The arts of puppetry have been practised in Africa for a very long time, probably for centuries. Accessible documentation began at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1829, when the Englishman Hugh Clapperton described an astonishing boa-puppet performance that he saw in Nigeria. In the Sahara, in 1853, the painter and writer Eugène Fromentin came across two old entertainers, probably of Hausa origin, travelling up from Niger or Nigeria with their mules, carrying a number of puppets and musical instruments. The Frenchman Paul Soleillet tells of a three-man “guignol” (glove puppet) troupe that travelled by canoe on the Niger River in 1878. At the end of the century, the French Sahara Mission of Foureau-Lamy witnessed puppet shows in Iferouane and Zinder (Niger). In the first half of the 20th century, we learn of the existence of African puppets through Maurice Delafosse in Tehini (Côte d’Ivoire) in 1908, through the Englishman Douglas Alexander in the region of Borno in Nigeria in 1910, through the ethnographic and linguistic Mission Dakar-Djibouti in Mali from 1931 to1933, and also through the Englishman R.E. Ellison, who published his findings in 1935 in the magazine Nigerian Field.

Fragments of History

Puppetry is indigenous to the continent and existed well before European colonization. However, it is not yet possible to compile a complete history of puppetry in Africa. There is certainly archaeological evidence (dolls showing evidence of articulation) and some texts which attest to the existence of puppets in ancient Egypt, which was, as several historians agree, the region where puppets originated, although the shadow theatre is believed by some to have come from Asia in the 10th century along the maritime trade routes, via Arabia. Whatever the truth, in the poet Ibn Daniel (1238-1310) Egypt can boast possession of the most ancient texts of the shadow repertory outside Asia. Later, during the 17th century, the satirical shadow theatre of the Turkish Karagöz or Karakous spread along the northern shores of Africa, in regions under Ottoman domination (see Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria). The “storytellers with their picture boxes” and their little glove puppets, mentioned in Tunisia as well as in certain countries of the Middle East (see Palestine), do not have a well-documented history in European languages.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region of oral traditions, the puppets, though reputed to be of ancient origin, left no written or material traces before the 19th century. The oldest testimonies on the subject are again those of Europeans, and even recent ethnographic research leaves blank areas: in certain countries or certain regions, the puppet tradition is not known, but this is not to say that there isn’t one. Most scholars agree that the idea of puppet performance as distinct from the rich tradition of mask performance does not reflect an indigenous view in which these two arts are related.

Inevitably, while some Europeans were furnishing documents on African puppets, colonization meant that they were at the same time importing their own. We know of their presence from 1914, notably those of one Father Moeyens who produced shows between 1935 and 1939 in Mbandaka (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), with string puppets created with the help of local sculptors. In Lemfu, from 1936 to 1945, there was Brother Phocas who had thirty figures with white or black “skin” and a repertoire drawn from the traditions of the Kongo people. In Katanga, the glove puppets of the Belgian couple Josette and Marcel Cornelis imported the character of Tintin under the name Biloulou! In Senegal, from 1937 to 1939, the puppets of the Lyonnais Auguste Weiss had a more pedagogical vocation.

It is certainly possible to offer criticism of the colonial period, during which a good part of the indigenous puppet and manipulated object practices were lost or modified since they were often related to ritual practices that missionary efforts or modernization worked against. However, debates on these questions, on the nostalgia of traditions, or on the quest for “authenticity” have themselves entered into history. Whether we like it or not, the African puppet has entered the modern era. Its essential contribution today is without doubt to have transformed the very notion of the puppet through the richness of its forms and functions.

The Form of Puppets

How can the art of the puppet in Africa be defined? What differentiates it from the art of the puppet in Europe and elsewhere?

A definition of a puppet offered by American puppeteer Bil Baird in 1965 was: “an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience”. Although accurate, this description seems too narrow, since it brings no precision as to the materials used, the colours and the presence, or not, of articulations that are the tangible signs of manipulation. Having drawn attention to these gaps, Esther A. Dagan (1990: 38) offers a more expansive definition of the African puppet that she sees as “a sculpted object of an anthropomorphic and/or zoomorphic image, articulated or not, manipulated by man in a ritual or secular drama, in order to animate a character’s story in a tragic, lyric or satirical dialogue.”
The stage space
The stage space, for traditional shows, differs appreciably from that of most Western stages. In Africa, traditional puppets rarely perform in an enclosed theatre; the shows are performed in the open air, often on the public square where the actors and spectators are not separated from one another or limited in number. The space for the show is marked either by a line drawn on the ground, or simply defined by the placing of the spectators (according to the form of the booth or the type of puppet used) in a circle, semi-circle, straight line, or even in procession. In this context, the European front curtain is rare. In fact, the audience sees a blending of two spaces (that of the actor, and that of the spectator) and two time periods (real and imaginary). In this traditional mode of performance, the length of the presentation is flexible. Night shows are lit by torches or fires.

