Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) is a country in Africa with a strong tradition of masking to which puppetry is related. Dominated by the Mossi people since about the 16th century, it is made up of many ethnic groups, each of which may have its own specific practices and visual style. It was a French protectorate from 1896 until 1958, taking its current name in 1984. The population is Muslim, Christian and Animist with most practising a mixture of Animism and a world religion.
Puppetry in Burkina Faso can function as part of divination rituals and entertainment. One could, of course, also consider the wealth of masquerade as related to puppetry, especially given the many oversized images; representations of bird, antelope, monkey, fish and serpent figures; the stilt walking performers; or the notable structures which may turn the human body into a sort of abstraction. Consider, for example, the 3 metre long tail which rises from the top of a snake headdress of the Bwa people danced by a raffia clad performer. Or look at the wide, slim “wings” of a Bwa butterfly mask with its striking design of concentric circles of white, black, and red. Such masking, which is widespread, often verges on puppetry. But these masks, used in initiation, divination, judicial/social control, festival celebrations, and funeral rituals will not be the focus here. Only divination where the object is sometimes seen as the “mover” rather than the manipulated and contemporary entertainment or educational figures where the manipulator uses puppets to achieve their desired end will be highlighted.
Divination and other Ritual Puppets
Divinatory puppets are found among the Lobi, Tegessie, Birifor, Bobo, Bobo Fing and the Mossi peoples. During certain sessions of a spiritual consultant, a male and female figure may be used. In 1931, Henri Labouret observed a session with Tonia Kambire, a soothsayer from Bokona, and gave a detailed description. The playing space was between the soothsayer’s open legs as he sat on the ground. The puppets moved within a square traced in the sand using hematite (brownish-red) and kaolin (white) and split into four sectors. In the centre of the square the diviner placed a cow hide receptacle, containing marked cowry shells and an iron bell. The puppets, tied together by a string tied in a loop, were small (8 centimetres) naked except for a few cowries as ornamentations. Each puppet had a sort of wheel attached, and could thus easily move, even on uneven ground. Stretching the string between his big toes (see Toe/Foot Puppet ), the healer moved the puppets closer toward the marked middle of the square as he rang his bell and evoked and named ancestors, gods, totemic animals and sacred places. After this incantation, he spoke to his two figure – the male, Sié, and the female, Yeli, as he might to a person, admonishing them to obey. They were told not to talk or have fun but to fulfill their office. Then, the diviner cast two cowries on the ground, calling on his father and asking him to stop ill-will from rising from this consultation. The aim of the session was to obtain answers to questions of the patron, and the diviner asked the puppets for help. The puppets then moved along the string, saluting, bowing, jumping and falling. The diviner interpreted their movements as they progressed. This performance seems a divination variant of the male and female toe figures found in many parts of Africa which is usually thought of as only entertainment or a children’s game.
This is only one of many specific and diverse examples of puppet-like figures in divination. Another would be the Bobo-Fing, who use leather figures for both divination and entertainment. Manipulated by a “speaker of sacred things” inside his hut, they are part of the zo divination process and confirm judgments. These fortune-telling figures are moved by the diviner rather like pieces in a chess game.
There are also figures that talk to deliver messages. These belong to divination specialist-ventriloquists who talk and interpret for them. With articulated mouths, the figures speak during sessions with a high-pitched voice in a secret language (foreign to the hearers). This requires a translation by the diviner. Two figures, representing a grandmother and her granddaughter, are preserved in the village of Koho, a few kilometres from Ouahabou. They once belonged to Lamien Siéméyéré before his death.
Among the Bolon people theatrical puppets, both sacred and profane, are used. They precede masks during daytime performances. A Bolon puppet is made of a skeleton-frame hidden under a red garment with long arms and a mask with six small wooden horns. The puppeteer, entirely hidden by fabric, manipulates the figure on a raised bed while in a half-reclined position. He points the arms of the puppet towards the sky and keeps them in this position, above the spectators’ heads.
Puppets, Death and Funerals
Puppets, like masks, may appear in funeral celebrations. In 1957, at Bobo-Dioulasso, four small puppet theatres were brought out for the funeral of a venerable old man of the Coulibaly (or Kulibali) family. These mobile, small puppet booths resembled those of Mali: a rectangular frame was covered with fabric and a wooden animal head was attached in the front. The several figures in each show appeared through a slit on the “animal’s” back to play the piece. A large crowd attended this funerary puppetry.
