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Anne Kansiime: A philosophical inquiry into the political economy of humour

Friday 5 December 2014

Odomaro Mubangizi

2014-12-04, Issue 705

There is a lot going on in Africa: Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria, the Ebola crisis, armed conflict in South Sudan, rhetoric of ‘Africa arising’, the dramatic exit of Blaise Compaore, presidential elections... Many of these are issues that tend to make people get too serious and stressed. Uganda’s star comedia Anne Kansiime is offering people some respite.

INTRODUCTION

It is Pliny the Elder - a Roman statesman and scholar - who famously stated that ‘Ex Africa semper aliquid novi’ translated as ‘There is always something new out of Africa’. This quotation has been fulfilled by none other than Anne Kansiime, a Ugandan young lady who has risen to great heights as the most popular comedian on the continent in a very short time. Most analysts of the African continent tend to focus on big themes such as regional integration, armed conflict, ‘Africa rising’, Africa-China relationship, aid and trade, Ebola, etc. But to turn some analytical tools to an individual who has no political clout is something new coming out of Africa. But also what makes Anne Kansiime an attractive choice is an area of entertainment she has delved into that tends to be neglected in development discourse—humour. Does humour play a role in national development? Is there something serious about laughter that some philosophers refer to as ‘that madness only found in humans’? The Kiga of South Western Uganda, where Anne Kansiime comes from have a famous saying that ‘akakwangyire okaanga, embwa ekaanga esheko’, translated as ‘What hates you also hate it, the dog hated laughter.’

This essay will attempt a philosophical enquiry into the political economy of humour using Anne Kansiime’s booming comedy industry as an illustration. ‘Can see me’, as Anne refers to herself, has entered the world of comedy while there is a lot going on in Africa: Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria, Ebola crisis, armed conflict in South Sudan, rhetoric of ‘Africa arising’, the dramatic exit of Blaise Compaore under what some are dubbing a minor ‘African Spring’, and upcoming presidential elections, to name just a few. These are issues that tend to make people get too serious, stressed and worked up, and yet, Anne Kansiime has taken a different approach—laughter as the best medicine. Africa has tried all kinds of solutions to her development challenges - might humour be the best solution that was neglected? Anne Kansiime without employing grand theories and complex arguments, humorously demonstrates that one can laugh all the way to success and fame. Can humour be considered one of the strategies for poverty reduction?

BORN TO LAUGH AND MAKE OTHERS LAUGH

Anne Kansiime was born in Kabale Uganda, April 13, 1987 so she is now aged 27. She does her comedy through the medium of television. She got actively involved in entertainment industry since 2007 up to now. Anne started her career in Kampala City while doing her undergraduate studies in social sciences at the prestigious Makerere University. From this fact of studying social sciences and then venturing into comedy, it is evident that comedians are born not made. Anne herself states that anybody in her family could have become a comedian, since the whole family is generally humorous: ‘I find everyone in my family capable of becoming a comedian like me. Most of my relatives have a good sense of humour but none of them have ever tried to join this field’, Kansiime explained when asked whether there are other comedians in her family.

Anne Kansiime is married to Gerald Ojok. The fact that she was able to cross the cultural barriers and marry outside her tribe (Ojok is from the Acholi tribe) sets Anne aside as a bridge-builder and one who cannot let love be obstructed by cultural and belief systems. There is also something comic about this choice she made and she makes allusions to this in her shows. This ability to cross cultural barriers is further demonstrated by Anne’s ease in speaking Luganda fluently, which is not her mother tongue. Some of her most successful shows have taken place in countries other than Uganda: Rwanda, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi. One has to have a global mind-set to entertain people who do not share one’s root metaphors and world-view, as Anne is able to do.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND RISE TO GLOBAL FAME

What has Anne Kansiime accomplished so far that has earned her the label ‘Africa’s queen of comedy’? She has been an actress and writer in Fun Factory and also hosts the ‘Don’t Mess with Kansiime’ Television show on Citizen TV in Kenya. She has won over the hearts of Kenyans, overshadowing Kenya’s comedians such as Eric Omondi. She recently started a Sunday evening comedy show with other Ugandan artistes. This bringing together of fellow comedians brings the best out of Anne as a person who does not fear competition, but rather as one who in fact cultivates the talents of others.

