NOT! Funny in any language - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Tanzanian children laughing (Photo by Rasheedhrasheed via Wikimedia Commons)

I love to laugh. I love jokes. I love telling them, I love hearing them, and most of the time, I don’t even mind being the butt of them. A certain practical joke involving a lawyer at my last job comes to mind…. Thank you, Nick and Lonn!

Understanding humor in another language is always a challenge. I remember learning Spanish. I would think of something funny to say mid-conversation, but I couldn’t get it out in time, or I completely mangled what it was that I was trying to say. It was very frustrating. As my Spanish got better, I was quicker on my feet, and I could get a joke out or two. Like many people, I use humor to connect with others and to cope with difficult situations. Humor has often helped me diffuse hardship in my life.

Thankfully, the cultures of Spanish speakers and of English speakers are not so different. For the most part, we get each other’s humor, even if we don’t always share the same comedic sensibility.

Tanzania is not that way. The humor is highly contextual and tribally nuanced in a way that I can barely grasp, even when someone explains things like I am a child. There are double, triple and triple-double entendres, that one would only get from having lived here a very long time. In my case, that would be at least 1,000 years. At the same time, the people are quite literal in their communication at least compared to how Westerners often communicate with our daily use of metaphors.

Kyle hamming it up with his kids

For example, I saw a young father pushing his children on a cart out of a store. It was cute, and everyone was smiling at them. As they were exiting the store, I gestured to his kids and asked if he had paid for them, as they were quietly sitting amongst his groceries. He looked at me like I was crazy and asked, “Why would I have to pay? These are my children.” I smiled sheepishly and then left before somebody thought I was involved in human trafficking. Joke FAIL.

Another time, while visiting the beaches in Zanzibar, a Maasai warrior offered me 70 cows for my 13-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage. The Tanzanians around me thought that this was quite funny, but I was so caught off guard by my protective dad instincts, that I could hardly laugh at first, … or even consider a good counteroffer.

More often than not, Tanzanians think I am funny when I’m trying not to be. It seems that everything I do or fail to do is a source of amusement. My language skills in particular seem to provide comic relief.

Consider the following conversation:

Kyle: Hello sir, how are you?

Constantine: I’m fine, how are you?

Kyle: I’m doing well. How is my wife?

Constantine: You mean “my” wife?

Kyle: Yes. That’s what I said. How is my wife?

Constantine: (Looking very confused.) You want to know about “your” wife or “my” wife?

Kyle: (Completely oblivious to “my” error). “My wife.” I want to know how she is doing. And of course, how your children are doing as well.

Constantine: (With tears of laughter in his eyes) As far as I know, I think she is doing just fine! And so are “my” children. Thank you for asking!

And so goes my daily slaughter of the Kiswahili language. Sometimes it causes laughter and sometimes chagrin. One thing it never seems to do is to work correctly. On a weekly basis, I seem to embarrass myself with a previously undiscovered way to punish the lexicon. It keeps me humble.

Consider a recent event where I was humbled even more than usual: The culture in Tanzania is much more modest compared to that of the United States. It’s rare that you see a man with his shirt off, and people tend to dress more conservatively in general.

So you can imagine the surprise of our neighbor when he was working on his roof next door. Our bathroom shower curtain was being laundered, so I engaged in my daily hygiene without one. We had never seen him up on the roof before. In fact, we had never seen anyone up on the roof before (it is perfectly eye-level with our bathroom). And we definitely haven’t seen anyone up there since.

I had no idea what to do when we made eye contact while I was soaping up in the shower, so I just waved a perfunctory hello. I didn’t laugh and neither did he, but my wife thought that it was tremendously funny when she heard what had happened.

So that is how it works over here: I am funny when I don’t want to be, and I bomb when I try. It’s OK, though. Tanzanians smile easily and are happy when you just stop and say hello. I’ve definitely learned how to do that. Who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll even learn to tell a joke or two.

Kyle Johnson
Kyle Johnson provides entrepreneurial training to vulnerable populations as well as leadership and management training to two rural Catholic hospitals. He and his wife, Anna, and their three children, are based in Mwanza, Tanzania.