Among the Mossi, between 1940-1950, one could still witness magic practices to discover the party (“eater of souls”) responsible for a death, which was never considered a purely natural phenomenon. Techniques to identify the responsible person involve animation of “supernatural” objects. In this case there was a funeral ceremony of a “puppet” corpse, which was prepared like a “funeral package” and attached to a stretcher which would be manipulated. Specially crafted, the representation of the dead person could be made in either of two ways: the singo (composed of a patch of soil, sacrificial blood, some hair, nails, or clothing of the deceased carried by two men) or the séongo (with the singo materials plus a live lizard, a small bell and additional amulets, carried by four men). Either singo or séongo became activated at the signal from the master of ceremonies. In profound silence, the singo/séongo bier would direct the bearers who began hopping, staggering, flailing and or running into the crowd to identify the presumably guilty individual. The carriers stated they were lead by an irrepressible force emanating from the funerary figure. This mysterious energy coming from a lifeless object is claimed by many manipulators of objects used in divining and those who become puppeteers may also sometimes feel that the object directs them rather than the reverse.
The Lobi had a related practice called “corpse’s interrogation” during which others react. Carriers claim their gestures are guided by the dead person’s will. Such traditional thoughts are not found only in Burkina Faso. The unil of Togo is a related example.
Traditional Puppet Theatre
Divination figures and representations of corpses may arguably fall outside the Western definitions of puppetry. But in addition to the multitude of mask work we do find puppet theatre in Burkina Faso. The Lobi, known as a people without masks, perform puppetry. Their anthropomorphic sculptures often have an elongated and slender handle which suggests its puppetry function (see Marotte). There are also wood carved human busts with visible perforations, traces of an articulation system (one of these was conserved in the former collection of the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris). An articulated puppet of a dog is part of the Guenneguez collection. The representation of this animal perhaps refers to the fact that the Lobi consume the meat of canines.
Traditional puppetry as pure entertainment can be found mostly in the region of Gaoua. In 1902, at Téhini, Maurice Delafosse observed joyous performances of toe/foot puppetry, manipulated by an old storyteller. “It is the eternal dance of love transported to the Guignol Theatre”, he wrote in regards to their repertoire a couple making love and noting that the amusing amorous exploits attracted a large crowd.
A New Theatre
A non-traditional, Western-inspired theatre born in cities seems to represent the future of puppetry in Burkina Faso. Théâtre de la Fraternité (Brotherhood Theatre), evolving from 1975 at the Municipal High School of Ougadougou, and separating from the school in 1979, is managed by Professor Jean-Pierre Guigané (1947-2011). Professor Guigané played a major role in the dissemination of this modern form of theatre as well as the organization of the Festival International de Théâtre et de Marionnettes (FITMO, International Festival of Theatre and Puppetry) at Ouagadougou from 1992. Théâtre de la Fraternité creates socially impactful work and has had collaboration with European teachers and has implemented cultural and developmental projects.
Another company, Yoyo Theatre, well-known abroad, has a repertoire inspired by African oral literature, but presented by puppets and accessible to everyone.
One of the most striking theatres in the last few years is the Franco-Burkina company Les Grandes Personnes d’Afrique (The Great People Giant Puppets of Africa) of Boromo. Created in 1998, the company was placed under the original training and leadership of Christophe Évette who has specialized in giant figures in France and internationally. The troupe describes itself as a “small enterprise of giant puppets”: figures are three to four metres high. The company has participated in all kinds of festivals and carnivals, and during the summer of 1998 was part of the World Cup “Carnavalcade” of football in Paris. In 2000, the “Boromo” and “Oury” parades travelled throughout the country, and in February 2003, very large urban spectacles were performed in Bobo-Dioulasso and at Ouagadougou. The group has since 2003 made repeated trips to Spain, France, and various African nations and has a varied repertoire. It appeared in 2013 in the Magi to Madrid Festival. The theatre’s performance of River (2003), with over two hundred people participating as manipulators, was described as “an extraordinary parade populated by giant animals, men with fish heads, water can umbrellas, clouds and domesticated jellyfish … ” Younger professional puppeteers such as Eric Zongo, now working in France, are emerging from this group and are seeking international training as they develop as puppeteers.
Other intercultural collaborations have also been undertaken. An example is the French Compagnie Zouak (led by Alban Thierry) and the Association Niban based in Boromo, Burkina Faso. The companies adapted for the stage – with puppets, mask dance and music – the novel, Crépuscule des Temps Anciens (The Dawn of Ancient Times or The Twilight of the Bygone Days) by Burkina Faso writer Nazi Boni, a novel that explores the pre-colonial life of the Bwamu people. Under the name Compagnie Zouak-Niban, the stage show played at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres des Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières in 2011. Another company, Ouagadougou-based La Compagnie du Fil, which has collaborated with Compagnie OpUS (from Niort in France), was active in holding workshops in various puppetry techniques including Chinese shadow puppetry, with support from the Prince Claus Fund and the French Cultural Centre.