Discovering local humor has been a fascinating experience. Swahili conversations that I overhear are full of laughter, and it seems like people are cracking jokes all the time. In a business dinner a couple of weeks ago, I was part of a group that counted about ten Tanzanians and another mzungu (foreigner) apart from me. One of sales managers was talking with great animation and everyone else was dying with laughter. The translations of the jokes, done for the benefit of us non-Swahili speakers, left us deeply perplexed.
The first joke was about a man in a national park, who noticed a shadow behind himself and started running away, thinking he was being chased by a lion. But no matter how fast he ran, the shadow continued to follow him. He was running all night, and it was not until dawn that he saw that he had been trying to escape his own shadow, and noticed a sign saying “Welcome to Bujumbura”. Bujumbura is the capital of Burundi, which means that the man ran pretty far. I like the local flavor (the lion, the national park). But this is where the joke ends. Maybe there was a play of words somewhere that got lost in translation?
The second joke was about a man in a national park who noticed a cloud of dust behind himself and started running away, thinking he was being chased by a hyena (see a theme here?) He was not able to get away, even though he was running so fast that his heels were kicking his neck. He thought it was hyena trying to bite him, so he grabbed his heels, and ended up rolling down the road like a wheel. When a real hyena saw him, it got scared and ran away. Thus concluded the joke number two.
Want another one? The setting is a village next to a national park, where a man was tasked by a village chairman with catching the lion who had been terrorizing the villagers. Not up to the challenge, the man decided to leave the village by the next morning. He brought a donkey into his house and started packing his belongings and attaching them to the donkey’s back. When the sun came up, however, he realized that the animal he presumed to be the donkey was actually the lion! That’s the way the translated joke went, but I think in original there was more to it, with the storyteller acting out each character’s part.
After hearing the first three jokes, polite smiles and slightly nervous giggles, we said that everyone should just continue speaking Swahili like they were before, never mind us. The moral of the story: not having electricity can lead to all sorts of confusions, don’t be afraid of your shadow, and put more time and effort into learning Swahili.