The African puppet is characterized by its great diversity: there are string, glove and rod puppets, nether rod marionettes (or tringles), planchette-style jigging puppets performing on a board, tabletop puppets, marottes (large non-articulated rod puppets), shadow puppets, giant puppets, pantins or jumping jacks, figures animated by the puppeteer’s feet, by the toes (toe/foot puppets), puppet headdresses, and others.

Let us first examine the morphology of puppets, then their function.
Articulated puppets and masks
Esther A. Dagan suggests two major categories:  first, articulated puppets and masks, i.e. objects “carved from more than one piece of wood” with different parts “connected by joints such as cord, string, nail, cloth, and rod so as to allow the various parts to move” (70). These objects are further divided into three sub-groups according to the method of manipulation. There is a difference between a) puppets manipulated by a metal or wooden rod, b) puppets manipulated by rope, string or wire, from above but also from below by pulling the strings that control the articulated parts, and, c) puppets manipulated by the physical movement of the puppeteer. In the first sub-group, the rod that pierces the body of the figure is activated from below and is attached to various parts of the body such as the chin, the neck, the arms and the tongue. But in the case of puppets manipulated by movement, whether made of several pieces of wood or not, it is the motions of the puppeteer-dancer that animate the object directly.
Non-articulated puppets and masks
The second category consists of the puppets and masks that are not articulated. This group unites sculptures of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic aspects carved from a single piece of wood. Among them are the marottes, manipulated from below, headdress-puppets (objects that the manipulator carries on his head as part of his body), helmet-puppets (sculptured pieces that cover the head of the wearer and that sometimes rest on the base of the neck), shoulder puppets (large sculptures, sometimes very heavy, that rest on the shoulders of the carrier), puppets in the form of armour or a shield (covering the entire body, or held like a shield), and, finally, puppets or masks for the face (worn by the dancer-puppeteer hidden under a costume that transforms his body).
Other types
The third group includes a certain number of “puppets” difficult to categorize. This group can include certain musical instruments in a more or less complete human or animal form. Among them are harps with the head and chest of a woman, sometimes in the costume of the Central African Republic and Gabon, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo); drums on two legs with arms and sometimes a face as in Côte d’Ivoire, the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzavile), Ghana, Guinea, or in the DR Congo; the African thumb pianos (sanza), played with head held high and arms raised, standing up, as in the DR Congo; anthropomorphic wooden horns, known by the Bembe of the Republic of the Congo under the names of ludi or nsiba.

It is also possible to add acrobatic dancing puppets, as seen by P. Amaury Talbot in South Nigeria in 1915. In this show, a rope is stretched between two trees and held tight by several men. Then, in full dress, the puppet climbs one tree, dances on the rope towards the other, and then climbs down to the ground.

The glove puppets of Nigeria deserve to be in this category. They are not sculpted, but are made of cloth, as described by R.E. Ellison in 1935, or the large wooden puppet representing the character of Mami Wata, pidgin for “Mother Water”, that is found in the shows performed at the time of the Ekong festival in the south of Nigeria, or even the sculpted lantern of the artist Yaskey with its animated figures carried in procession during the festivals of the Lantern in Senegal and Sierra Leone during the New Year holiday or during Ramadan. Hidden under a platform, five men “activate the masquerade images by pulling on cords. The artist used springs and canes to suspend the costumes and to connect the limbs of the characters”. (John W. Nunley, 1988).

The Functions of the Puppet

The puppets in African society are intimately connected with their various functions.  These functions and their relative importance in society are marked by the historic process that has brought these objects from tradition to modernity. They can be grouped under these headings: ritualistic, entertaining, and educational.
The ritualistic function
The most fundamental and most traditional function of the puppet in Africa is connected to ritual (see Rites and Rituals). This is a function that brings to life all of the symbolism of the object, since it touches areas as diverse as divination, initiation, the judicial system, the cult of the ancestors, magic, or even funeral rites. In addition to certain feminine associations of diviners which practise theatrical activities, other soothsayers use puppets and animated statues. They are often eccentric in their choice of dress; these “specialists of the hidden world” are covered in gris-gris (talisman) and possess an undeniable instinct for the theatrical. They know how to create atmospheres, particularly “those where mystery hovers, unsettling, infectious”. In Burkina Faso, there is a system of divination using two puppets that move in love-making, operated by strings attached to the toes of the puppeteer (see Toe/Foot Puppet).