In places where Anne has performed across Africa and beyond, the audience is left fully satisfied and wanting more. She has performed in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Lusaka, Kigali, Lagos, Malysia, Gaborone and London. With her excellent performance have come all kinds of awards, raising her fame all the more: Airtel Women of Substance Awards in 2014; BEFTA 2013 Best Comedian winner; Lagos International Festival 2013 Best Actress winner; Social Media Awards Favourite Celebrity winner; African Social Awards Malysia 2013. Anne is clearly a celebrity in a class of her own.

What has made Anne Kansiime’s popularity soar to greater heights is her use of social media and ICT. Her largest audience is on Youtube (with over 5 million channel viewers on her videos while subscribers are over 6543. Her face book page has almost 200,000 subscribers.

PHILOSOPHICAL AND AESTHETIC ELEMENTS OF KANSIIME’S HUMOUR

Humour is something light but behind the comic there are some principles that elicit laughter. It is possible to enquire philosophically into the comic. What is it that makes people laugh? To put it in more philosophical terms, what is the phenomenology of humour? Are there transcendental attributes of the comic? Knowing the underlying elements or attributes of humour is what distinguishes an excellent comedian like Anne Kansiime from other average comedians. It is knowing these attributes that makes one construct comic scenes that cut across diverse cultural and class backgrounds. How can we characterize Anne Kansiime’s style of humour?

When you see or hear something comic you know it. People world-over experience humorous moments intended or unintended. A few examples: when it has just rained and the ground is slippery pedestrian do occasionally fall down—this provokes laughter among the onlookers; someone coming to class with an mismatching pair of shoes—one formal leather shoe, another Nike sports shoe; looking for a key of the car while you have it in your hand. A good comedian knows the underlying elements that make these episodes mentioned about a source of laughter. Anne Kansiime knows these elements and enhances them with artistic creativity.

Humour has an epistemological dimension. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with truth claims—what is truth? How can we know truth? When Anne Kansiime was asked by Quick Talk she replied that ‘she would rather read gossip about herself’. She suggests that it is more amusing to read gossip about her than kill the fun by telling readers about who she is. There is something comic about distorting truth through gossip. Lies are extremely entertaining if well told! But Christians are told by the Good Book that ‘thou shalt not lie.’ There is something humorous in doing the unexpected or the prohibited. This seems to be an aspect of human nature. On lying, try the first of April when all kinds of lies are legally allowed, I am not sure about the morality of telling lies even on first of April. The lie is all the more humorous if it is told to a senior person and he or she believes it.

The first distortion—not sure whether it is a lie-drama. All actors including Anne Kansiime know that drama is an attempt to portray something that is not necessarily true by acting. Anne plays diverse roles: police officer, married woman, prostitute, house girl, etc. The success of such dramatization depends on how far it resembles reality while the audience knows too well that the actor is imitating reality. This is where humour and comedy are first and foremost artistic creations. The comedian paints reality, and the closer the performance resembles reality, the more amusing and comic it becomes. This is the aesthetic dimension of comedy.

Anne Kansiime is a consummate artist. Even her dress shows this perfectly well. She puts on colourful dress, changes her hair style and make-up, to portray the various characters she tries to portray. Even her facial expression elicits humour as some of the online photos of her show:

The photo above Anne is acting as a young school girl who does not want to go to school again. Her physique serves a dramatic impact: she can play the role of a young school girl with ease. Her youthful and lively disposition allows her to make light of any situation as she wishes.

This youthful disposition is also related to the element of truth we have alluded to. She can play the role of an innocent child, but she can also play the role of a mischievous adolescent with incredible effect. The physical disposition also plays into her technique of surprise—you might be expecting a young girl on stage, and then she plays the role of an old lady and government official! That contrast plays the trick for her.

