American comedian, Dave Chapelle has often said “everything is funny before it happens to you.”
Indeed, any crises or scandals form good material for comedy – before it happens to you! Indeed, Mr Chapelle has joked about some of the most sensitive and polarising subjects of our time: sexual harassment, rape, homosexual and gay rights, mass shootings, etcetera.
He says, he does not joke about these things to be mean, but because they are funny. Of course, while some of these jokes have earned him immense plaudits – for his wits and boldness – they have also earned him bitter criticism.
But that is the life of a serious comic: They do not only tickle us into hearty laughter, but they also educate us, inspire and challenge their listeners to re-evaluate their world.
Following a Dave-Chapellian logic, one might say, Ugandans [I’m not wholly sure about other countries – but I believe, they are doing the same] are heartily joking about coronavirus because it has plenty funny moments, and is yet to hit home hard – hard as it has done elsewhere.
But that is one part of the analysis, my sense is that Ugandans are joking about COVID-19 because it gives them a wonderful escape from the tough reality anticipated.
The news is constantly breaking, and the picture is terrifying. But besides escape from the anticipated calamity, corona-humour is keeping people inspired and going on with a smile.
In the words of Victorian poet, John Donne, comics and their listeners/viewers are mocking death, chanting, “death be not proud.”
There is power in turning the tables against death. It gives bodily strength, which is necessary for the fight against death. In the middle of this disaster –hard-hit countries such as Italy, the United States and the UK, need more comics for therapy, comfort and reassurances.
Indeed, the more the carnage intensifies, the world will need more comics to laugh at this pain, and inspire people to move forward just as they must.
Fortunately, the world is lucky that this epidemics has struck after the invention of Wi-Fi, smartphones and photoshop. These advances in science and technology have enabled us not only to access news and information quickly, but also ably communicate with one another without necessarily meeting.
A person nowadays has the entire world “in a grain sand” placed in their palms – the smartphone. Jokers and comics have exploited these inventions, and ought to do more.
Our phones are buzzing with one-liner jokes, about the experience of the lockdown, and interactions with local defence units.
True to the ambition of humour, some of these experiences are entire fictions, while some are witty exaggerations ridiculing our fears and anxieties. Fake stories about the struggle for the invention of cures, and small skits about the implications of the disease, who will survive or not having been wholly exciting.
There is that favourite clip of mine, certainly picked from a movie, where an ape leans over, friendlily grabs a white man, and taking its cool time, casting a very sophisticated look, whispers in his ear in Luganda, “edaggala lya corona njaga.”
Suggesting that “the cure for corona is weed,” makes for much comic relief especially coming from a renowned member of the jungle, the space where corona has been claimed to have come from.
But also, weed! We have also seen Amooti of the Amarula Family dramatizing “social distance” at a church service. In the spirit of observing social distance with the priest, congregants will have their holy bread thrown at them, and since they cannot hold it with their hands, they will have to trap it with their open mouths.
Did you all see that dramatization of the potential names of kids born under the epidemic and named after corona lingua (Isolation, Social Distance, Lockdown, Covid). With a roll call being taken in class, I died at that moment when Covid is called to clean the blackboard. These and much more have kept us going.
The point I am labouring is this: In moments of epidemics, or violent conflict, the causes of death are never limited to guns and bombs or just the viruses.
But rather, several epidemic-related or conflict-related causes. The most renowned conflict/epidemic-related causes of death include hunger, and trauma.
Death on a large scale, and the site of dead bodies strewn across streets, or simply the anticipation of the worst – which is often defined by fear and anxiety – is a potential cause of death itself during and after the conflict/disaster.
When genocides occur, the site of death is itself a cause of death. But comics can play a major part in calming our anxieties and saving us from the violence of emotional stress.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research