The Republic of Burundi (Kirundi: Republika y’Uburundi; French: République du Burundi), located in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, has a population of Twa/Pygmy, Tutsi, and Hutu. The kingdom fell to German and Belgian colonial influence and poverty and war have been part of the history of this country since it gained independence in 1962. The population has a Christian majority, followed by Animism and Islam. Ethnic divisions, genocidal fighting, and HIV/AIDS have all impacted and limited development and driven emigration.
Puppetry in Burundi
Limited information is available on traditional puppetry in Burundi, but articulated figures, toe/foot puppets, and toy figures, as well as modern puppetry are all found in the country.
Wooden figures were traditionally carved and some are polychrome wearing traditional costumes and headgear representing, for example, a healer, warrior, sorcerer, or drummer. Some of these images are articulated by a system of external strings at the head and legs and have separate parts that fit together. Since there are no written records that accompany such figures, we do not know their precise use.
Toe/foot puppets where a male and female figure dance on a string and make love are a popular entertainment that boys might play until the 1960s and which might be part of family celebrations, such as weddings (see Toe/Foot Puppet and Rites and Rituals). Adult puppeteers also presented the same show and itinerant presenters could come from afar – Uganda or the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and some such players were of Pygmy origin.
Toy figures would also be manipulated; in rural areas, young people played games with non-articulated animal toys made from clay, playing scenes that reflected life in the fields. Animal figures were moved on the ground as the youths accompanied the figures’ movements with songs and the animals’ distinctive sounds.
There is better documentation on modern puppetry. The Troupe de la Savane (Savannah Troupe) was founded in Bujumbura, the national capital, in 1985 by students of André Schils (a Belgian, born in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who worked in Burundi at the International High School beginning in 1975. This company uses marottes with articulated mouths and creates rod puppets and string puppets and rod marionettes (French: marionnettes à tringle), built with natural materials (wood, cowry shells, raffia, feathers). The masks of Central Africa influence some designs. The Troupe de la Savane worked for Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB) presenting shows for children inspired by traditional tales such as that of Bakamé, the rabbit, a cunning folk hero. In 1988, the Savane performed every Sunday at the French Cultural Centre in Bujumbura; the troupe also did some work in the city schools.
Another of André Schils’ initiatives was the creation in 1987 of the theatre group, Les Palmiers (Palms Theatre) with the young Zaire puppeteer Musafiri Kiza Wa Tchizala. This extremely talented puppeteer, before his death in 1993, said that he wanted to be buried with his very first puppet figure. The glove puppets, rod puppets, rod marionettes, and string puppets of Les Palmiers were made with local materials. The stage was made of fabric with a metal frame. The repertoire was based on Burundi stories and legends. This theatre rapidly expanded its scope in schools and rural areas and worked for UNHCR, FAO and UNICEF-Burundi. Les Palmiers focused on humanitarian issues and educational shows informed on general health issues, HIV/AIDS awareness, schooling, children’s rights, etc. After the coup of October 1993 and the massacres that followed, the theatre launched an experiment called “Gira amahoro!” (“Let’s Build Peace!”). Three puppeteers performed in the displaced persons’ camps for children who had been traumatized by violence, teaching them to abandon the hatred between Hutu and Tutsi, which was at the root of the genocide. In Burundi, other topics, such as family planning, are presented using educational puppetry.
Another director is Joseph Bitamba who from 1986 directed a troupe of puppets for the youth section of the Radio-Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB) with several hours of programming per week. The production was partly left to the children in the form of creative workshops to invent the characters, stories, and scenery and sound. Stories and traditional heroes are also used.
Today, puppetry in Burundi is a contemporary socio-educational theatre.
- Bitamba, Joseph. Letters to Olenka Darkowska-Nidzgorski (in French, unpublished).
- Dagan, Esther A. African Dolls for Play and Magic. Montréal: Galerie Amrad African Arts, 1990.
- Darkowska-Nidzgorski, Olenka, and Denis Nidzgorski. Marionnettes et masques au cœur du théâtre africain [Puppets and Masks at the Heart of African Theatre]. Saint-Maur: Institut international de la marionnette/Éditions Sépia, 1998.
- “La troupe de la Savane ou un théâtre de marionnettes au Burundi” [The Savannah Troupe or Puppet Theatre in Burundi]. Unima-informations. Nos. 61-62 (special issue L’Afrique noire en marionnettes), 1988.
- Pizzuti, Nadia. “Les malheurs d’une marionnette illustrent la difficulté d’être parents” [The Plight of a Puppet that Demonstrates the Difficulty of Parenting]. Ceres. Nos. 10-11, novembre-décembre 1991.
- Schils, André. Private unpublished documents (in French).