“[I]n whatever department of human expression, wherever there is objective truth there is satire.” Wyndham Lewis in Rude Assignment
To write this post, I read about the origin of satire, about Aristophanes (c. 446 BC – c. 386 BC ), a Greek comic playwright, and the Roman poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), whose works inspire and form the model for writing modern-day satire. But sha, na dem sabi, I know that I know that I know that satire originated in Nigerian culture. How do I know?
After I ran across a road without a zebra crossing or traffic lights or a pedestrian bridge, just missing that crazy driver who sped out of nowhere, a woman selling oranges by the roadside exclaimed, “You dey craze? You wan kill persin?” so I turned around to look at the yeye driver who’d almost cut my young life short, and then realised she was talking to me.
She could have blasted the government for not providing infrastructure. She could have cursed the driver for failing to observe common-sense speed limit. The irony was that she chose me as the subject of her satire. She exaggerated my role as a potential killer, exposed me to ridicule with her loud gesticulations, and criticized my lack of judgement. And the humour? Well, here I am writing this piece and laughing retroactively, twenty years too late.
You can describe the human condition with white chalk on a blackboard, spacing your letters evenly and clearly, but people may yawn and rub their eyes after a while. You can show how the problems of the world are at once “un”trivialized and brought into sharp focus by employing irony, exaggeration, and/or humour, and people may stay up late to watch the show. This is satire and provoking change, if only in a shift in thinking, is the endgame.
Satire’s overtness, sometimes camouflaged by its subtlety and silent sophistication, is blended into much of what we watch and read, but is often overlooked because we appreciate these works for their entertainment value only. Perhaps the authors want to make people laugh before they make them think.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign focuses on the serious business of finding and freeing the over 200 girls kidnapped from a Nigerian secondary school in Chibok. While we are still lighting candles for them, questions surrounding the culpability of Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the legality of the first lady’s “tribunal” and the state of security in Nigeria, especially in the light of recent bomb attacks, continue to make rounds on social media.
It is the cartoons and videos, not the essays, expressing the general mood of the country that have captured my attention the most. I see these works as satires. Some of the media that zoom in on the Nigerian first lady’s perceived gaffes, have come under attack, because satire can be misunderstood when we view these works for their ridicule value alone. Perhaps the authors want to shock people first and then make them think.
“Satire is a mirror where beholders generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” Jonathan Swift
Politics and satire live on the same street. However, I cannot imagine that President Obama, or any other president pouts and refuses breakfast because of a political cartoon splashed on the front page of a newspaper. This is not to say that satire cannot be a demeaning and horrifying personal attack, the pendulum can swing to any extreme, but I’m referring to satire, which has as its greater purpose constructive social criticism to further dialogue and/or action.
Uneasy the head that bears the crown
As a child, I had frequent bouts of malaria. At my mother’s insistence, not only did I have to wait until the smell of sheltox faded into the walls of my room, but I also had to sleep under a white mosquito net. Once every few months I would stand in front of her under the dim inquisition lights of our verandah, hands outstretched as she placed three tablets of Camoquin in my palm one after the other.
“Swallow it quickly with your Fanta,” she would goad.
I was never fast enough. After taking a sip of Fanta, the Camoquin would begin to melt in the fizzy oasis that was my mouth. I would shut my eyes tight as I swallowed the mixture. After I swallowed the third tablet, the half-empty bottle of Fanta was my reward. I rushed the orange liquid, willing it to eliminate every trace of the bitter Camoquin. After this ritual, my body would stave off malaria for a few months.
This in my view is satire at its best; mix the bitter with the sweet to move society to a better place. When this era is over and the dust settles, the videos, the cartoons, and slangs coined, will be reminders that truth was once too hard to swallow.
©Timi Yeseibo 2014
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44 thoughts on “In Defense of Satire”
I enjoy most satire and tend to be somewhat sarcastic, personally. But, I’m not sure about how effective satire is generally in influencing positive change . It seems to me it depends on the target audience. Sometimes it appears that the satirist and the educated elite use it to feed their own sense of superiority, while it just inflames and further alienates those who are ostensibly the target audience. As a tool for communication across differences, I haven’t ever witnessed it being very effective.
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“As a tool for communication across differences, I haven’t ever witnessed it being very effective.”
