Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The Comedy Central of Cameroon

Did you know the Comedy Central of Cameroon is a Facebook app? It all started when Facebook developer Mohamed Ahmed Felata recognized the growing potential of social networking in his country of Cameroon. He realized the advertiser’s wet dream of a demographic —18-34 year old males — remained largely untapped in this central West African nation. The idea arose: How better to connect an audience than with jokes? A couple of months ago he sought to answer this question with the launch the Facebook App “Kmerblagues,” which means “Cameroon Jokes” in French.

The app is essentially a joke-sharing platform on which users can post jokes and vote on their favorites. Not exactly similar to a night of programming on Comedy Central — so what’s the connection? Well, in an interview with Venture Capital 4 Africa he describes the platform as “the beginnings for the 'comedy central for the country.” Perhaps Cameroon’s answer to Comedy Central looks nothing like The Daily Show and Colbert Report back-to-back, or Premium Blend, or Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School playing every weekend. Okay fine, admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve sat down and actually watched the American channel. Nonetheless, Felata makes an interesting case for why an app like Kmerblagues is good for the proliferation of Cameroonian comedy (and Facebook activity).

From his perspective, in order to really engage users in Cameroon, the content needs to feel local. Cameroonians want their comedy to have a for us, by us quality. As he says, “jokes we offer are really about Cameroonian humor.” But what is “Cameroonian humor” exactly? The country has two official languages, French and English, and then there’s also Cameroonian pidgin English, also known as Cameroonian creole, also known as Kamtok, of which there are five recognized varieties. Over 50% of the population speaks some form of pidgin. In addition to its linguistic cornucopia, Cameroonian culture has over 130 ethnic groups. The task of finding a unified sense of humor among these variables seems downright herculean. Being as averse as I am to challenging the gods, I decided to stick with finding examples of Cameroonian humor instead.

But first, back to Kmerblagues. Though created specifically for Cameroon, anyone can get the app so I thought I’d give it a try. Basically, people submit original jokes as a kind of contest and everyone votes on them. A top 10 is picked each week, and they make it to a winner’s tab. Before perusing the jokes, I figured I ought to check out the rules. I blame those party-poopers in advertising, but there sure seems to be a lot of censorship on the site. One rule that stood out was “No politics, explicit sexual content, racist or tribalistic content shall be tolerated.” It’s hard to defend explicitly racist content, but politics? It’s hard to imagine Kmerblagues turning into a comedy powerhouse when all “spicy” content is strictly verboten.

As I mentioned before, the national languages are divided between French and English. Unfortunately, most of the submitted jokes require you parlez-vous francais. As we all know now, I do not. But check out one of this week’s Top 10 Jokes in a form of pidgin English.

jesus and yi apostles them go for nigeria for go preach. as them dong reach deh, hungry start for do them. so them send judas say make yi go buy chicken. Judas to buy the chicken cut one foot chop am yi thing. Time when yi dong come back Jesus ask yi say why the chicken get na one leg. na yi weh judas say all fowl them for nigeria get na one leg. Jesus say make them go checkam. so them want go weh rain di fall na then all the fowl them dong gather for under cypress tree hide their one foot for under their feather. judas shout say wona dong see thing weh i be di tell wona noh. then jesus say make them wait small so. yi pick stone shoot the fowl them deh all the fowl them put their foot for down start run. na yi weh judas shout say CHAI JESUS, YOU NO GO STOP FOR MAKE MIRACLE?

Hmm. I thought I was following for a while, but I got lost in the woods somewhere along the way. A common hazard for the comedy tourist. The site does not feel like a hotbed of Cameroonian humor just yet, but as it only launched in May, it may (pun intended) be too soon to tell.

But if you are looking for Cameroon jokes in English, look no further than Cameroon Comedy. Defunct since late 2008, the site claimed to be “taking Cameroon comedy on a different level.” It also cites comedy as a growing approach to dealing with the daily stresses of life. And as Cameroonians are known to be ambitious and hard-working, comedy must be in high demand. Cameroon Comedy was more or less an open forum, thus the jokes are all over the place. But here’s one of the shortest jokes I could find to give you an example:

Posted by cheunuie:
You will never win with koti (police) if they want bribe.
A Pastor was driving at around 2.00am alone in his car and got to a checkpoint. The obviously soaked policeman stopped him and asked for everything which he gave out. The policeman had nothing to ask again, in order to charge him, guess what the police man said:
"I charge you for driving alone at this time of the night, if you happen to get an accident now, who is going to tell your people?"
The Pastor replied: I'm not alone, Jesus Christ is with me here, Angel Gabriel, Angel Raphael, Angel Michael and five angels are with me here.
The police man then said: "All these people inside this small car of yours? I charge you for overloading.”

