Social scientists have identified a particular kind of interpersonal relationship in West Africa that has been variously labeled “joking kinships,” “joking relationships,” “special affinities,” “cousinage,” and “plaisanterie”. Many West Africans are connected by overlapping networks of these relationships, which can include reciprocal obligations, behavioral taboos, and stereotyping by ethnicity, region of origin, and clan affiliation. Joking kinships have been proposed as grassroots institutions that reinforce positive inter-ethnic interaction and mitigate inter-group conflict. This paper examines the role of joking relationships in micro-level conflict mediation among the Mandinka of southwestern Gambia and then considers the implications of this type of relationship to mediation and conflict transformation more broadly.

Empirical and interview data on mediation were collected during 28 months in southwestern Gambia. Mediators were interviewed individually and in stratified panels, and actual mediations were observed, and when possible recorded. The data indicate that Gambians tend to conceptualize conflict and mediation in a different manner than Americans. The Mandinka generally view mediation as a matter of persuading disputants to end their conflict and reconcile, rather than as a structured process of facilitated problem solving and negotiation. Mediators rely heavily on social ties and persuasion in their work, and they use local values and social institutions to legitimize their interventions in disputes and to increase their leverage over the disputants.

Joking relationships are arguably the most effective institution used by mediators in that manner. Joking bonds are particularly intriguing because in some cases they were instrumental in the transformation of long-standing conflicts that had been resistant to prior intervention efforts. The role of joking kinship in Gambian mediations illuminates broad dissimilarities in Gambian and American modalities of conflict resolution. The field study did not aim to investigate joking relationships, but encountered them during the investigation of local mediation practices. The assertions made here are therefore indicative rather than conclusive. However, the project findings add further evidence that pervasive trends in American mediation are culture-specific. This raises both problems and possibilities for the further development and the export of theories and practice models.

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By Mark Davidheiser

Mark Davidheiser is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution and Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Nova Southeastern University. He specializes in Islamic African Societies and Conflict Analysis and Transformation. He has studied conflict management at multiple institutions, been trained as a mediator and an inter-cultural negotiator, volunteered as a mediator in a victim-offender reconciliation program, and assisted in the training of prospective mediators. His field research has examined conflict and peace in the Navajo Nation, The Gambia, Eritrea, and Senegal. Mark Davidheiser publishes content on Beyond Intractability, an online 'encyclopedia' with easy-to-understand essays focused on the dynamics of conflict.