Saturday, July 4, 2009

Second hand humor

What makes something funny? Is there anything that is innately humorous, regardless of culture? Someone falling down in manure, perhaps? Or someone leaning over and ripping their underpants up the seam? Or maybe in other cultures these things would be seen simply as an unfortunate occurrence--an occasion to console someone, rather than to laugh. I'm pretty sure I would be laughed at by Gambians if either of these things happened to me, and I think that much of Gambian humor is indeed universal. However, there have been numerous occurrences that have resulted in me laughing hysterically while the local populace stared blankly at me.

The primary cause of this private hilarity is the western t-shirts sold on the streets of cities and in every market in the country. Used clothing shipped over as charity from the west is a hot commodity, called "fukajai" in all three main local languages (Mandinkas say fukajai-o, as they have to add an "o" to everything for some reason). It is also slangily called "dead toubab clothes" because no one here could imagine why anyone would throw away perfectly good clothes unless they were dead. I am really not sure exactly how the distribution of this salvation army/goodwill type fare works, but I have yet to see a family in the Gambia that does not own at least one t-shirt from overseas. Some of this clothing is pretty commonplace--polos with company monograms, Gap hoodies, old acid-washed jeans. Occasionally, though, I will round a corner in a dusty African village and be slapped in the face by something painfully ridiculous and/or ironic.

For instance, the small boy with the lisp running around in jellies and kicking a ball of socks around the trash heap probably has no idea what "super girls rule the world" means, or he would take off his pink sequined shirt. The man in the turban reading an Islamic text must not understand that his shirt that reads "life has so many choices" is covered in beer bottles from all over the world. And I have all sorts of questions for the middle-aged man in line at the bank wearing a cheer-leading t-shirt and capri pants. There are some even racier t-shirts whose slogans I will not repeat here, as this is a family-friendly blog. In these cases ignorance, or more specifically illiteracy, is bliss.

But while much of the clothing seen around West Africa had been previously worn by some American who developed either in size or in good taste, a good portion is also made specifically for the region. At least half of this clothing has Barack Obama plastered all over it. I personally have 2 Obama shirts, one a Guinea football jersey with a picture of Obama ironed onto it, the other a stunning portrait of him with the words "sign of progress" and "WEINICE" written below. I also have some Obama flip flops and an Obama hologram belt. Barack shares the honor of being so universally recognized by Gambians with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Andy Rooney, and other world football stars, as well as numerous American rap and pop stars. Fifty Cent, Nelly, and Britney Spears T-shirts are popular among people of all ages and sexes in all regions of the Gambia, although I have never heard any of their music played in the country.

While this whole concept of cultural leftovers being stamped onto cheap t-shirts, hats, belts, etc. is an unending source of entertainment for westerners living and working in the Gambia, I can't help but feel a twinge of frustration at the attitude it implies. So many things are just dumped on the Gambia because no one else seems to want them or care about them. True, Gambians are glad to have about anything we are willing to send, but it seems as if we're playing a joke on them. These types of clothes are seen as stylish and high-quality by the average African villager, while we see a shirt portraying Nelly sandwiched between twin Britney Spearses as ridiculous, and we would be outraged if manufactured products tore or fell apart as quickly and easily as they do here. Of course none of these circumstances are a result of vindictiveness or the desire to play a joke on anyone. It's actually close to the opposite--they are the result of a profound lack of care or concern for much of West Africa on the world stage, and a lack of education and awareness of the world at large among West Africans. So, while I am here making my modest contribution to the development of the country, I will continue to laugh at the strange incarnations and mutations of American and western culture. But I will also hope that the problems of which they are a symptom will improve.

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