Cameroon has a history of strong oral tradition, a fact I found evidenced throughout the jokes on the site. Not only do most of them involve a long narrative building up to a punchline, but also there is quite a bit of editorializing and commenting throughout. Reading each joke, I almost imagined myself hearing a Cameroonian friend recounting it to me at a bar or a party.

Speaking of bars, let’s take a look at comedy night at Dreams Cabaret in Limbe, Cameroon.

And you thought pidgin was difficult to understand in text!

One travel blog I found claimed that many aspiring comedians in Cameroon will just show up to restaurants and bars and start performing their acts. Busking comedians, if you will. This is one way comedians in Cameroon try to “make it big” — grassroots, not unlike the methods of Kmerblagues. But what does making it big in comedy mean in Cameroon?

The first television broadcast in Cameroon took place in 1985, according to CRTV’s website. CRTV is the official national television network dedicated to protecting national interests (vague, I know.) Their programming doesn’t seem to be too affected by “sweeps week.” With such a young television industry, sitcoms have yet to dominate the airwaves. Apparently last year, though, a show called “The Crazy Enterprise” became the first sitcom to air on CRTV. According to the writer, the show “deals with corporate misdemeanor: corruption, competition, fight for position, back stabbing, blackmail, sexual harassment, dishonesty etc.” The creator decided to turn the idea into a situational comedy to make it more appealing. Showbiz.

While I was not able to find clips of The Crazy Enterprise, I did happen on another show called the Kamwood Comedy Show. Kamwood productions are an entertainment production company based in Cameroon whose projects run the gamut. The Kamwood Comedy Show was only recently launched this year. I honestly had trouble understanding the jokes — but there is a laugh track. Here’s Episode 1:

In my search for examples of Cameroonian humor, I came up short of a thesis. It seems to me that humor remains a local flavor, and there is no real burgeoning scene of which to speak. Maybe I should ignore my American inclination towards “bigger” and “more.” Perhaps the beauty of Cameroonian humor is its jigsaw nature. No one perspective, no one ethnicity and no one language dominates comedy.

Turns out there is no "Comedy Central" of Cameroon in that there is no centralized comedy. But with so many pieces to the puzzle, I bet Cameroonians never run out of things to laugh about.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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  • Sam

    Cameroon has a bunch of languages, but French is the most widely spoken. It is spoken by basically everyone in the two largest cities, Douala and Yaounde. I'd guess that people in these two cities also have the greatest access to the Internet and interest in networking via Facebook. So I'd expect (and it seems you confirm in your section on Kmerblagues) that French is the language that "dominates comedy" in Cameroon. So if you wanted to write an article about comedy in Cameroon you'd probably want to know French or at least try to google translate some jokes.

    Also Pidgin English is a different language from English; this is why you couldn't understand the joke.

    You're probably on the right track though when you ask "But what does making it big in comedy mean in Cameroon?" There really is alot of difficulty for aspiring entertainers of all sorts in Cameroon. If the biggest Cameroonian-owned TV channel is a government-produced channel that people mostly watch for its news program, how does a local comedian find a market?

  • joeclark

    OK, wait, you’ve got the linguistics of Cameroon so backwards you end up sounding like imperialist Americans, and that isn’t hyperbole.

    It’s true that French is the lingua franca of Cameroon (as with many African countries – cf. Rwanda’s Francophone Scrabble tournaments). But Cameroon is like Papa New Guinea in its abundance of distinct languages – easily over 200, not “five.” I know you applied that number to pidgin Englishes, but even half a minute at Wikipedia would have told you that pidgins last one generation; if a kid grows up speaking a hybrid of languages, what that kid is learning is a creole, not a pidgin. Creoles, like everything humans speak to each other, are real languages, not consolation prizes.

    Really, it takes more effort to correct the post’s errors on Cameroon linguistics than it would be to rewrite the paragraphs to be accurate. One place to start is the Ethnologue entry for Cameroon.

    The central point that the unifying force of comedy is likely unattainable in a country with so many languages in use remains true. I wish the “facts” you used to back it up had been.

  • Afropioneer Founder@facebook

    Hey thanx for the article. LOL! It's pretty objective. It was my first shot at apps on the facebook platform. I was trying to give advertisers premium adspace in the application hence the rules against spicy content. Don't worry spicy jokes still keep coming in, I just ask users not to put explicit language and we dont hide the jokes. It's a comprimise. I've had lots of people ask me why not make it a website, that might just happen. But to be honest it's hard to get Cameroonians out of facebook.
    Right now though, I'm focusing on other apps, which will be pretty funny! I'm reinventing the yes no apps on facebook. This time there will be international versions. The Cameroonian version will be called KongossaPeople (Kongossa means rumor in Cameroon slang). If you got any questions for me plz let me know, always happy to answer. thx