Satire involves mockery. What one finds amusing another may find offensive. Might the larger problem also be that because of our differences, there isn’t even any ‘tool’ of communication that can bridge differences 100%? We don’t always see things as they are, we see them as we are. We read/see/hear/feel through filters- so any method of communication will meet this ‘barrier’ if you will. Especially in this PC era….
I agree with you, “It seems to me it depends on the target audience.”
@satirist & educated elite, well, true. But the uneducated wield satire too…
I say, “. . . but I’m referring to satire, which has as its greater purpose constructive social criticism to further dialogue and/or action.” Even this will rub some the wrong way. Can’t win them all …
Thanks Eileen for your insightful comments, which give us more to chew.
Call it cartoons, call it humor, satires are an effective way of expression. Ponder over them and you find the truth. During Abacha’s regime, my dad was very keen about what the artists also had to say (via their drawings) in the dailies. For him, that would hit those in power who didn’t have the patience to read.
Enjoyed this one, Timi.
Hmmm, ponder over them and you find the truth. A picture is worth a thousand words. So much is communicated with so “little” Your dad wasn’t alone.
I still do the Fanta thing though, Mixing the bitter with the sweet. I’ve enjoyed reading this.
Lol@ Fanta thing, makes it easier to swallow. I like it when you enjoy reading something I wrote; when it resonates . . . Thanks Cecile for being here.
I’d suggest that this is my favorite post of yours to date! Well done.
Joseph, I’m glad, thank you. What makes it your favourite?
I love this and I love satire! We need to lighten up and have more humor in our life. Thanks for the smiles!
You’re welcome Jill. Yes, satire spices things up 🙂
The subject is satire but I couldn’t get beyond Shelltox and anti-malarial pills. I remember using Shelltox to fight off army ants invading our home and who can ever forget the bitter taste of malaria pills. –Curt Mekemson
My memories are vivid too. Once I had to drink quinine, aaagh!
I’m really enjoying your series on Liberia. Heartbreaking story, but I like the perspectives you share and hope Nigeria doesn’t go down that route.
Africa has so much to offer, and certainly Nigeria more than most other African nations. Getting beyond outside exploitation, internal power struggles, the negative aspects of tribalism, climate factors, and religious warfare is such a challenge, it seems almost impossible at times. One example of success where most things go right instead of wrong might make a huge difference. –Curt
Indeed Curt, and as you point out in your series, “It’s a tall order, one that will require people from different tribes working together . . .” We can get there . . .
Hope. And thanks for following. –Curt
🙂 my pleasure
Satires originated in the Nigerian culture o, Timi. But some places just can’t stomach satire, e.g. the Nigerian church. My inability to sandwich criticism with praise has earned me enemies for a while, and when I do try to switch gears, they think I’m insincere. Lol
But I have learned my lessons…
Do not say: “I’d like you to work on your singing.” Say this instead: “I admire you for your commitment. Keep it up!”
Do not say: “Lyrics? You can get the lyrics online.” Say this instead: “I know you’re busy. I can print the lyrics for you if you want.”
Do not say: “Mediocrity is not allowed.” Say this instead: “May God help us o” with your palms turned upwards.
No matter how tempted you are to deliver the truth “as is,” even at the request of members. Do not do it. Satire doesn’t work in the church. Only preachers are allowed to use satire—and that’s for the greater good. Right?
Sorry my comment is a little off topic. I figured I could rant a little since we’re on the topic of sugarcoating the changes we want so the harsh criticism is easier to swallow. Lol 😀
Rant all you want. I smile when I’m reading it 😀
It sounds as if you want to give feedback, or maybe I am wrong. It sounds as if parameters need to be set for performance, so appraisal is objective, ha, maybe I’m wrong too.
If excellence in the setting you describe is what you want to see, might there be more effective methods of communication? That’s what you’re saying right?
I like the perspectives you share as it stretches our thinking.
Know your audience if you are seeking to influence them. Some people need encouragement, some need to see the light, and some people need to feel the heat. 🙂
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This just cracked me up: some need to see the light XD
I love satire so much it is the only reason I still read Elnathan’s blog. But I think it’s too difficult to be a satirist in Nigeria because you can state an hyperbole today and someone will make it look like an understatement tomorrow. In spite of this, Nigeria still has some really good satirists.
