Humor can be macabre. The Darwin Awards are a good example. I’ve seen people laughing almost uncontrollably when reading the stories most of which involve someone dying, often in a gruesome manner. This kind of humor happens often enough that we have an phrase for it – gallows humor. There are articles where people share how humor helps with grief and serious articles debating the value and ethics of this kind of humor, some of which defend it.
I’ve seen a streak of gallows humor in Africa, although not everyone is comfortable with it. When we were in Côte d’Ivoire last year, I wanted to go see the famous crocodiles at Yamoussoukro. But I learned they were no longer there because they ate their long-time caretaker when he slipped feeding them. Some of my Ivorian colleagues laughed and giggled as they told me the story as if it were hilariously ridiculous that anyone would take a job that involved walking among crocodiles holding raw meat.
When we were working on the translation in the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle was shocked when local people laughed as she told them that I had come home all scratched and scraped from a fall off my motorcycle. They already thought it was odd and silly that white people did not own a car. During that time, we wrote down a number of traditional Cerma folk tales. One involved characters who acted badly toward each other then suffered a series of disasters. People would laugh loud and long when hearing of the disasters.
A colleague told me that one of the people helping with a translation found the Egyptian plagues hilarious. He also found the Israelites’ mistakes during their wanderings in the wilderness and God’s reactions quite humorous For him, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain no small amount of material for laughter.
There seems to be a link between all these incidents of gallows humor — some people think it’s very funny when evil or imprudent people have their evil or reckless deeds come back and bite them with poetic justice. In such cases, laughter is probably not about making light of the situation and perhaps it does exactly the opposite. Could it be the nervous laugh in recognition that they too could end up reaping the consequences of their actions? One thing is sure: when the translation helper laughed at the repercussions God’s people suffered for their misdeeds, he was showing that he understood very well that their problems were the consequences of their own actions. The translation communicated.