Sunday, March 13, 2011

Burkina's Joking Relationships

One afternoon last week, one of my Burkinabè colleagues entered a government building, walked into an office and said to the secretary (whom he did not know), “Hello! I’m your boss and I want you to drop everything else right now and get me a document that I need.” She looked at him with an expression of distinct annoyance, ready to retort and put him in his place. Who did he think he was ordering her around like that?!!!

But then she hesitated... “Are you a Samo?” she asked. “I don’t know about that,” he replied, “but I do know that I’m your superior and you need to do what I tell you immediately!” Smiling broadly, she set aside her work and went to find my colleague the document that he had requested!

Ever since we first came to Burkina in the late 90s, we’ve been aware of the special joking relationships that exist between various ethnic groups in the country. The Mossi and the Samo, the Bissa and the Gurunsi, etc., etc. It seems that these relationships developed between ethnic groups in close geographical proximity as a way of diffusing the tensions and strife that occur. The joking often takes the form of an insult or an attitude of superiority, with a member of one group calling a member of the other group his “slave” and ordering him to do some menial task.

Interestingly, it works! The tensest of situations can be easily diffused if the protagonists realize that they are members of ethnic groups that have a joking relationship. Once the insults begin, people begin laughing and the situation eases.

Of course, a joking relationship isn’t just useful in situations of tension or conflict. It’s also useful in everyday life, especially if one needs to deal with the personnel of government ministries that are not normally known for their efficiency or attitude of customer service. Thus my colleague, being a Samo, noticed that the name of the secretary was Ouédraogo. She was obviously a Mossi, with whom the Samo have a joking relationship. So he immediately adopted an arrogant superior attitude and proceeded with his request in the manner described above. And he got his document. In record time too :)

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