Her ability to play around with truth and concealment is phenomenal. When Quick Talk asked her whether she uses Warid (a mobile phone provider that is associated with poor people she said:

‘Please, don’t say I have a Warid line, those guys will think that I am advertising for them and I never tell people that I have a Warid line. When people know that you have a Warid line, they will call you and yap, wolokoso just. [What is it with people and Warid, all of them complain and yet almost everyone seems to have one; mbu it’s associated with low class]’

See how she uses common jargon in Kampala: wolokoso is a term for rumour mongering or gossip; ‘mbu’ is a local term equivalent of ‘saying that.’ She is honest and points out the hypocrisy of many people, like when she says many people use Warid and yet pretend not to use it. There is some social critique in the humour. Ugandans tend to pretend to be rich even when they are poor—playing rich is very common. But also there is something undesirable about being seen to be of a lower class. There is some shame associated with being of a lower class.

Note also the wit and humour in Anne’s communication. She says ‘I never tell people that I have a Warid line’ but she has actually said it already! Like saying: ‘I will not tell you that I am among the richest people in Uganda.’ She knows how to play with language. This is a comic stylist technique of the highest order.

If you want to get to the depth of Anne’s philosophy of humour, pay attention as to who she answers questions put to her. On who she is, she unapologetically declares that she is a Mukiga and adds that she is a proud one. Bakiga are notorious for being too frank in their communication saying things as they are—calling a spade a spade. They are known all over Uganda and beyond as not mincing words; not using metaphors in speech. Kansiime used this cultural trait to her advantage. Many people who interact with Bakiga admit they admire this trait—for they are easy to deal with if you understand their honesty and truth telling, even if it hurts at first. When she was asked whether she wants to go for further studies, she replies ‘Why would I want one when I have my own permanent head damage?’ This is an allusion to a PhD as a ‘Permanent Head Damage’ as they generally refer to it in Uganda. She is making an allusion to herself as ‘crazy’—a funny way of saying that one is acting out of the ordinary—clearly a genius in her own right.

This raises an important epistemological question: Do people learn humour in school? Did Anne Kansiime learn her comic style? The abundance evidence suggests she is a born comedian—a genius of sorts. This is a perennial question for epistemology—where does knowledge come from? Plato the famous philosopher together with Socrates claim that knowledge is inborn. People only recollect what they already know. Schools just help to bring out what people already know; otherwise no one would be able to learn if they did not already know something that their souls are born with. Who could teach Anne comedy? But John Locke famous British empiricist differs with Platonic and Socratic idealism and suggests that all knowledge is acquired through sense perception. Enough of Greek and British empiricism. Only Anne can tell us where her comic talent came from.

Still on truth in humour, consider what she says when she was asked how old she is: ‘I am not too old and not too young.’ Superb and witty answer. You are left guessing what her age is. She knows with her physique people will forever guess how old she is. Nature or her creator has given her a cosmological tool for humour. She will always amuse her audience with her age and physique.

CRAFTING HUMOUR FROM THE ORDINARY

Since this essay sets out to spell out some philosophical and aesthetics elements in Anne Kansiime’s humor, it is important to give some, albeit cursory, comments on the philosophy of beauty. The celebrated work of Edmund Burke of 1757 will provide our theoretical and conceptual framework in this small enterprise. Edmund Burke wrote his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, as a primer with regard to an attempt to separate the beautiful and the sublime into the various rational conceptual schemes or categories. St. Thomas Aquinas the famous medieval philosopher and theologian identified the transcendental attributes of beauty as: unity, completeness, splendour and proportionality. Look at any object of art and you will agree with Thomas Aquinas that a beautiful work of art or even a human being, are marked by these metaphysical qualities. A beautiful object has splendid colours, has harmony, looks coherent and one, and all the different parts are in good proportion. Even intellectual products like an essay has to have these qualities if it is to be considered beautiful: a coherent structure with proportional sections, united and complete arguments, good illustrations by way of examples, pictures, style of sentences and paragraphs, etc.

According to Burke the beautiful is any object, idea, work of art, that is well-formed and pleasing aesthetically. He uses the metaphysics of Aristotle to discuss the beautiful and the sublime. Without going into great detail of causality, I can just mention that causes are categorized in four kinds: formal, material, efficient and final causes. Passion of love is the formal cause of beauty. We crave for what we love—food, music, books, dress, etc. Anne Kansiime does provide a whole range of things we love to speak about: family, marriage, business, money, power, knowledge, leisure, etc. Material cause of beauty deals with the elements of objects of things like size, texture, or how delicate they are. In her comments on people and homes, Anne alludes to these elements of size, smoothness, delicacy, etc. Efficient is the impact the beautiful has on the nerves of the audience or one viewing the work. Clearly Annes’ comedy calms the nerves of the audience. Nothing does this more than laughter. That is why some refer to laughter as the best medicine. And the final cause is God’s providence. Beauty is ultimately from God even when human beings play their part. In this case the talent of humour that Anne displays is ultimately a gift from God. Anne is born from a Christian family and most probably believes that God is the one who has blessed her with this incredible gift of humour.

