Attack of the Joking Cousin

Just a few weeks ago, we hosted a Christmas party at our house. Most of the people who live around us are Muslim, and so they do not normally celebrate Christmas. But the universal allure of free food brought about 25 adults and 40 children into our yard.

Hosting people from another culture is a bit nerve-racking, especially when you are the étranger living in their culture. Your guests all have shared assumptions about the roles of hosts and guests which you, the foreigner, may or may not have discovered through personal experience and the snippets of cultural insights collected over time.

As I invited people in the days leading up to the party, I hesitated over one invitation. Most of the people we invited were from our neighborhood, part of the urban mix of Zarma, Hausa and Fulani families that mix and mingle in the course of everyday life. But I also wanted to include another group of friends from outside the neighborhood: a group of Touareg students from a different region of the country who have become friends of mine. But I hesitated as I thought about it, recalling negative comments that this group had made about the other groups living in Niamey, as well as the tone of comments some neighbors had made about the Touareg people in general. Would this mix create tension? I pushed my questions aside and invited them anyway.

After a number of neighbors had arrived and taken their seats, two of my Touareg friends showed up. Their light brown skin, traditional powder blue clothing and white turbans stood out in the crowd, symbols of their ethnic and cultural pride. I led them to seats next to me, joining the gray-haired Zarma man I had been chatting with just before their arrival. A few minutes after exchanging greetings, the Zarma man turned to my turbaned friend and asked where he was from. The Touareg student gave the name of his village, and my Zarma friend grunted an acknowledgement. He followed with a question that brought my previous concerns rushing back:

“Tell me,” he said to my friend, “is there one single Touareg who isn’t a liar?”

I held my breath. Was this the moment I had feared? Could my friend, who seemed an otherwise kind and friendly person, really be so blunt and insulting about his stereotype? To my relief, my Touareg friend took it in stride. He smiled calmly and responded,

“Yes. Me.”

After a couple of similar insults, each countered by calm, smiling responses, the Zarma man turned to me and explained, “You know, there’s a relationship between the Zarma and the Touareg. As soon as I meet a Touareg, I can say whatever I want to insult him, and he will know that it’s okay. I can joke with him and insult him, because that’s just what the Zarma and the Touareg do.”

Aha. Now it came back to me. I had heard and read about this feature of African culture: joking cousins. People in certain relationships can afflict each other with all types of insults, mockery and practical jokes, and it is all taken in fun. There’s no reason to be angry. It can happen between cousins with a certain relationship in a family, between people with certain roles in society, or between certain people groups. Some claim that this tradition between different ethnic groups has helped to maintain peace in Niger between groups that might otherwise see each other as rivals.

I had heard about this tradition, but this was the first time I had seen it play out. I breathed an inward sigh of relief. My Zarma friend then recounted how he had once traveled to Agadez, a large city in the Touareg region in the north of Niger. He had to spend one night in the city before continuing his journey to a remote location in the Sahara. Taking full advantage of his status as a “joking cousin” of the Touareg, he grabbed hold of a stranger passing in the street.

“I’m coming home with you,” he said. “I’m going to sleep at your house tonight.”

“You’re crazy!” the Touareg man replied.

“No, you’re the one who’s crazy,” replied my friend. “You’re about to let a complete stranger sleep at your house!”

He held on to the man until they arrived at his house. He ate and slept there that night, then continued on his journey.

Every person who is insulting or demanding toward others has a different reason for being that way. In this case, my friend was not bitter about life; he was not a spiteful person; he had neither a personal grudge nor a deep-seated racial prejudice. He was, in fact, doing nothing more than fulfilling social obligation.