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Shock Humor: Zaniness and the Freedom of Permanent Improvisation in Urban Tanzania

By Michael Degani

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Cite As:
Degani, Michael. 2018. “Shock Humor: Zaniness and the Freedom of Permanent Improvisation in Urban Tanzania”. Cultural Anthropology 33 (3), 473-98. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca33.3.08.

Abstract

This essay explores scenes of zany comedy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, across three sites: a television sketch about repeated electrical shock; the careers of freelance electricians known as vishoka; and encounters between residents and power utility inspectors. Drawing on the work of Sianne Ngai, as well as long-term ethnographic research, the essay argues that zaniness manifests the structural paradoxes of entrepreneurial populations that have alternately been described as the lumpen, the informal, or simply the urban poor. Specifically, it argues that such populations are often consigned to permanent improvisation and that this engenders a social freedom that, in some respects, remains indistinguishable from constraint. The zany can thus critically nuance portraits of livelihood and citizenship practices in urban Africa by bringing their freedoms and constraints into the same frame.

Keywords

comedy; improvisation; precarity; informal economies; electricity; African urbanism