There used to be a collection of satirical cartoons in my house by a man who used to draw for the Guardian Newspapers, Mike Asukwo reminds me of that book. His cartoons are profound; they truly make you laugh first and think later.
But there’s something that bugs me about satire in the Nigerian context: when does it lose its value and become outright mockery (if it ever does)?
I think that satire by definition includes some element of mockery. The cartoon carricatures, for example, sometimes project this.The question for me, is, to what degree?
Each satirist defines his boundaries, I guess. If social transformation is the goal, how will “outright” mockery promote this?
Lol@ hyperbole & understatements 🙂
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Yes! Timi, you say it well. Even the rare person who can take and use criticism, will not respond positively to mockery. It just alienates people, sometimes to the point of violence.
You bring to mind the ‘Je suis Charlie’ debate . . . so much has already been written for and against. I followed; still follow opinion pieces around the topic with interest.
A wise leader not only permits satire but encourages it. Satire is empowering, and it also diffuses anger.
I guess the leader would have to be a pretty secure person 🙂
Truly well spoken..thumbs up👍
Thanks. Kudos to all who are using their creativity to engineer social transformation.
Nice one Timi. One can only pray that the message gets across. We love the use of satire in Nigeria and most times it is just for laughs people don’t get it! But like you said, it the bitter with the sweet!
Laboye, I read something recently about learned helplessness, how it creates apathy and leads to resignation. Samuel commented below, ” … satire provides some way to cope with the truth, especially when you can do nothing to turn the tide of wrongs.”
I hope that the message is not lost in the laughter, and people realize that we are not as helpless as it seems.
Laugh first, think later.Reminds me alot of something we say in igbo: na njakiri ka e ji ama eziokwu. The rough translation would have it as, truth is mostly revealed in ‘fun’ moments. It’s quite unfortunate though how very few understand satires.
Thanks for sharing and translating that word of wisdom.
@ misunderstanding satires, yes. I have noticed that sometimes when “serious” issues are being discussed, some dismiss satire and comedy as a waste of time, not realizing that they are a valid part of the conversation. If we are going to fight a cause, we should be open to more forms of “literary” expression. 🙂
Some of the best political ideologies I hear come from stand-up comics. The fanta & camoquin reminds me of how my dad used to assure us of sweets before making us drink agbo jedi-jedi; it did help in downing it. For the most part I like satires, they make us think deep about issues without the pressure of being too serious. No wonder the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are such big hits. Nicely written Timi. I loved the cartoons.
@cartoons, Mike Asukwo is your man.
Ha ha ha @agbo jedi-jedi, all these parents are alike!
Thinking deeply without the pressure of being too serious, how true.
I saw the clip Jon Stewart did on Boko Haram. Let’s just say it’s good he isn’t based in northern Nigeria at the moment 😀 😀 😀
Thank you Tomi.
Haha, Current northern Nigeria is definitely not for him. btw, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI9tdjG3nCw
The woman selling oranges reminds me of some very annoying moments from the past.
I find that I am easily irritated by satirical statements directed at me. I enjoy satire and have a hard laugh when I am not the subject but swallowing a satirical pill meant for me is very difficult. But satire is an important part of civilization. It is intelligence, art, humour and what have you, all riding together in the vehicle of language.
And yeah, satire provides some way to cope with the truth, especially when you can do nothing to turn the tide of wrongs.
Mike Asukwo does an excellent job with his cartoons. While few will have the intellectual stamina to follow Soyinka’s prose, for example, many would have little trouble understanding Asukwo’s message.
Ah that woman selling oranges- a story I clipped from a post I’ve been writing about the love languages of Nigerians. Should be fun if I ever complete it. You’ll have to gist me about those annoying moments, so I can add to my collection 🙂
The quote above by Jonathan Swift rings true, no one wants to be looking down the barrel at satire. Your last statement about satire being a defense for the helpless is food for thought . . .
Truth is bitter
Yes, it is a hard pill to swallow sometimes, so satire is like Fanta . . . 🙂
Wonderful metaphor ~ the truth is often too bitter to swallow. We retain information better when we are amused.
I think so too, and in this context, a picture or video, is worth a thousand words.
very nicely written
Thank you Jenny. Political cartoons are popular in Sweden also I suppose?