There are other puppets that are used to intervene in the interests of justice. With the Songye people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a famous itinerant figure, dressed in sombre style, wearing a snake skin and a gris-gris (talisman) necklace, is carried from village to village to settle legal disputes. Still others are used in initiation rituals, such as the five fetishes animated by foot movements in the DR Congo. Newly circumcised boys accompany them, singing a defiant song which boasts of their courage while ridiculing those who fear circumcision.

Initiation puppets are sometimes connected to ancestor worship. These ritualistic, commemorative statues – often hairy, dressed up, articulated and speaking – are difficult to study or research. In the practice of the Fang of Cameroon, the sacred puppet is the effigy of an ancestor placed on a reliquary that contains human remains (skulls and bones), immobile, watching over the living and the dead. For the ritual, this figure, along with others, is transported (it is carried as if it were very heavy) to a sanctuary in the middle of the forest. Then the older initiates activate it like a puppet, above a curtain or a screen.

Other animated statuettes involved in funeral rites and magic complete this picture of the ritual puppets. Several countries, such as Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Togo, among others, know about the funerary puppets. With the Bassar in Togo, a doll known as unil, a small figure made of black cotton braids and knots, represents the corpse of a woman for her secondary funeral rites. In Gabon, the Mitsogo people move the dead person as if walking and speaking during the funeral ceremony. After being beautified, the body is placed in a banana-leaf cabin. That night, the dead person emerges and is greeted by cries of admiration and dancers who bow and rise up, and turn like tops. At this point the corpse is made to “walk” and “speak”. Its animator/carrier, completely covered, advances slowly, accompanied by chants, bravos, hand-clapping, and the rhythm of the drums. Called by name, the dead person responds through the intermediary of a hidden initiate.

The magic role of the puppet is connected to that of traditional medicine on the one hand, and of sorcery on the other. The therapeutic puppet sometimes takes on troubling manifestations that are like the malevolent figures of sorcery, particularly when they show traces of sacrifice such as splashes of white, multiple layers of multicoloured paint, or encrusted dried blood. Sometimes the hands clutch accessories in the form of knives, miniature lances, weapons, or the tails of woolly animals. These curative effigies can also wear seashells, bones, dirty rags, skulls, horns, feathers, and teeth, among other items. But no matter what they are made of, their primary purpose is therapy.

In Mali for example, there exist figurines intended to be carried by the patient. In Gabon, the Mitsogo medicine men use statuettes called bwiti, to establish their patient’s diagnosis. These medicine men are said to have mystical powers that allow them to enter into these “puppets”. In this way they are able to “see” the disease (“Bwiti shows me …”), or to “hear” what is wrong (“Bwiti tells me …”). Africans also know about figurines used by some medicine men to “heal from afar” victims of poisoning. This kind of practice was observed in Zanzibar in the 1970s by a German doctor: the medicine man while in a trance holds up a doll, then twists its neck, thus empowering him to kill the poisoner responsible for the sickness of his patient.

Utilized in witchcraft, the puppet can bring bad luck, cast spells, and kill. Among the Senufo people of Côte d’Ivoire, the Kafigueledio, a statuette with long, articulated arms, is used by sorcerers. Covered in a crude cloth, with a headdress of a wide tuft of feathers and porcupine bristles, the Kafigueledio, manipulated by a sorcerer, points an arm in the direction of the targeted person, thereby casting a harmful spell.

A different recourse to magic has to do neither with traditional medicine nor with witchcraft. It concerns the world of the puppeteer-magicians, those that include in their shows many puppet items and so-called fairground magic. The Hausa showmen of Niger and Nigeria, for example, know many magic tricks: they pierce their tongue and cheeks with a long metallic rod, “stab” a young spectator in the heart with a knife, juggle several knives and other sharp objects, rub their bodies with sharp blades without getting cut, swallow animal horns. The puppeteer-magicians of Togo crunch glass and razor blades with their teeth. Those of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana excel as contortionists.
The entertaining function
A distinction is often made between the sacred and the profane when it comes to African puppets. In Sub-Saharan Africa, as noted by Felix Blaise Malutama Duma Ngo in 1988, “today, the puppet retains a sacred aspect” and often plays “an intermediary role between gods, ancestors and men caught in the hardships of existence”. True, but very many puppets have also been used to entertain the public, thus mingling with the profane. The reason is that the need to entertain has always been at the heart of the African puppet theatre. It is for this reason that, when writing about their first encounter with the “doll” shows in Africa, explorers and colonial administrators, often astonished, compared them to Guignol shows in France or Punch and Judy in England.