Burke’s contribution to the world of aesthetics is his innovative idea of the sublime as that aspect that compels and may even cause death. He rightly observed that the sublime also has the four kinds of causes but different from those of the beautiful: instead of love, the formal cause is fear; material cause has aspects of vastness, infinity, and magnificence; efficient cause is the tension of nerves and not their relaxation as in the beautiful, while the final cause is the fact of God creating and battling with Satan. Does the sublime also feature in Anne’s comedy shows? A close look at some of her You Tube Clips shows that this is the case. There are elements of fear like when she threatens to beat a lady who has an affair with her husband. Fear also comes out prominently when she threatens to expose two people involved in a corruption case if they do not give part of the money that has been extorted. In her comedy shows she also appeals to size. Clearly where fear is invoked, nerves are tensed up.

The element of God in Anne’s comedy shows is not so prominent, but the theme of religion and God appear in some modest form. On the You Tube series labelled ‘Best of Anne Kansiime: Best Compilation New Season one 2014’ she says a prayer before the meal that is loaded with ideas of God. The God presented in the humorous ‘Our Father’ prayer is a very close God who provides sugar, tea leaves, protects cups and plates, protects travellers, gives energy, gives good sight to pilots, keeps away evil forces. The theme of evil forces is common in Kiga cosmology. The prayer that was to be a short prayer went on an on until the husband left without tea! Comic technique worked.

WHAT THEMES DOES KANSIIME COVER IN HER COMEDY?

In the You Tube clip ‘Her Excellency Ann Kansiime the President’ she portrays in her characteristic ironic and sarcastic sense of humour to depict an unknown corrupt president who dishes out ministerial posts to people who are not qualified. Power and corruption feature prominently in her shows. A senior leaver is made a minister of engineering; a wife of the same person is given ministry of fashion and tailoring just because she was her beautician.

She performs on music as a hip hop expert. This is a comic style in another medium. Humour in music comes naturally to her. She is able to pass on social critical messages on such vices as alcohol abuse among children, missing class, flirting with house-maids, marital infidelity and child pregnancies. The vast themes she is able to cover give her a vast audience in return. Every person will find something amusing to ruminate on. There is an episode where she acts as a wife who wets her bed in solidarity with the husband bed-wetter: ‘For better for worse, even me I ….so that you do not feel alone.’ She is playing on the theme of maritalbond and faithfulness to create a comic effect that only one with a liberal sense of humour can attempt. She is able to make paint ordinary events with an extraordinary sense of humour.

Anne Kansiime knows how to use the ordinary to create humour. One element of humour related with epistemology is an accurate observation of reality - be it physical or abstract - and then representing it to the audience laced with humour. One episode when a certain Bruno Agababyona pays a visit to her home, and on his way back he is given a ride by Anne. As they proceed Anne notices a lady well-endowed and she exclaimed: ‘Yamawe, Omukazi ayinne nkekibuunu!’ (Rukiga phrase for the woman has a big butt!). The humour does not end there as she continues: ‘Ehh… some people are true investors, that kind of butt will surely take her places,’ she observes. ‘I only pity the men who are always treated to the torture of walking behind her on staircases’ she added. ‘But Anne that is not torture!’ Bruno remarked. ‘If you think that that is not torture, then you do not know how it feels to work as a cleaner in a kitchen at an Indian Restaurant. Do you know how it feels being exposed to the smell of the food which you are not supposed to eat?’ she asks. Anne is able to make subtle connections as she weaves elements of humour. Consider the degree of complexity as she pushes comic elements to deeper levels. In all this she uses metaphors, allegory and cross references like any excellent literary genius.

