common of these jokes is "i be sho dun" -- "You eat beans." Particularly vicious jokers can also fall back on "you eat dog" or "you eat donkey," but these seem to be reserved for emergencies.

OBSF: _Stand on Zanzibar_ by John Brunner, in which a small African country is surprisingly peaceful.

Aside from being exceedingly cool, it fits in with something I've been wondering about--there's a standard idea these days that political discourse should be civil, but the only effect seems to be that people nag each other about insults. Unless I've missed something, no one's doing any better at substantive discussion.

Maybe we need ritual insults that no one takes seriously.

It's a frustrating topic--joking cousins aren't supposed to go after each other even for serious injuries (there was a BBC story that I can't find a link to about a child killed in a car accident--the child's family asked the police to stay out of it because the motorist was a joking cousin), but if it greatly reduces the chance of serious injuries it's presumably worth it.

Still, Mali is one of the poorest countries in African--I don't know whether they've got major geographical/historical/other cultural feature problems. I'd have thought that defusing cultural and inter-family conflicts would give them more of an edge.

And here's a stored rant or two about American political culture: I have a notion that what's wrong with politics is that it's too boring. After all, people pay for sports tickets, but they have to be pushed into voting by hugely expensive (and therefore corrupting) advertising campaigns.

People used to to go to political campaigns for entertainment. Admittedly, Abraham Lincoln didn't have to compete with tv, movies, and the web, but our politicians aren't making speeches which could compete with his.

I've asked about the death of rhetoric. Apparently, rhetoric wasn't forgotten by accident. From what I'm told, people earlyish in the past century decided that rhetoric was just a way of telling lies. What we've ended up with is duller lies.
Tags: africa, anthropology, politics

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