Inter-Ethnic Jokes and Their Role In The Maintainance of Inter-Group Cohesion: The Case Of Gobirawa And Their Neighbours

The joking relationship between the Gobirawa and the Fulani is linked to two historical antecedents...


Suleiman Ibrahim Gatawa
Department of Modern European Languages and Linguistics
Faculty of Arts and Islamic Studies
Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto

Barkwancin Hausawa


Joking relationships between ethnic communities has been in practice from time immemorial and their origins vary from one community to another just as their effects are also varied. In Hausa land, there is hardly any community that does not maintain such a relationship with their neighbours or other communities with which they share a history of one link or the other. Gobirawa as ethnic group are not an exception to this practice; they maintain inter-ethnic jokes with their neighbouring communities such as Katsinawa, Zamfarawa, Fulani and Yarabawa (Yoruba). This paper, working on Freud’s (1905) Relief Theory of humour, explores the origin of inter-ethnic jokes between Gobirawa and their neighbours as well as the role these jokes play in the maintenance of peace, social cohesion and mutual coexistence in Gobir, the neighbouring communities and Hausa land generally.



The joking relationship is a common phenomenon among communities all over the world. In Africa for example, there is hardly any community or ethnic group that does maintain such a relationship either among its members or between its members and those of others communities or ethnic groups. In essence, some of these relationships are usually based on one from of kinship or the other or in some cases based on some historical antecedents. According to Apte (1985) humour disparaging other groups is probably as old as contact between cultures. Ethnic humour according to Ziv (1998) mocks characteristics from dialect to nonverbal gestures and has even been used to enforce social norms.

Inter-ethnic jokes have over the years proved to be a veritable tool for amusement, tension reduction and most importantly conflict resolution, peace building and maintenance as well as intergroup solidarity. In fact, it is a better weapon of conflict resolution than personal mediation. The most common ethnic jokes tend to portray the target ethnic group as stupid, ignorant or unclean (Apte, 1985).

In African society, joking relationship can exist between members of different ethnic groups and of different patriclans, between people whose lineage is connected with specific villages, between kinsfolk such as cousins, grandparents and grandchildren and between whose lineage is connected with certain regions. (Davidheiser, 2005)

Among the Hausas for instance, joking relationships exist between Kanawa and Zazzagawa, Katsinawa and Hadejiyawa, Gobirawa and Zamfarawa, and many more. Beyond that also, some Hausa regions maintain such relationships with other neighboring communities such as that between Gobirawa and Zabarmawa, Gobirawa and Yarbawa, Zamfarawa and Dakkarawa, Katsinawa and Nufawa, etc.


Inter Ethnic Joking Relationship

Humour plays an important function in Man’s individual and social affairs, it is according to Relief theorists a way of letting off steam that might have built in man in the cause of his interaction with others. If this steam is not let out in humorous ways it definitely will be in undesirable ways. Based on this, Hill and Fitzgerald (2002) observe that ‘humour’ can be a powerful means of antagonism, inciting ridicule, thwarting cooperation and manipulating hostility just as it can also be a valuable means of interpersonal bonding, for group development, can be a valuable release for hostilities between people in conflict and can serve to soften the effect of constructive criticism”. It is in the light of the above that many societies exploit humour as a weapon for enhancing intra and inter group relations.

According to Hill and Fitzgerald (2002), “humour is primarily a symbolic action that functions to encourage our self and other to treat anything more lightly than its essence might otherwise suggest.

In realization to this all important function of humour, societies across the world employ it in the form of inter-ethnic, humour, inter-ethnic jokes, joking kinship and in many other forms and names. Ethnic jokes as a form of humour “have been both accepted and widely used….. not only to distinguish cultural difference but also to help people identify with their ethnic identity” (Gonzales and Wiseman, 2005). It has also been described as a “humour in which perceived behaviours, customs, personality or any other traits of a group or its members, by virtue of their specific socio-cultural identity are scrutinised” (Hill and Fitzgerald, 2005). They also assert that it is a type of humour that is addressed to anyone’s ethnicity or any aspect of being ethnically distinctive”. It inVolves making one culture or members of one ethnic group seem superior by comparing or making fun of idiosyncrasies of other cultures or individuals including their dialect and other things related to their tradition. There is no limit to the number of issues on which ethnic jokes can be based. In fact, Allen (1974) has observed in that regard that the number of types of jokes is limited only to the number of things there are to discuss in the world. Therefore, a particular ethnic group can base their jokes, for example, on identifying or addressing members of the other ethnic group as lazy, as gluttons, as aggressive, as talkative, as dull and soon. The other group on the other hand can capitalize on any aspect of life or tradition of their opponents to reciprocate the joke.

However, what is important in the practice of joking relationship is that the party on whom or which the joking statement is made must not loose their nerves even in the face of the wildest joke. They are expected to accept whatever is said about them or their ethnic group as mere joke but only strive to invent their own way of reciprocating either immediately or any other time the chance and opportunity prevails.


