Joking Kinship in Mali: A Tool for Social Cohesion

By Francois Cissoko, Teacher Project Director                                                 

All around the world, people agree that laughter is the best medicine. In Mali, laughter and joking has been turned into a cultural art form.

All around the world, people agree that laughter is the best medicine. In Mali, laughter and joking has been turned into a cultural art form.

In human relations in Africa and especially in Mali, the joke occupies an important place. It is a typically West African social practice that establishes a relationship between two persons in which one is authorized by custom, and in some cases obliged, to tease the other or to mock. The recipient of that teasing, on the other hand, should not take the teasing too hard.

Indeed, these verbal confrontations are a means of social relief of tension and peaceful management of conflicts. The joking relationship knows no limit in its practice because it is an integral part of our customs. It allows saying what one feels internally without offending the other.

 In Mali, these jokes are made up of three great groups:

  1. A first set is the Cathartic Covenant that is introduced by a blood pact between the people or the clans.

  2. A second set is the Relationship Joke that we see with kinship groups (between cousins, grandparents and grandchildren) and in kinship by marriage (between brothers-in-laws and stepsisters).

  3. One last set consists of everything that is neither kinship nor pact, for those belonging to the same age class. This often involves very daring jokes, but also a duty of solidarity in individuals of the same age class.

Much more than just a game, these relationships are probably a way to defuse tensions between neighboring ethnicities or between family clans. In Mali, the most famous examples of joking kinship are those that bind the Dogons and Bozos and the families Diarra and Traoré. These mocking dialogues that derive from these relationships between individuals and groups, use specific traits of these ethnicities, they are often related to eating habits or their way of life. Thus, thanks to this practice that dates from centuries, communities are telling the truth without creating irritation or being irritated.

Jokes are a necessary credo for maintaining and improving good relations between different groups. They are now the basis for resolving several ethnic conflicts in Mali and sources of cohesion among the populations. In short, they can be defined as the social management of conflicts through laughter. On the other hand, the jokes are serious because, in the minds of the protagonists, a "divine" or "supernatural" sanction awaits anyone who contradicts the rules.

Nowadays, joking kinship is still important social cement, cement that must be strengthened and preserved so that we can all be modern allies.