The vast majority of Bambara that I hear is so matter-of-fact that after my 4-year sentence in the ivory tower, the meaning of the words which I hear often amount to cognitive dissonance. People often come up to me with such conversation starters as "I heard that yesterday you went to the store and bought some rice" Mm hmm "I heard that you bought rice, and then you ate it." People don't really do subtlety here. Likewise, the Bambara language is kind of like the Newspeak spoken by the comrades of Oceania in 1984 as it is so astonishingly literal. A restaurant is a duminikeyouro - or "eating place"; a moustache is nukoroshi - "under nose hair"; a vegetable is a nakofen - "garden thing."
As you can probably imagine, the Bambara sense of humor is also quite literal
Most people in Mali cannot read at all, let alone get their hands on high literature or poetry. So about 99% of any conversation with any Malian is going to circulate about their daily activities; hoeing the millet field, herding sheep, chopping wood or brewing tea, etc. Very few things of any humorous quality ever occur... unless, of course, you are fond of consuming a certain nitrogen-rich legume.
The funniest thing in Mali is a biological activity, a chemical reaction of sorts. Over the course of breaking down food, the human digestive tract produces a byproduct of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane, a gaseous emission characterized by the unpleasant odor of butyric acid, hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulfide. Though undesirable to the tastes of the human olfactory nerves, the emission of these gases tend to result in a vibration of the anal sphincter which causes a pleasurable sensation for the aural receptors.
In Bambara, this chemical-physiological process is a verb/noun known as boci. The etymology of the word is quite fascinating; bo is "poop" and a ci is an errand that you would send your kid brother on, namely a message scrawled in pen on a piece of scrap paper. And thus the Bambara word for the verb "to fart" literally means "to send a poop message."
Boci is without a doubt the funniest thing that has ever happened in the history of the Republic of Mali. One might argue that it is the only funny thing that has ever happened in Mali, because there is really only one joke in this country. There is no build-up, no body, no punchline. It's a short and simple one-liner that goes like this:
E be sho dun
"You eat beans!"
This is funny, of course, because it is widely understood that after eating a dinner of beans - which is literally a big bowl of beans flavored with a great heap of oil and maybe a little fried onion - one tends to boci more often than usual.
As this is the only joke ever told in this country, it never gets old. People tell it over and over and over and over again.
There are a few variations;
E ye sho duna ye!
"You are a bean eater!"
If you want to be really literal - which is the way things are done here, but makes for awful delivery to American ears - you can say:
E be sho dun, oko e be boci!
"You eat beans, and then you fart!"
I know a number of different of recipes for beans, so when I tell them to people they go absolutely wild. People in Mali assume that I or anyone with a cursory understanding of Mexican cuisine is a regular George Carlin;
E be sho dun ni keni, jaba ni foronto!
"You eat beans with rice, onions and hot peppers!"
If you are in a generous mood, you can invite your neighbor over and say:
Bi su e kakanka na n ka so barisa n muso be sho tobi. Oko an be se ka sho dun ni boci nyongofe!
"Tonight you should come to my house because my wife is cooking beans. Then we can eat beans and fart together!"
There are, in fact, no non-bean-related jokes ever told in the nation of Mali. There is one joke which can be told which does not address beans directly, but is clearly derived from the subject. You see, there is an entire clan - the Coulibalys - who are known for their great skill and pleasure in the cultivation of beans. To call someone a "Coulibaly" whether or not they are indeed descendents of that line denotes of course that they undertake in a certain activity and all of its olfactory and aural consequences. It would be like having in Ireland a given number of clans, e.g. the McDonalds, the McGregors, the McAlastaires and the McCunes, and the McCunes are known throughout the land for their frequent and vicious farts. Coulibalys are infamous up and down the banks of the Niger River for sending urgent, powerful poop messages for all to hear.
Other than beans and farts there is nothing to joke about in Mali, because nothing else is funny.
Bonus Quotation of the Day… - (Don Boudreaux) Tweet… is from page 15 of my Mercatus Center colleague Dan Griswold’s superb new paper, “Plumbing America’s Balance of Trade” (footnote del...