Sunday, November 4, 2012

Laughing Our Way To Better Politics.

So there I was last Sunday surfing the airwaves when I came across Wacha Masihara by accident. They were faux-news covering a surprise visit by Minister for Transport Harrison Mwakyembe on some unsuspecting TRA employees. It was the most welcome, upbeat, politically-incorrect fun I have had since Ze Komedy lost their mojo. Interestingly enough, it is funded by a number of civil-society organizations. 

Satirical media's sanitary effect on politics is a global phenomenon that's been building up for years. Does this stuff work here though? Will we be able to talk, laugh, debate and negotiate our way to the well-run together-forever Tanzania of our desires? We seem to be building, slowly but surely, a relatively healthy culture of free speech supported by increasingly smart media. And making the funny is a large part of it.  To get all Afrocentric on you for a second, this might just be a reclaiming of a fairly common social cohesion technique that survived from precolonial times and got used to great effect immediately after independence: utani*. 

The current free speech/governance/accountability 'upgrade' is being driven by a surprising relationship between youthful (not necessarily young) media, celebrities, savvy politicians and the few public servants who can stomach it. After years of being the reprobates, comedians and cartoonists and radio presenters and musicians have become opinion leaders with a mandate not only to access our leaders, but to mediate our relationship with them. That's lot of power to put in the hands of the creative misfits from the back of the classroom, but I feel so much more comfortable with them than the suits. 

Thanks to them, fun is entrenching itself firmly in our public culture. It's also squeezing the hot air out of our hierarchies and retraining us all as we transition away from the chauvinism of Ndio Mzee culture. Too much serious isn't just boring, it is a political liability. I have always claimed that we have a responsive political structure in Tanzania, and that it is possible for change to be driven from the bottom upwards. Sure: this isn't the mass movement with all the sturm und drang of an Arab Spring, but it's nothing to scoff at either. Oh, wait it is.  :)

As 2015 inches towards us at a snail's pace, I get increasingly obsessed by this notion that there is a growing divide between the politicians who get this, and those who don't. When hanging out with fellow political junkies we usually play at least one round of a popular game: predict who President Number Five is going to be. It is a lot easier to figure out who won't be making it to Ikulu than who will, but I think that the ability to navigate an open society is key. I get shouted down by those who are betting that Big Fat Corruption and/or CCM factionalism is going to trump all that. Is it too soon to start a betting pool?

Anyways, it's not all faux news bulletins and call-in radio shows this past month. Here's a couple of other media things that caught my attention:

1. Saumu Mwalimu's work in The Citizen, like this piece. She's got some of that good je ne sais quoi going on. I am reading her. 
2. Dunia ni Duara's post on the ins and outs of social media, hashtags and crises. Because it needed to be said. 
3. AK's post this week on Vijana FM. Now when someone asks me about social media uptake and numbers and Tanzania and context and stuff, I have a link to refer them to :)
4. Thanks Zitto for making us all secretly wish our MPs would get together and make a We Are The World style 'look how cool my region is' music video. Even if I can already hear the jokes about the Kagera version...

 *Utani translates as teasing but the concept is broader. There's flirtation and charisma and camaraderie in there, disarmament, comedic relief. It even shows up in formal applications in unusual settings like funerals though that practice is dying out.


  1. You can say that again. I'm waiting for the army of stand-up comedians in TZ to crack ribs (read: embarrass the suits) over the senseless contradictions we see around us. Maybe shouting time is over and utani time is in. Question though: Do you think this is more efficiently done via national media/venue setups, or self-organized social media channels?

  2. @AK: Always good to hear from you madam. My sense is that it depends on whom you want to convince and how deeply you want to go into an issue. National media and public events have the advantage of reach, great tools for dissemination of messages to a wide and public audience and fostering public dialogue. Access to social media is still on the lower side, not the best place for that kind of thing. However, if you want to get deeply into an issue and get your hands dirty with nuanced or technical or intellectual debate that is difficult in large groups (we get a bit shouty don't we) then social media is better. It allows people to really say what's on their minds for better or worse, but it's not a mediated experience in the way that more formal channels must be.

  3. My experience with comedy I have loved has always been that it's periphery, sitting-on-the-bench, only-subtly biased poking. Take stand-up for example; all my favorite comedians graze over 30 issues in 30 minutes, obnoxiously and fearlessly dissing people and events that fuel their jokes. They don't go into dialogue or intellectual debate. But somehow, peoples' laughter (approval) feeds right back into their script (mo' faya). That's all I'm trying to say - utani galore, let's make room for it - online, offline, wherever. Alaf' du... madam ni nani tena?


No biting, spitting, trolling or ugly insults- only pretty ones allowed.

A little birdie told me...

Follow MikocheniReport on Twitter