A Brief Statement About Gobirawa

Gobirawa, according to traditional sources have their origin from Gubur, a place in Yemen. From these after some internal squabbles among the ruling family, a faction fled and Travel west wards settling in many places including the Coptic region of Egypt. From there they moved through Sudan to Borno and then through Azbin, Surukal, Birnin Lalle, Magali and Goran Rame in present day Niger republic. Finally, the Gobirawa arrived the Rima Basin Region, but even then did not settle finally but continued their migratory life by settling at Zamfara, Alkalawa, Tsibiri and finally Sabon Birni. In many cases the migration of Gobirawa from the various places mentioned to other places is dictated by wars that usually ensue between them and either the tribes they met in the new places they settle or with those tribes that meet them and want to occupy the land.

The most renowned of the places where the Gobirawa settled in recorded history is Alkalawa in the present day Sabon Birni Local Government Area of Sokoto State, Nigeria. This is because Alkalawa was the capital of Gobir which they seized from Zamfarawa upon their arrival (the Gobirawa) in the region. While there, the Gobir kingdom reached the peak of its power under the leadership of one of its most prominent rulers, Bawa Jangwarzo. The kingdom, apart from expanding and annexing nearby territories also pushed its boundaries southwards down too far away Ilorin in Yoruba land. The power of Gobir kingdom was however brought down by the nineteenth century Jihad of Usmanu Danfodiyo, which after starting from Gobir region spread to all parts of Hausa land and even some neighboring regions.

The Gobirawa are identified through their traditional marks of seven horizontal lines tattooed on the right cheek and six similar marks on the left cheek. However, in place of that, sometimes only two marks (one on each side of the face by the side of the nose) are done. Their history as renowned warriors as well as of intermarriage with other tribes such as Zamfarawa, Yarbawa and Fulani makes them to maintain a joking relationship with many tribes. This is in addition to their history also of having engaged in wars with many tribes.


Gobirawa and Zamfarawa

Alkalawa, the then capital of Gobir kingdom was before the arrival of Gobirawa there the capital of Zamfara. However upon the arrival of Gobirawa, being warriors, they drove the Zamfarawa away and killed their king.

This is in line with Nadada Sabon Birni’s assertion in his song in praise of Sarkin Gobir Salihu that:

Alkalawa ba garinku ta ba

Alkalin Anka kunka iske

Da kunka kasheshi kunka gadi birni


Alkalawa is not your town

It was the Alkali of Anka that you met

When you killed him, you took over the city

Having forfeited alkalawa, the Zamfarawa moved southward and established their new capital at Anka, in the neighborhood of Gobir. As time went by and the pain of defeat subsided, the Zamfarawa and the Gobirawa became friendly neighbors. In the end, Sarkin Gobir Bawa Jangwarzo betrothed his daughter, named Fara to Sarkin Zamfara. Then on, the Gobirawa began to address the people of Anka as Mazan Fara (the husbands of Fara) which was later shorted to Zamfara.

Based on this and in accordance with Hausa custom, Zamfarawa became the cousins of Gobirawa which gave birth to the joking relationship between the two groups.


Gobirawa and Fulani

The joking relationship between the Gobirawa and the Fulani is linked to two historical antecedents.

The first is that during the reign of Bawa Jangawarzo as Sarkin Gobir, the area where Gobirawa lived was cohabited along with the Fulani and Azbinawa. Each of the two communities was headed by a leader, thus there was Sarkin Fulani and Sarkin Azbin. Because of the harmonious coexistence between the Gobirawa and the two communities the Sarkin Gobir (Bawa Jangwarzo) made it a rule that whenever he sits at his court, he does so flanked by the two community leaders; the Sarkin Fulani and Sarkin Azbin. The practice continued that way for a very long time without any problem till such a time that the palace aides of Bawa Jangwarzo began to get worried that the two community leaders have been given so much leverage that they are trying to rub shoulders with Sakrin Gobir.

After thinking of a way to tackle the problem, the palace aides adviced Sarkin Gobir Bawa Jangwarzo to betroth his two daughters in marriage to the two community leaders. The wisdom in this arrangement is that once they become sons in-law to Sarkin Gobir they would no longer have the courage to sit shoulder to shoulder with him in the court. The proposal was accepted by Sarkin Gobir.

However, Sarkin Azbin declined the bride sent to him while Sarkin Fulani accepted his. Thenceforth, Sarkin Fulani became son in-law to Bawa Jangwarzo and therefore ceased to sit nu the side of his father in-law during court sessions. As for (Sarkin Azbin) because he has refused to accept his own bride, there does not exist such a relationship between him and Sarkin Gobir. He therefore continued to sit side by side with Sarkin Gobir. In fact, the practice still remains that whenever Sarkin Azbin visits the palace of Sarkin Gobir, they sit side by side in the palace.

