Thoughts on Humor and Humility and on Rainforests as Resources for Laughter

The following post was written by Janis Nuckolls, a Faculty Fellow for the Center. 

While doing research for my PhD dissertation in a remote location in Amazonian Ecuador among Runa people, I had many amazing experiences. However, one experience in particular continues to be vivid. My friends and consultants had invited me to accompany them on a canoe trip to the Peruvian border. My friends included Theresa and her husband, Alberto, who, as a soldier in the Ecuadorian military, was responsible for checking various outposts along the way, bringing supplies, and making sure that all was well. Theresa’s and Alberto’s youngest son Luis, who was only about a year old, was also with us.

We began our trip a little before daylight, all of us rather sleepy. Our canoe, which had been carved out of an enormous tree, was equipped with an outboard motor that carried us down the Bobonaza River for about 30 minutes until a sudden jolt brought us to a sputtering halt. We had zoomed right into a sandbar in the middle of the river. This was the dry season, and the river was lower than usual. As it was foggy and not yet dawn, the sandbar hadn’t been visible, and we were grounded in the middle of nowhere. No thatched hut houses nearby to call out to. Not a sign of human life anywhere that I could see. I was not terribly concerned about our ultimate safety. The river was not very wide, I thought. We could always swim to the shore and try to find help. My friends, however, seemed to think that this was a good opportunity to tease me by engaging in fake hysteria.

“Now we’re going to die, Señora Janet,” laughed Alberto.

“Do you want to swim in this river and get swallowed by an anaconda?” teased Theresa.

I tried to be a good sport and laugh back, but I was hungry and thirsty, and genuine laughter was not very forthcoming.

thumb_Sunrise_1024We were stuck in the sandbar for about an hour and it was beginning to be daylight, with the sun starting to feel hot, when we noticed a man all by himself in a small dugout paddling upriver along the shoreline. Theresa called out to him, asking him to go and cut some tree branches and bring them to us.

This he did, and we managed to cut the branches he brought and poke them through the soft sand under the canoe, as if they were many pieces of a railroad track. We were then able to push the canoe over the branches, which gave us enough traction to push it back into the water.

Later that day, when we stopped at someone’s house to spend the night, I listened to Theresa recount what had happened. I particularly remember what she said because it was the first time on my trip that I heard an if-then conditional past perfect construction in actual use. She said, “If that man hadn’t come along, we would have died.” Why, I wondered, did she continue to talk about us almost dying?

Years later, I have learned to appreciate this way of talking about experience because it is intimately linked with Runa peoples’ ability to laugh at misfortune, and, just as importantly, to never lose sight of their cultural value of conviviality.

Conviviality is a key cultural value for Runa people. No matter how one is feeling, it is important to exhibit one’s most sociable self for others.

I am convinced that catastrophic thinking, and with it, the ability to laugh at misfortune, are part of how Runa people accomplish their conviviality because they help people stay humble in an uncertain world. Humility and humor also help diffuse tensions that might arise during uncertain or dangerous moments in life.

thumb_Luisa smile_1024Even when life is not uncertain or dangerous, however, it is obvious that Runa people enjoy laughing and telling jokes that would barely count as jokes for us.

This past summer while I was leading a study abroad with nine BYU students, the participants and I had many opportunities to observe this humor in action. One afternoon found us walking through the forest and stopping to ask our consultants about the medicinal qualities of trees in our midst. Because it had rained recently, there was mud everywhere, which we had all prepared for by putting on long rubber boots.

I could not resist the urge to stand in the middle of a deep puddle while tromping my boots to enjoy the sloshy sound. My consultant, Luisa, who had been telling us about a tree, suddenly looked at me and said, simply, wangana warmi, which means “pig woman.”

When I translated this two-word joke, I remember one student in particular becoming almost convulsive, she was laughing so hard. Her ability to “get” that this was funny impressed me enormously. It has taken me years to appreciate, enjoy, and laugh at such jokes.

thumb_Humanitiescenterblogbutterflyjpg_1024Runa jokes are almost always based on a comparison between a human and a nonhuman form of life. Such comparisons are the result of careful study and observation. Their knowledge of nature is impressive for its detail. One day, while helping a woman named Antonia in her agricultural field, I was given fresh slices of papaya to eat. After I had taken several bites, she laughed and told me that I made the same sound, mutsi mutsi, as a tortoise chomping on papaya.

Although I had never witnessed a papaya-eating tortoise, I found the very idea of capturing that sound with words kind of amusing, and I was also able to laugh at their laughter.

Another event occurred this past summer, involving my tripping over a computer cord while teaching. This resulted in my being compared to a blind little sardine called a tonsa, which is said to swim at the bottom of the river, constantly bumping into obstacles along the way.

This one really got to me. I couldn’t talk for several seconds because of laughing so hard. I know what Nelson Goodman once said about anything resembling anything else as long as we say that it does, but this seemed like a real stretch.

thumb_Blue butterflyjpg_1024All of this makes me wonder about how people with so little can enjoy life so much. Economically speaking, Runa people would have to be described as “marginal,” or “on the fringes” by anyone’s definition. They are not at all firmly embedded within Ecuador’s market economy.


They are also underrepresented in Ecuador’s higher institutions of formal learning. In fact, this is a culture that has no foundation in literate forms of communication. However, they engage in another kind of reading that involves close study and scrutiny of the nonhuman lifeworld. Their rainforest ecosystem is a kind of library for them, needing constant “reading” and interpreting. It is their rich repository that supplies people with food and shelter, and it is endlessly fascinating, mysterious, and dangerous.

Maybe the very complexity of their surroundings makes humility and curiosity easier for them than it is for us. This in turn might lead to seeing more kinds of similarities rather than differences between ourselves and nature.

The more I think about it, the more I am humbled by the comparison between myself and a blind sardine. The very idea of anyone caring enough to attend to the behavioral characteristics of a little sardine, and noticing that it was clumsy because of being blind, is, in a way, touching.

I look forward to an opportunity to try and see a blind sardine for myself the next timeI return.


Photos by Jaren Wilkey

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