Joking Relationships

In most cultures, it would be rude to openly mock a complete stranger, absolutely insulting to call them a slave, and downright criminal to waltz into their home and steal their television. Within the context of joking relationships — or “cousinage”, sinankunya in Mali, rakiré in Burkina Faso — these things can be perfectly acceptable in West Africa, and often result in picturesque scenes and much laughter.

Painting of African women speaking, babies on their backs and bundles on their heads. Scenes like this play out every day in the course of joking relationships.
“After Market” by Tijay Mohammed, Ghanaian painter.

Dynamics of Joking Relationships

Joking relationships allow, encourage, and sometimes even oblige, members of certain groups, even total strangers, to taunt, tease or insult each other with no social consequence, no held grudges, and no offense taken.

These relationships link certain ethnic groups (Dogon and Bozo), certain castes (nobles and griots) certain families (Coulibaly and Ouattara, Diarra and Traoré), certain familial relationships (grand-parents and grand-children), certain individuals of the same age groups (young men circumcised at the same time), or any combination of those (Fula ethnic group and smith caste).

A Bambara meeting a Fula for the very first time might joke that the latter is useless without a master — an insult stemming from history, when the Fula served the Bambara kings as herdsmen. A Fula can mock a Bobo for his supposed excessive consumption of millet beer. The Bobo can then accuse the cattle-herder’s livestock of trampling his fields — playing on stereotypes. Someone with the last name Traoré can shame a Condé by saying they are so gluttonous they can’t go through ramadan without saliva pooling at their feet.

Extent and Limits of Banter

The banter in joking relationships often devolves into a contest of wits, of who can come up with the most clever, creative and comical insult. These picturesque, almost theatrical scenes play out every day, in the streets, in concession stores, in the markets, during ceremonies, and even at work in the office or during official state summit meetings.

The interactions occasionally go beyond surface stereotypes, eating habits and obscure bits of history. They sometimes breach the borders of the sacred beliefs and practices of a people:

“Bozo ridiculed the principal foods of Dogon — namely, millet and crocodile meat — as being fodder for horses; and Dogon retorted that the Bozo was a fish that walked on land (alluding to the vulnerability of a species forced outside of its normal habitat). Bozo accused the other’s spiritual chief of never washing and being licked by a snake (referring to the Lebé cult); Dogon cursed the Bozo as being that “dirty thing of the water” that has made the water djinn (spirits or genies) impure.”

— Trevor H.J. Marchand, referencing the writings of Marcel Griaule
Photograph of an African woman laughing mischievously, and a man laughing in the background. Scenes like this remind one of joking relationships.
“Good Times at the Market”, by Phil Marion.

While there are no limits on the time and place and creativity of the insults, there are some boundaries: dragging someone’s mother into it is a big faux pas. Starting an actual fight and drawing blood is likewise unacceptable. If the interaction turns belligerent, the offender can gift some kola nuts, symbols of peace, to ask for forgiveness.

Even funerals are not exempt. Burials are often disrupted by close friends, paired in these intimate alliances. Smiths crash Fula funerals, preventing the body from being moved by any means necessary, until they are given money. Likewise, grand-children demand gifts before allowing their grand-parents’ funerals to proceed. A deceased Bissa can expect a Gurunsi to dump peanuts on his coffin as a mockery about his people’s diet. Conversly, a Gurunsi can expect her Bissa friends to demand to substitute her coffin for a dog’s head for the same reason. Some groups in Burkina Faso accuse each other of being murderers and kinslayers when someone dies. This is meant to trivialize and de-dramatize death, so that the family members do not fall too deeply into mourning.

Origins and Social Function

This custom can be traced back through the oral histories to Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire. Ethnologists, though, think it may be a much more ancient practice.

In reality, joking relationships are no joke: they are much more serious and profound than a simple, light-hearted ice-breaker. They are a consequence of ancestral alliances, blood pacts and ties of honor between groups. While some alliances have faded, some like the Dogon-Bozo or the Fula-smith caste, remain strong. In these intense kinships, the joking relationship often goes hand-in-hand with social taboos. A prohibition on inter-marriage and sexual contact between the members of each group is typical. This supposedly helps avoid the jealousies and strife surrounding romantic relationships: many a war has been fought over a woman.

The golden rule of joking relationships is never harm the other. This prescription for mutual respect, assistance and friendship helps avoid conflicts between groups and promotes peaceful compromise. It offers a cathartic, non-offensive way to air grievances and soothe tensions. “Prevention is better than cure,” as Balla Fasséké, griot to the first emperor of Mali, would say.

Table of Ethicities and their Allies

While this is not a complete list, and relationships of this sort are always subject to change, the table below gives a rough overview of the intricate web of joking relationships between ethnicities. (Based on Sissao’s book about joking relationships referenced below.)

Due to their nomadic cattle-hearding lifestyle, the Fula people have developed joking relationships with the largest number of other groups.

Ethnicity Allies/Partners
Bissa Gurunsi, San, Yarse
Birifor Lobi, Turka, Gouin, Cerma, Karaboro
Bambara Fula, Coulibaly, Ouattara, Traoré, Koné
Bobo Koné, Fula, Bambara
Bobo-Dyula Fula, Sembla, Dafing (Soninké)
Bozo Dogon
Bwaba Fula, Sembla, Dafing, Vigué
Dafing & Marka (Soninké) Bambara, Fula, Sénufo, Bobo, Dioula, Bwaba
Dagaara Turka, Gouin, Karaboro, Siamu
Djan Gouin
Dogon Bozo
Fula Bobo, Yarse, Bambara, Marancé, Dioussabe, bwaba, Bobo Dioula, Markas, Nioniose, Hausa, smith caste of all ethnicities
Fulse Gurunsi, Gurma, Bissa
Gurunsi Bissa, Fula, Gurma, Yarse, Djerma
Gurma Yarse, Kotokoli, Hausa, Gurunsi, Djerma, Fula, Dagomba, Bella
Gouin Lobi, Djan, Dagaara
Dyula Lobi
Lobi Dyula, Goin, Birifor
Mossi San, Samogho
Puguli Dagaara, Fula, Goin, Bwaba, Turka, Sénufo
San Mossi, Bissa
Sénoufo Dagaara, Lobi, Djan, Marka, Dafing
Sembla Toussian, Bobo-Dyula, Bwaba
Siamu Djan, Lobi, Dagaara, Pougouli
Toussian Sembla, Lobi, Dagaara
Turka Dagaara, Lobi
Vigué Fula, Bwaba
Winy Fula, Bissa, Goin, Lagana, Djerma
Yana Zaoose (Diabo)

Sources and Further Reading

Books, papers and articles:


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