The second stage of the joking relationship between the Gobirawa and Fulani started with the defeat of the Gobirawa by the Usmanu Danfodiyo army in the 1804 Jihad. This brought about a turn of events that the Gobirawa who before the Jihad see themselves as masters and hosts of the Fulani now began to be addressed by the Fulani as their servants. However, what remains till date as an issue of contention between the two sides is the Fulani claim that they Islamized the Gobirawa.

The truth of the matter is that even before the arrival of the Fulani on Gobir soil, the Gobirawa have been Muslims. What Usmanu Danfodiyo actually did was Tajdeed (Emphasis or reestablishment) of Islamic religion which before the Jihad was adulterated with lots of traditional practices.


Gobirawa and Yorubawa

The joking relationship between the Gobirawa and the Yorubas (Yarbawa) is traceable to the time when Sarkin Gobir Bawa Jangwarzo in an attempt to expand his empire set out his soldiers to annex neighboring states and bring them under his fold. The soldiers Travelled as far south as Ilorin and beyond but their effort was thwarted on reaching the forest areas of Yoruba land as tsetse fly attacked and killed their horses. They can therefore not proceed any further.

Faced with this dilemma, some of the soldiers resolved to come back to Alkalawa and report the problem back to Sarkin Gobir while others felt that they cannot come back to face him after failing to accomplish the mission he sent them out for. They therefore settled in Ilorin and established the Gobir settlement there.

As time went by and the Yorubas of Ilorin continued to be hospitable to the Gobirawa who have settled there, the Sarkin Gobir became impressed by the behavior and therefore gave his daughter in marriage to the king Ilorin. This further cemented the relationship which resulted to the Gobirawa regarding the Yorubas as their cousins, which in Hausa tradition warrants a joking relationship.


Gobirawa and Katsinawa

The jokes between Gobirawa and Katsinawa is said to have began after the seizure of the door frame (Kyaure) of the Alkalawa city gate by the Katsinawa. The circumstances surrounding the way this artifact (which is still held by Katsinawa) had remained a subject of debate between the two groups. While the Katsinawa hold the opinion that it was seized during a battle, the Gobirawa contend that (it was) actually stolen by the Katsinawa while Gobir warriors were out of the city engaging another army (whether it was that of Katsinawa or another ethnic group) in a battle. The basis for their argument is that the Katsinawa cannot tell where the said battle in which they defeated the Gobirawa was fought nor is there any record (even if it is oral) of the city of Alkalawa ever having been taken over by the Katsinawa from Gobirawa. Based on this, there is no way the frame of a city gate that is kept in the palace of the king be taken away without defeating the people of the city.

Therefore the joke between the two groups is that of claim of heroism by each of the groups. While the Katsinawa claim to have forcefully seized the artifact of Gobirat the battle field, the Gobirawa on the other hand claim that the Katsinawa are mere thieves who have sneaked into Alkalawa and on their way out removed the city gate frame and went with it.



Because of the efficacy of humour as a way of triggering joy and happiness as well as suppressing the feeling of sadness and regret, it is employed by various ethnic communities as means of enhancing social cohesion and booting inter ethnic relations. This form of interethnic humour or inter ethic joke is practiced all over the world but is most common among African societies. There is hardly any ethic group in Africa which does not maintain inter ethnic joking relationship either with their direct neighbours or with other ethnic groups with which they have a history of one link or the other. In essence, most joking relationships among African tribes have some historical antecedents suchas war between two tribes or ethnic groups or kinship through inter marriage.

The Gobirawa ethnic group like many African societies trace their roots from the Middle East. It was form there, according to traditional sources, that they migrated west wards settling at many places and then migrating further till they found themselves at their present location situated in Sokoto state, Nigeria. The community at its present site is neighboured in the East by katsinawa, in the south by Zamfarawa in the North by Azbinawa, while in the West their kingdom in the 18th century was said to have extended as far as beyond Ilorin in the present Kwara State, Nigeria. Being them renowned warriors, they had history of wars and several instances of inter marriage between them and virtually all the neigbouring groups.

However, with the collapse of Gobir empire which was brought about by the Sokoto jihad led by Shehu Umsnau Danfodiyo, and the need to settle down peacefully and forget the past, Gobirawa now maintain ethnic joking relationship with all their neighboring ethnic groups (Zamfarawa, Fulani, Katsinawa, and Yarbawa)

This joking relationship, which is practiced through making stereotypical remarks about a person, his ethic group or indeed anything the maker of the joke can think of about the person, is tolerated by the person no matter the panic of doing so. Societal norms forbid that the person about whom or whose ethnic group the joke is made, should exhibit even the slightest sign of annoyance about the remark or action. All he does is wait for an opportunity in the future to launch back a similar statement or even one of higher gravity on the person that made the remark or someone else from that person’s ethnic group.

Because of the deep rooted nature of ethnic jokes in the culture and tradition of the people it is accepted and practiced as a better way of maintaining intra and inter ethnic ties among various communities in the world especially in Africa.


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