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Rome and the Romains: laughter on the border between Kinshasa and Brazzaville

  • Clara Devlieger
Abstract

This article considers humour at the international border between Kinshasa (DR Congo) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) as a means through which ordinary people navigate between fulfilling the values of individual opportunism and interpersonal responsibility. Kinshasa's border zone, nicknamed Rome, often echoes with laughter as people who engage in unregulated livelihood strategies (Romains) engage in two genres of humour: verbal irony, expressed in nicknames for people, places and activities; and interpersonal joking, expressed in playful teasing. Laughter and jokes are a prevailing mode of interaction at the border, and the ways in which humour is constructed and experienced reveal much about social and moral life. The jokes define membership of a community of Romains distinct from other urban citizens, while making further distinctions between physically disabled people, who dominate trade as intermediaries, and others by playing with hierarchical social relationships in which disabled people are expected to be subordinate. Ultimately, the humour that shapes the community allows for a critical voice on values within it. This article argues that the inconsistencies pinpointed by humour reflect and shape the instability of social relationships and contradictory values that Romains aspire to fulfil. Humour is a means of navigating critical commentary on the conflicting values of individual aspiration and responsibility towards others.

Cet article traite de l'humour à la frontière internationale entre Kinshasa (RDC) et Brazzaville (République du Congo) comme moyen par lequel les gens ordinaires composent entre satisfaire les valeurs de l'opportunisme individuel et la responsabilité interpersonnelle. On entend souvent retentir des rires dans la zone frontalière de Kinshasa, surnommée Rome, là où ceux qui s'adonnent à des stratégies de subsistance non réglementées (les Romains) pratiquent deux genres d'humour : l'ironie verbale, qui s'exprime dans les surnoms donnés aux gens, aux lieux et aux activités ; et la plaisanterie interpersonnelle, qui s'exprime dans les taquineries. Le rire et la plaisanterie sont un mode d'interaction dominant à la frontière, et les modes de construction et d'expérience de l'humour révèlent beaucoup sur la vie sociale et morale. La plaisanterie définit l'appartenance à une communauté de Romains distincte de celle des autres citoyens urbains, tout en faisant d'autres distinctions entre les personnes vivantes avec un handicap physique, qui dominent les échanges commerciaux en tant qu'intermédiaires, et les autres en jouant sur les rapports sociaux hiérarchiques dans lesquels les personnes vivantes avec un handicap sont censés être les subordonnés. En définitive, l'humour qui façonne la communauté permet à une voix critique de s'exprimer sur les valeurs de cette communauté. Cet article soutient que les incohérences identifiées par l'humour reflètent et façonnent l'instabilité des rapports sociaux et les valeurs contradictoires que les Romains aspirent à satisfaire. L'humour est un moyen de maîtriser le commentaire critique sur les valeurs contradictoires d'aspiration individuelle et la responsabilité envers autrui.

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