The Latest Hub of Political Humor: Gambia
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A new generation of comedians is using hard-won civic space and social media to poke fun at leaders in a country that, until recently, had a thin-skinned president.
By James Courtright
- For two decades, the notoriously thin-skinned dictator Yahya Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist, and mocking him meant trouble.
- A new generation of Gambian comedians is emerging after Jammeh’s ouster, poking fun at him and other leaders and setting new boundaries for political satire in the West African nation.
The viral video begins with a court usher administering an oath to a significantly slimmer but still sartorially recognizable Yahya Jammeh. When asked to repeat his name, the comedian depicting Jammeh, who ruled Gambia for more than two decades with an iron fist, insists on being identified as “I, his excellency, professor-doctor-alhaji Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa and the former president of the Republic of Gambia.” On his second attempt, the usher cuts him off at “professor” and the laugh track explodes.
The skit depicts Jammeh, who is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea after losing the December 2016 presidential election, testifying at the ongoing Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) about crimes committed under his watch. The video has been viewed nearly 50,000 times since it was uploaded to YouTube in June, an impressive statistic for a small country of 2 million people where only 20 percent of the population actively uses the internet.
The creators of the video, four young men who call themselves Ama Comedy, have since released a series of sketches touching on COVID-19 and what it means to have rights in a democracy. They represent a new generation of Gambian comedians who are using hard-won civic space and social media to question the myths of the past and poke fun at their current leaders.
Humor and playful teasing form a cornerstone of everyday Gambian life. The West African nation has a tradition of using jokes to ease tension and diffuse conflict. But while Jammeh liked to make fun of others, he himself was notoriously thin-skinned. Kitabu Fatty, a comedian who had a TV show on the country’s national broadcaster, says that under Jammeh, “there are certain things you wouldn’t say or certain issues you wouldn’t address.”
We want to make people laugh, but we also want to make them question things.
Adama Sanneh, Ama Comedy
That fear has been significantly reduced since Gammeh’s defeat and subsequent exile. The former president used to suggest only Allah could remove him from power. Now, he’s a frequent target of comedians’ jokes. Videos such as the one portraying Jammeh at the TRRC undermine the myth of his omnipotence, says Baba Galleh Jallow, executive secretary of the TRRC and a former satirist himself.
But comedians aren’t targeting only the former president. Muhammed Nyang, who goes by the stage name Wagan, has been making audiences laugh since childhood, when he entertained people at his family compound. When the first private television company in Gambia was established in December 2017, Nyang was brought on to host a weekly show, which parodies celebrities and politicians in a series of skits à la Saturday Night Live. It is among the most popular in the country.
“We are a small country,” Nyang says, “but many people are now interested in politics. If you concentrate on politics, you’ll have many programs.” He regularly impersonates and pokes fun at the current president, Adama Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in 2016, and his political opponents. While Barrow supporters sometimes get upset with his ribbing, Nyang says, the people he is mocking mostly enjoy it. Comedians have a special place in society, he says, in that they can say difficult things in a funny way while at the same time entertaining people. “It helps release stress,” he says.
While the new political dispensation allows Nyang and others to poke fun at Gambian leaders, the spread of social media has also opened up space for new voices. This is most evident on TikTok, where a number of young women — traditionally on the margins of comedy — have started to make a name for themselves.
Twenty-five-year-old Tida Jobe describes herself as an entertainer, not just a comedian. Her content on TikTok, which runs the gamut from glamour shots to poking fun at Gambian norms around public displays of affection to mocking the country’s leaders, regularly gets thousands of views. She jokingly calls Barrow her “husband” and makes fun of him for falling asleep in meetings. Jobe is quick to point out that she also makes fun of the main opposition candidate.
Like Jobe, most of these entertainers insist they’re nonpartisan. But they also emphasize the social benefits they see emerging from political comedy. Effective satire, says Baba Galleh Jallow, is born out of frustration with circumstances and can offer a much-needed form of release for both comedian and audience. “You get angry at certain things that are happening, so you laugh at them,” he says. “Laughter can be a form of therapy.” The members of Ama Comedy are planning their next video to feature a hypothetical debate during Gambia’s 2021 presidential elections. They won’t mock specific leaders, they say, but they do want to point out the dramatic differences between what politicians promise and what they actually do once elected. “We want to make people laugh,” says Adama Sanneh, one of the group’s members, “but we also want to make them question things.”
- James Courtright, OZY Author Contact James Courtright