“Finn pushed back his chair. He spoke slowly.
‘Borrit told me when he was serving in the Gold Coast, one of the Africans said to him: “What is it white men write at their desks all day?”’”
Anthony Powell, The Military Philosophers, 1968. Ninth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time.
“My address book blew out of the window.”
Ghanaian c 1979 to a friend of mine, explaining why he did not turn up for something.
“Here is the minibar. Here is the remote control. Here is the safe. Here is the bathroom. And here is the machine for warming up your hair.”
A bellboy in Tanzania c 1999 to another friend of mine.
“Where was this Google all this time?”
William Kamkwamba (post here), the Malawian who built an electricity-generating windmill for his village without help from the Internet, on first being told about search engines. As told to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, 2009.
The friend who went to Tanzania said: “It wasn’t a joke. It was genuinely meant. That was his actual comprehension of what whites do with their hair, which makes it a better anecdote.” I replied: “He was working in a hotel and must have got the idea, no? Anyway, some African women use hairdryers. I don’t think it becomes less of an anecdote if you attribute just a bit of conscious humour.” He wrote back: “I do. It loses his charm and makes him appear wiley. Besides, as a joke it’s not that funny.”
I think I am right. His interpretation makes the chap sound naïve. That would kill the charm in a different way. (We are already in dangerous territory in looking for a common type of quaint humour in different parts of a continent. Africa is bigger than the US, China including Tibet, and the whole of Europe combined.) Even the man who lost his address book didn’t, in his heart of hearts, expect anyone to believe such a ridiculous story, though he told it in a deadpan way. And the Gold Coast man’s question is a good one. I ask it when I wonder why I am paid as much as I am to hit plastic squares in a certain order.
The humour is an infinitely gentle, barely conscious, postcolonial irony, a mock-naïveté about Western things. Offices, address books, hairdryers, search engines.