Why laughter’s no joke in Tanzania: An essay, Part I

Saturday May 30 2020

Tanzanian comedian Idris Sultan

Tanzanian comedian Idris Sultan. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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On May 19, 2020, Tanzanian media personality and comedian Idris Sultan was arrested. His crime: Laughing at a picture of President John Magufuli that was clearly taken in the late 1900s.

While it is hard to say what caused Mr Sultan’s amusement, the fashions of the era, as many of us can attest, are known to produce mirth in contemporary viewers.

Although he was arrested on grounds of cyberbullying, Mr Sultan may face further unbailable charges. This ongoing situation is one of great interest not only for freedom of speech and expression, but as a measure of the current Tanzanian ‘‘mood’’ if you will.


In this this essay I shall begin with a brief statement of my credentials to undertake such work, followed by a summary of recent research from Russia that informs the lens through which this examination will take place.

I shall be telling the reader, via headers, exactly what I am about to tell them. Then I shall tell them. Opposite of a Disclaimer: While this work is presented in a pseudo-academic tone for comedic effect, rest assured that the author is, indeed, very serious. Disclaimer: Due to extremely strict word count specifications, this article may end abruptly, but it will continue where it left off next week.



By virtue of living and having a sense of humour, I have over three decades of informal, enthusiastic Comedy Studies, also known as Laughology, under my belt. I specialise in political comedy as refined by but certainly not restricted to American late-night comedy shows, British political satire and Tanzanian and Kenyan political satire.

In 2001 I wrote an undergraduate paper on the depictions of Africans in Hollywood from 1930-1970 and its implications for Africa, which necessitated the watching of over 100 works of cinema.

I hosted an African Film Day in university and I’m familiar with comedic subversion in various genres from various countries across various languages, making me a subtitle enthusiast.

I now have over a decade of media analysis under my belt, much of which involves pioneering innovative ways of analysing unconventional cultural items. One example would be my body of unpublished work on cartoonist Masoud Kipanya’s oeuvres, which span several genres. So, yeah, this foray into Laughology is totally my jam.

Russian political humour as inspiration for a framework for, like, Tanzania: Thanks to the expert recommendations of complete strangers in the ongoing Online Conference of Reddit, I consulted Wikipedia wherein I found a short but excellent treatise on the history of Russian political humour.

Russian political humour is a respected subject of long-standing scholarship, like their vodka-fuelled literature or ballet, or their vodka. At present, the standing gag from Russia involves a reversed statement, to wit: “In Russia, wodka drrriiink you!” This illustrates how things in Russia are simultaneously terrible and ridiculous. It is also...

Sorry folks! See you next week and please prepare by reading up on the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. Thank you.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]