This need for entertainment has led to popular shows that include a variety of characters. Aside from heroes borrowed from the oral traditions, there are those that come from anecdotes or gossip, from jokes, personal satire, or even from family conflicts or political caricature. On stage, puppets sometimes reflect scenes of social tension, for example in the satirical pieces presented by members of the Ekong Association of the Annang people of Nigeria. The repertoire includes numerous examples of shows representing colonization, technical progress, socio-familial behaviour or sexuality. Stories of love that end in lovemaking are very popular. These plays were appreciated as much in Rwanda as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where these couples were manipulated by the toes of a puppeteer slapping his own legs (see Toe/Foot Puppet).

The plays, themes and puppet characters are often inspired by historic events or collective social experiences. Conflicts, whether internal or inter-ethnic, as well as the colonial experience, have produced popular characters in Mali such as Tubabu Kun (Head of a White Man, traditionally the representative of the colonial administrator). Several puppets from that era represent missionaries, civil servants, or military personnel. “These caricatured, rather unsympathetic characters certainly make people laugh, but the laughter is not pleasant” (Olenka Darkowska-Nidzgorski and Denis Nidzgorski).

Puppets rarely flatter political power. They are often in the camp of the opposition. A good example of this is in South Africa, where the artistic activities of puppeteer Gary Friedman helped fight apartheid. This kind of opposition is sometimes expressed very subtly, as in the case of the dress worn by a Niger figure on which is written “For Social Justice”.

Today, African puppets are at the very heart of the notion of popular art. Aside from its entertainment function, the puppet theatre has become an instrument of mass culture frequently solicited. However, in its popular not to say profane form, it has undergone important transformations. Everywhere in Africa today, without totally abandoning the place of ritual, puppet companies speak to a wider public and put the accent on a secular content. This is done by well-known companies such as the Kwagh-hir of Nigeria and the Ki-Yi-Mbock Theatre of Côte d’Ivoire.

Certain puppeteers such as Danaye Kanlanfei of Togo, or the versatile actors of Mali, trained at first by Philippe Dauchez (see Nyogolon Théâtre), show their creative talents in educational shows.

Modern tendencies also developed with the arrival of the cinema and television in Africa. The repertoire was enlarged to include, among others, audio-visual productions geared to children. Since the 1970s, thanks to television, new South African characters have emerged: Haas Das, the rabbit created by Alida van Deventer (previously Alida von Maltitz) that presents the news, or Liewe Heksie (Dear Little Witch) created by Verna Vels.
The educational function
The last of the three functions, education, is characteristic of African puppets today. A few still fulfill a traditional role, such as the puppets used in initiation ceremonies which still represent ritual and tradition. However, these events are limited to local communities and are becoming more and more rare. Mass education is diffused through television and other modern means of communication. Their vital themes are development and public health.

In Central Africa, for example, in the context of community development action, a workshop has been set up to construct puppets intended for projects aimed at creating awareness of the countryside, the popularization of new agricultural techniques and protection of the environment, literacy and scholastic tutoring, improvement of craftsmanship, or even an apprenticeship in democracy.

But it is especially in the realm of medicine and public health that the puppets have proved themselves effective. They can communicate lessons in subjects as varied as family planning, contraception, or sexually transmitted diseases.

In Togo, the company Cauris et Calebasses (Cowries and Gourds), based in Lomé, are active in the struggle against the Guinea virus, encouraging everyone affected by leprosy to get medical help.

In the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is ravaging the continent, prevention is of capital importance. The South African puppeteer Gary Friedman has created “anti-AIDS” puppets within the Puppets against AIDS campaign. And he is not the only one. In Ghana, in Kenya and elsewhere, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), a British non-governmental organization, has enlisted the talents of local puppeteers for their “Life-Saving Theatre” to urge young people to become conscious of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

Thus the puppet theatre in Africa remains a very lively and popular art form. It bears witness to historical periods from colonization, independence, various strategies for development, up to today’s movement towards globalization, and has survived, independent of current politics. It has also known how to adapt, and is constantly reinventing itself by renewing its repertoire and its means.


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