COMMODIFYING COMEDY

Anne is now an international celebrity and not even the sky is the limit to her fame and glory. She must be making huge sums of money from making people laugh. She has had an opportunity to visit the Queen in the UK, she is now known in the UN circles and has earned the title: ‘Africa’s Queen of Comedy’ a title she is likely to enjoy for a long time. She is aware that comedy is a commodity that can be exported as she is doing and urges other comedians to do likewise.

Africa has tried all manner of strategies to fight poverty: infrastructure, trade, investment, agriculture, mining, tourism, regional integration, petroleum exploration, education, health, MDGs, etc. Now is the time, Anne Kansiime seems to argue, try humour or comedy. The fact that she is a young lady also brings a gender dimension to the industry of humour. She is breaking into a male-dominated world of comedy and has so far done well. She has brought her feminine genius into the world of humour with incredible success. Could she be on the way to earning a Nobel Prize for Literature since she is using digital media and ICT as a new paradigm in the literary world? Or could she be on her way to getting a Nobel Prize for Peace since she is using comedy as art to fight all forms of subtle violence against women, children that usually evade the larger state systems? She is clearly an educationist using digital and online media to pass on the message to a larger audience than a conventional class room.

At the national level, she has clearly brought Uganda to the global scene once again. She is subtle in her advocacy for social justice and women emancipation. Her comedy can be seen a great contribution to Uganda’s tourism industry. Many tourists would want to go and see where Anne Kansiime is born from. The lash green and cathedral-like mountains of Kigezi will be known all the more. Her potential to boost tourism in Uganda cannot be underestimated.

That her shows are very popular in the Eastern African region and beyond is a good thing for regional integration around the concept of humor—make the region laugh then the citizens will come together. The cultural dimension of regional integration is best served through comedy. Unhappy with the traditional measurements of human development index economists have suggested a happiness index. Instead of looking at what income and GDP of a country are, we should look for the levels of happiness, this new school suggests. If this new approach to human flourishing that looks at happiness and how we measure it is embraced, then it is high time we also invested in what makes people happy—comedy. Skeptics might say, ‘hey look, does laughter put food on the plate?’ Well, a happy people are the most productive people you can ever have. But also as Anne Kansiime has demonstrated, humour is a whole industry on its own. Definitely Anne has enough money to put food at her table and more. Her shows will employ a number of people, and the media is ripping big from shows. One cannot rule out the idea of new institutions such as academies for comedy being set up, if comedy becomes such a lucrative business. Kansiime’s humour calls for thinking outside the box, it calls for innovation and entrepreneurship.

CONCLUSION

I have tried to reconstruct a philosophy and political economy of humour based on Anne Kansiime’s industry of comedy and her unique style of entertainment. Her role as a social critic has been outlined as pedagogy through humour. Aesthetic elements in her style of humour have been explored, and the immense potential in her emerging comedy industry have also been pointed out.

The philosophy and political economy of humour we have discussed using Anne Kansiime as an illustration, has policy implications. It is now upon governments to now take comedy seriously, but not only comedy but also other performing arts. Africa has a lot of talented unemployed youth who drop out of school. Some of these youth have hidden talents that they can use to entertain the wider society. Many parents and teachers are often heard commenting that being a comedian is a bad idea—in fact being called a comedian is a bit derogatory. This mentality and attitude should change. Society tends to stifle individuality in the name of homogeneity. Those who tend to think outside the box are considered norm-breakers. It is this kind of thinking that has stifled many a talent of young men and women who look at reality differently.

Will donor and development agents from now-on start to invest in talent development of young people in addition to the usual grand projects of National Development Plans (NDP), infrastructure, power generation? We paraphrase the famous biblical idea that ‘man/woman does not live on bread alone but on a humorous word.’ If you have not had a good laugh for a while, look out for Anne Kansiime—she is just a click away! May Anne Kansiime continue to inspire many young men and women to value the gift of laughter and through her comedy, help to eradicate poverty and suffering on the African continent. Let me hope that by philosophizing about laughter I have not made it look like a serious thing! One request to Anne: ‘If you ever read this piece, kindly indicate whether I have represented your philosophy of humour accurately.’

* Dr. Odomaro Mubangizi teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa where he is also Dean of the Philosophy Department. He is also Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.

* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM

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