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Report. Satirists and cartoonists come to the rescue in Africa to battle the cliches of “Afro-pessimism.”

Don’t weep for Africa — they’re laughing

“Attacking a humorist hurts more today than letting him speak, and political leaders know it.”
Mamane

As Cameroonian journalist Alain Foka liked to reiterate, in the intro of the successful radio series Afrique Plus that went on air on Radio France International (RFI) between 2008 and 2013, the time has come to break all ties with the superficial “Afro-pessimism” that has dominated the scene for too long.

Nothing but misery

That means not describing the cradle of humanity just in terms of poverty, conflicts and incurable underdevelopment, but preparing our eyes to another vision, able to grasp the contemporary face of Africa. We’ll find out how there are many talents in various fields and wild success stories in different locations, as many as can be counted in any other part of the world.

The protagonists of this revolution that spans economics, technology, culture and art are neither Martians nor puppets to be exhibited at the fair, but the tip of a very lively social unrest, in a multifaceted land with a young population.

In the information and entertainment sector, a test, perhaps unexpected, of this movement is the growing consensus that African satire is rising, both in their places of origin and in the diaspora.

The accomplices of this new trend are the communication tools that have made humorists more accessible to users, at least in potential terms. However, this opening has been favored, above all, by the end of the heavy censorship that oppressed the mass media on the continent until the early 1990s. That’s the theory of the Nigerian comedian Mamane, alias Mohamed Moustafa Moctari, a TV and radio star in France and in French-speaking Africa: “Attacking a humorist hurts more today than letting him speak, and political leaders know it.”

Having said that, it is not rare for caricaturists to pay a painful toll in some situations, when they freely exercise the right to sarcastic and biting criticism.

A funny interview

What are the themes that satire prefers to face and to which the public reacts better? Roukiata Ouedraogo (Franco-Burkinabe actress), Gohou (a well-known comedian of the Ivory Coast) and Lassane Zohore (founder of the satirical newspaper Gbich) discussed it in a funny interview dedicated to the revival of humor, in the course of the program Le débat africain in July.

The public is sensitive and receptive to issues that touch their everyday life, both in the family and socially. A sampling: the story of polygamous husbands cheated on by astute wives; the ordinary vicissitudes of citizens struggling with a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy; the eternal clash of generations between the elderly defenders of ancestral traditions and young people eager to progress at all costs.

Such topics are dissected over and over again, until they become a kind of inexhaustible well from which humorists draw ideas.

Diverse audience

Of course, the French-speaking comedians know how to communicate with a very diverse audience, not only because of the diversity of the country, but also to connect with those elsewhere in Africa and those who have emigrated.

If, in theory, the use of French would seem to facilitate access to a very wide and supranational audience of spectators, in practice it may prove a tricky trap, as Mamane explained: “While addressing the same message, I cannot express it in the same way with everyone.” The repertoire must be adapted and the texts of theater, radio and television sketches are revised to adapt them to the individual audience. For example, the musical component is crucial in Africa, whereas it is less important in Europe.

Then there is a very delicate problem for the professional comedy artists to solve: fair compensation for their work. At one time, they were invited to social events, such as weddings, to perform in front of a festive, and perhaps a little distracted, audience. Their performances were not paid in cash but in kind: a sack of rice for the family or beers for a few friends. Gohou explains it: “Today, however, the humorist intends to survive thanks to his art” and is no longer content with a meager tip. “Unfortunately, it remains difficult financially,” added the comedian. So, many choose to move to Europe to gain fame and subsequent economic success.

Another factor that drives artists to emigrate is the scarcity of theaters to perform live in African countries. This often pushes them to use the locations of the Centres Culturels Français, present in French-speaking capital, for their performances.

Yet there are efforts against this trend locally. A good example is the event “capital Abidjan du rire / Festival du Gondwana,” to be held in Cote d’Ivoire between Dec. 9-11, 2016, which will be hosted in the premises of the Palace of Culture.

The event is inspired by the famous transmission conducted daily by Mamane on Radio France Internationale, Paris, and entitled Chronique de Mamane. The show, which has been on air since 2010, in a few minutes re-reads the world news from the point of view of the inhabitants of an imaginary African country, “The Very, Very Democratic Republic of Gondwana.”

african comedians

Struggling with a president who uses any excuse just to stay in the saddle, the Gondwanesi have developed the art of débrouille (of making do) to the nth degree and are well aware that, in life, everything is relative. Their virtual universe has become commonplace for French-speaking Africa, and Mamane says smiling now: “Journalists are currently using the Gondwana expression for a country where everything goes wrong.”

The power of radio and Language

One final observation: For any African humorist, the radio is the media par excellence, since it is still the most accessible tool throughout the continent; due to this, “being on RFI” is a kind of consecration for the artists, in spite of the fact that the broadcaster is established in the country of the former colonial power, and requires, as a result, the use of French as the official language of several states, but it is not necessarily understood by all citizens.

Mamane concludes with a little bitterness: “It is the language that allows me to travel. It is a vehicle … but it still remains a love-hate relationship. Even though it is the language of the colonizer I still have to use it. … I have to make it my own.”

The Africans have the imagination to reinvent, day after day, a language that came from afar.