THERE ARE two ways to talk about politics. One describes the dry mechanics of government. The language of bills and ballots, cabinets and coalitions, is similar the world over. The other is inventive, diverse and bleakly humorous—the idiom of the street, or what in Tanzania they call the kona (corner).
A new dictionary of African politics, published by Oxford University Press, tries to capture this richness. It describes people, institutions and events, and defines theoretical terms. More significant, the editors used social media to crowdsource the terminology of the kona, getting hundreds of responses.
In Benin, for example, switching parties is called “transhumance”, a term that normally describes the migration of cattle-herders. In Ghana “skirt-and-blouse voting” means picking a president from one party and a member of parliament from another. The opposite is “three-piece-suit voting”, when Kenyans back the same side throughout.
Some terms describe tactics to challenge bigwigs: for instance, toyi toyi, a dance used in South Africa to protest against apartheid. A quieter method is the ville morte, where people in French-speaking Africa shut down the city by staying at home. During elections in 2016 some Zambians escaped a walloping by wearing the green of the ruling party, even while secretly backing the opposition, which wears red. Opposition leaders called it a “watermelon campaign”.
Corruption inspires a menu of euphemisms. Swahili-speakers might call a bribe mchuzi (sauce). In French-speaking Africa graft is bouffer (to gobble down); in parts of west Africa the verb is “chop”, from the pidgin for eat. This metaphor reached its apogee in 2014, during a governor’s race in Nigeria. One candidate promised “stomach infrastructure”, such as rice and chickens. He won.
Why so much talk of corruption? Partly because it is a real problem; partly because Africans, like outsiders, stereotype the continent, says Sa’eed Husaini, a Nigerian, one of the dictionary’s editors. But then America, with its gerrymandering and pork-barrel spending, has a rich political vocabulary. Maybe it is just that the sharpest practices all over the world inspire the most creative wordplay.