A Free Haircut: Why Malians Have the Most Bizarre Sense of Humor Ever

Africa is pretty well known as the continent of over 10,000 cultures, languages, and tribes that within the course of one hundred years, were aggregated into a little over 50 largely arbitrary nation states. It’s easy to read that statistic and not grasp the magnitude. But come to any country in West Africa and discover that diversity yourself.

I’ve only been to four countries so far. Within those four countries, I’ve encountered over 20 different languages and dialects, along with myriad different tribes, ethnicities and distinct cultures. Some of them are insular, some of them, by virtue of urbanization or trade, have begun to integrate. Of course, as you are probably aware, this has provided the groundwork for a lot of conflict on this continent. Sadly, culture clash in Africa has led to violence on many occasions.

Sometimes, however, you find yourself face to face with something bizarre and beautiful. In southern Mali, when many people approach someone new, they begin by insulting each other. This line of insults stems entirely from lineage.

Say I introduce myself as Moussa Traore (one of my many given names). A person (for purposes of this demonstration, let’s say a Coulibaly, another extremely common Malian last name) might greet me with a series of customary West African salutations, asking about my family, my health, how my day is going. Then he might say something like “Traore? I be so dun” (“E Bay Sho Doon,” literally “‘you like to eat beans”). Without missing a beat, I could respond with “You’re a Coulibaly. Your family is too stupid to farm, all you eat are peanuts and horses.” The line of insults continues until both parties burst into laughter.

“What?” You ask. “How does this make sense?” To the outside observer it doesn’t. But can you think of a more bizarre and interesting way to deal with ethnic confrontation? Thus, out of sheer cultural curiousity, I became a regular participant.

Though French is the official language of Mali, like other West African states, most people speak only very little of the colonial language. Bambara generally functions as the lingua franca, a trade and media language and the mother tongue of Mali’s largest ethnic group. Though I tried, I learned very little Bambara during my stay in Mali. “I be so dun” quickly became a mastered phrase, however, as it would immediately bring a smile and an incomprehensible line of insults headed my way. Once people understood that that phrase was about the extent of my Bambara (can you think of anything more random?), they continued in French if they could speak it, or simply gave up and hugged me. “I be so dun” was key. It turned a lot of potentially awkard cab rides into social events, and was often the beginning of a conversational ticket into peoples’ homes.

In Mopti, it even got me a free haircut. I had some time to spare, so I wandered around the market area, playing tricks on touts and trying to find a decent brochette sandwich. I came upon a particularly interesting barber shop, purporting to be the “Barber Shop of Obama.” Barack’s visage is all over West Africa, from t-shirts to mattresses. Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the barber’s audacity.

We began talking, and he introduced himself as a Keita. I introduced myself as a Coulibaly and let out my line. He countered with a line of French insults culminating with “We are Bozos, you are our slaves.” Jokes about slavery might seem a bit uncouth. In the world of cousinage however, they are both fair game and commonly used. I then came up with a line about selling fish in Senegal because his family is too stupid to accomplish anything in Mali. He returned with another line about slavery and I admonished him for his lack of creativity. I also concluded that, as payment for all of our years of free labor, the least he could do is give me a free haircut.

Then he did.



That first photo is actually a picture of Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) that I ran into in Timbuktu. His company is self explanatory.


In Dakar, protests have died down, though the opposition has pledged to organize more if their demands are not met. Most people I’ve talked to are so incredulous at the government’s (or overzealous cops, these things tend to get conflated) violent crackdown on the protesters that it’s really hard to determine who Wade’s base actually is. It seems like his administration has really alienated a good portion of the voting bloc, and it is hard to imagine that he would get reelected.

Of course, one never knows. His administration allegedly provided “gifts” for the supreme court judges that ruled in his favor, and only one major political figure formerly affiliated with his camp has spoken out against him. The leader of the influential Niassene Leona Muslim Brotherhood appealed by writing “power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade, we beg you to retract yourself.”

Meanwhile, the resistance in Northern Mali has lulled, though leadership has suggested that fighting will continue. Like many in Africa, the conflict is a lot more complex than a short news article can possibly communicate. Though the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), has explicitly expressed its goal for an independent nation state, there are likely several different groups all vying for similar but not always consistent objectives. Also, Tuaregs inhabit one of the poorest and most isolated regions on earth, so adequate information and decent journalism is often very hard to come by.

Here’s an article from the front page of the New York Times website that refers to the rebels as “The Tuaregs.” If the rebels had been of French origin, would they have been referred to as “The French?” I think not. The article also paints Colonel Gaddafi as the sole posthumous mastermind behind the most recent rebel incursions. Though his mercenaries’ influence is undeniable, anyone familiar with the region would rule that out as a gross oversimplification. To add to that, someone who’s never been to Mali and has no familiarity with the region reads the last line of the article, and Mali immediately becomes hell on earth. You can see why I have an endless beef with western media coverage of this place.

According to reports, Tuareg rebel forces still hold a few towns, and have apparently killed a relatively large number of Malian troops (as much as 40 in Aguelhok alone). Though civilians have allegedly been mostly spared from the fighting, I find it hard to believe that this new wave of violence will garner more popular support for a movement already lacking in that crucial category.

After the second day of protests in Bamako, representatives were granted an audience with the president who recognized their concerns. He even fired the defense minister, a move that is clearly symbolic and likely won’t do much when it comes to properly equipping the military anytime soon. Despite rumors, protests were explicitly aimed at the president’s administration, not at Tuaregs living in the city. According to friends, no violence has been directed against Tuaregs, though rumors that opportunistic juveniles were targeting Tuareg businesses and anyone Arab-looking persisted. No deaths or major injuries have been reported.

Now, to contribute my own ridiculous cultural generalization: not to be insensitive, but  the Tuaregs are perhaps the only major ethnic group in Mali that don’t participate in the cousinage ritual. Coincidence? MAYBE NOT.


2 thoughts on “A Free Haircut: Why Malians Have the Most Bizarre Sense of Humor Ever

  1. indiaphare says:

    Fascinating and beautifully written. I love the dea of insulting each other until you laugh. You would know someone so much better after two minutes of that than two minutes of ‘Hello, it’s lovely to meet you, nice weather we’re having’, etc.

  2. Kyle says:

    Thanks! It certainly makes for an interesting introduction. I guess the bean eater slur is a lot more global than I thought.

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