« Cousin jokes » in Niger Republic : insulting each other just for fun

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Old West African tradition consisting in insulting each other between members of certain ethnic groups, the joking cousinhood is very practiced in Niger. And gives rise to disconcerting verbal jousts…

Niamey, September 1st. An endless queue stretches out in front of the counters of a bank. The customers are wisely waiting for their turn when a man emerges who scorns everyone’s courtesy to stand at the head of the queue, ignoring the disapproving looks. A woman’s voice rings out: « You have to be a Bagobiri to act like that! When it comes to money, they forget the rules of propriety. They can’t help it, that’s how it is. The Bagobiris always let themselves be guided by their greed. » « And the Djermas, then, is it not the same when they find themselves in front of a dish of dibiganda well seasoned with tigadigué? And what about the Songhaïs in front of a cup of doungandi? » retorts the man. The tone is lively, half-figures, half-redeals. The two protagonists seem ready to fight. When the atmosphere relaxes, so suddenly. And the laughter fuses.

The man and the woman recognized each other by their scarifications and could not resist this little joust. This is « joking cousinship »: a verbal confrontation during which members of certain ethnic groups may insult each other, but which is in fact a means of social relaxation. In Niger, these verbal altercations are authorized between Fulani, Maouris and/or Béris-Béris, between Djermas, Songhaïs, Bagobiris and Touaregs, between Gourmantchés and Touaregs… They reach their peak during large gatherings, such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, where they can shock an uninformed public because the jibes are so sharp. No one loses his or her temper for all that. It is codified.

Because of their joking cousinship, the Peuls, the Béris-Béris and the Maouris are allowed to make themselves at home with each other

Each ethnic group in the Sahel is linked to (at least) one other by this joking kinship, which favors the persistence of age-old traditions of conviviality, trust, tolerance, and mutual aid. In the case of the Fulani, the Béris-Béris and the Maouris, for example, because of their joking kinship, they are allowed to make themselves comfortable in each other’s homes and can even appropriate each other’s property without anyone objecting.

Some academics have pointed out that there are no major inter-ethnic conflicts in countries where this practice, which has its origins in ancestral times, prevails. From a sociological point of view, it is a means of resolving social tensions, a sort of anti-xenophobia potion. Thus, at the height of the Touareg rebellion, one of the most important ethno-political conflicts in Niger’s history, the Touaregs never attacked the Songhaïs or the Djermas. To do so would have meant breaking an age-old pact, which is potentially damaging.

Social relations are not entirely peaceful in Niger, and both xenophobia and interethnic tensions exist

A Nigerien of French origin, the ethnologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan is more measured. If joking cousinship effectively « relaxes » relations, it does not necessarily testify to an « extraordinary » openness to the other. Social relations are not entirely peaceful in Niger, and, even if they are not always perceptible, xenophobia as well as interethnic tensions exist. For him, « the clientelism of the land » means that people tend to favor their own, which creates tensions. He also mentions a persistent social racism in the north and west of the country, particularly with regard to the descendants of captives.

The people, however, do not seem to stop at these considerations. Since the late 1990s, the Nigerien Ministry of Culture has organized a « joking kinship week » with an annual competition. And a few years ago, a radio program devoted to joking kinship was a hit in the country. The show quickly grew from an hour to an hour and a half, with no musical break.