Onstage at the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24), Trevor Noah made a joke for a very specific audience: speakers of isiXhosa (often called Xhosa in English), the South African language that was also spoken by the fictional residents of Wakanda in Black Panther.
When the South African comedian took the stage to present best-picture nominee Black Panther, he joked about people around the world approaching him to say “Wakanda forever” as if he, too, were a resident of the fictional kingdom. He included a shot at Mel Gibson, pretending the actor said it to him backstage, and then ran with the joke.
“Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda I would see King T’Challa flying over our village,” he said with a straight face, barely pausing for laughs. “And he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase: ‘Abelungu abazi ukuba ndiyaxoka,’ which means, ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.”
It sounded like a classic Oscars call for unity and was applauded as such. Only later, as Xhosa speakers took to Twitter, did the rest of the world catch up with the joke when reporter Makho Ndlovu tweeted that the punchline actually translates to “White people don’t know I’m lying.”
South Africans were delighted by this brilliant inside joke, which has since spawned a Twitter hashtag. When Quartz reached Dr. Zoliswa Mali, a professor of Xhosa at Boston University who hails from East London, South Africa, she had not yet seen the clip. She exploded laughing as she watched it twice over, and asked this white reporter: “You know that there’s no place called Wakanda, right?”
Indeed, she said, Noah’s statement does translate to “White people don’t know that I’m lying.”
“That’s not a proverb,” said Mali, chuckling. “That’s a joke.”