Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sanakunya - "Joking Relationship" - 2001

By definition, Sanakunya is the sustaining of social cohesion through jokes. In 1076 AD, when the Ghana Empire was destroyed by the Muslim reformers, people moved south for land and to escape Islamic conversion. In exchange for some land, the newcomers promised to do no harm and endow kindness on the landowners and their families. Joke telling began between the new families and original settlers. Depending on the region, you would find different families settling.

There are several different types of Sanakunya. One is between two ethnic groups, such as between the Malinke and Songhay. Another is between caste and nobles, such as between the Fulani and blacksmiths. A third type, perhaps the most important, is between grandparents and grandchildren. Old people (and grandparents in particular) are a revered and respected source of knowledge in Malian societies. After and through a little joking, grandparents would transmit knowledge to their grandchildren. In fact, the primary way of educating a child was done through the family. You will also find the joking relationship between in-laws and between cousins.

Sanakunya serves two main functions. Through the joke telling, people learn how to endure suffering and criticism. Accepting criticism as pointed out through jokes enabled people to understand their own faults and change their attitudes. Although it may be difficult to tell a person directly about a particular item, it was much easier to tell (and take) through the form of a joke. In fact, the second main function of Sanakunya is to stop wars between ethnic groups. Conflicts are resolved through the telling of jokes rather than through bloodshed. Indeed, Mali, with its unique system called Sanakunya, has been spared the ethnic and civil conflicts that are so prevalent in other African countries.

Modern day society threatens to destroy the social practice of Sanakunya. Money and its influence (namely the need for it and the greed) has resulted in people taking actions that they would never have done under full practice of Sanakunya. For example, you now hear of people robbing the homes of others with whom they would have had a joking relationship. With the stressed importance of money, some people feel that they are better than others are and don’t want to be insulted. In addition to the threat of money, religions (Islam and Christianity) also threaten the existence of Sanakunya. Both religions do teach that it is not right to publicly insult others.

Dogon and Bozo

To this day, the Dogon and Bozo people do not intermarry. A long time ago, the Bozo and Dogon moved to escape the imposition of Islam. While a Bozo and Dogon child were playing together, an accident happened and the Dogon child was killed. Afraid for what the Dogon father might say, the Bozo father felt that it would be better if it sounded as if a disease caused the death. He killed his own son and buried both in the same grave. He then went back to the Dogon father and told him that both children had died in a smallpox epidemic. The Dogon father, while sad, said that it was the will of God, and that it should be accepted. Then a serpent came up from the grave and told him that the children were made alive. Not wanting to offend each other, the two ethnic groups decided that no blood should ever be shed between them. This even includes things such as childbirth. To avoid any kind of bloodshed, there is no intermarriage to this day.

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