The Republic of Cameroon (French: République du Cameroun; German: Republik Kamerun) is a country in the west Central Africa region. Cameroon is home to over 200 different linguistic groups; the country’s ethnic groups include Cameroon Highlanders, Equatorial Bantu, Kirdi, Fulani, Northwestern Bantu, Eastern Nigritic, and other African peoples.
Most traditional Cameroon puppetry and masking is tied to rituals and initiations that are entrusted only to members of the group. Therefore information shared here is mostly from ethnographic reports and is limited. However, contemporary puppets are also used for popular entertainment and educational purposes.
Puppets in Initiation Rituals
Different types of puppets are used during rituals in Cameroon. The Bamum (also Bamoum, Bamoun) people manipulate a human skull in the Kamanshui (secret society reserved for the elite). Attached to a basket woven cap worn on a costumed man’s head, this “puppet” comes to life and dances during religious ceremonies for the initiated.
Among the Ejagham (Ekoi) and Widekum peoples, figurines (ato-kom or aturu) replace the human heads that were in the past shown during major commemorative celebrations. Representing a skull or a whole figure, sculptures are carved in wood and covered with leather (antelope or monkey skin). These manipulated images are used in initiations. Some carved figures are seated and have jointed arms and legs. Their hairstyles are usually coiffures of human hair, sometimes replaced by wood. The teeth are made of metal or bamboo splinters and eyeballs are painted white. The effigy is firmly secured to a woven rattan base worn on the head of the manipulator-dancer. His face is fully hidden and raffia attached to a bamboo frame forms the body covering with bells (ozen) on the dancer’s feet.
Among the Fang of Cameroon (like those of Gabon), the sculpted “portraits” of ancestors, carved in the medicinal wood ekung to be placed on shrines, are used as “puppets” during the initiation. One well-known figure was described by Günter Tessmann and represents an old man with jointed limbs, metal eyes, the chin with a monkey skin beard and a feather tuft atop the head. The society elders present these “ancestors” and make them dance for initiates while their manipulation is hidden behind a cloth screen.
With the Beti, the initiation ceremony, called melan, includes a veritable show. This cult of communication with ancestors takes place in an impressive setting and involves “puppets” in several ways. Ancestral figures of white and red painted wood appear in the darkness and mime a scene of incest before the festive meal. Figures atop poles are presented by the initiated manipulators hidden in a booth or images are played in a window. Other “puppeteers”, hidden in the foliage, show various creatures and imitate the sounds of the animals that they present. During the ritual event, the audience also sees two red moving figures, representing a man with a prominent penis and a woman with braided hair and metallic eyes. These characters, who sometimes are accompanied by another unmoving clay figure, mime an incestuous mating. Finally, the initiates witness a kind of shadow play, effigies come and go before a lighted window, moving systematically (probably by a wheel).
Among the Ewondo, during the initiation ceremony, puppet “forest spirits” (ebobod) made of wood wearing a soft conical Phrygian cap appear in a window. Figures parallel the human male initiation called melan.
Puppetry in Funeral Contexts
Puppetry also is involved in death rites, which are often impressive and may involve some kind of manipulation of the dead body to give the impression of life.
Among the Kapsiki, for example, the funeral of a leader requires an impressive staging. The body is washed, then, in a sitting position, is sewn into a bullock skin provided by the family. The prepared body is placed on the shoulders of a blacksmith, dressed as a chief. While dancing, the smith promenades the dead person through the village as if he were manipulating a puppet.
Among the Banen, a manikin depicting the dead person is crafted for the funeral. The figure is dressed in torn clothes and placed beside the grave, under a structure with a mat roof and fabric sides, with dishes of food placed by the image. The figure remains there through the long funeral, during speeches, songs, dances and scenes improvised with the deceased’s personal belongings.
Among the Mofu-Gudur, there is an especially elaborate “puppetization” of the corpse. Careful preparation of the body, with attention to articulation of the bones, maintains flexibility of the corpse to facilitate manipulation during the funeral. The figure is dressed and moved to suggest life.
Toys and Dolls
In the Douala population children perform with puppets or dolls in playful circumstances. Children make small string puppets of cloth or wood, called thous me libongo which they present in little shows during the end of year festivities. The young creators are rewarded with a little money or modest gift.
Young girls also practice Douala funeral keening as they manipulate dolls.
Puppets that Entertain
The most common puppets seem to be those of the foot/toe showman who activates by way of his toes and via a string an amorous couple who dances until they meet in an act of love (see Toe/Foot Puppet). Some have speculated the origin of this entertainment was in initiation rituals.
The Bafia people called the male (or for a human) bum and the female (or for a young man) gib le ban. At 20 to 25 centimetres in height, these raffia figures are naked, faceless, and crowned with human hair. The trunks are elongated, the legs move, and the genitals are faithfully reproduced with pubic hair. The erect penis will enter the hole for the vulva as they dancingly enact and then replay the sexual act. The characters move simultaneously due to a knotted cord looped and passed through each of their arms. Similar figures are used by the Fang (also called Pangwe) and the Ngumba peoples. But the construction materials may differ: the Ngumba figures, called medigema and tarra la in Yaoundé (the capital of Cameroon), are wood, with the head made of a disk or even a simple feather and legs carved with knees bent to emulate the characteristic dance posture.
The Bamileke “hole puppet”, in contrast to the foot/toe puppet performance, seems specific to Cameroon and could possibly have an ancient or sacred origin. Carved in wood and covered with leather, this hollow head accommodates a puppeteer’s hand inside. The mouth opens with a full set of teeth. The performer can poke his fingers out like a tongue, provoking surprise and laughter. This figure has been used by the Cameroonian comedian and researcher, Meyong Baba Bekate, in modern performances.
Today there are various types of glove, string, and rod puppets used to entertain. Puppeteers sometimes use a voice modifier (see Swazzle). In the streets of Yaoundé and other towns, itinerant performers present these puppet shows. For example, in Yaoundé Jean Mamvoula performed his puppet ballet in a small portable puppet booth, which was filmed in 1980 by Robert Minangoy.
The colonial missionaries imported Western puppet characters, European rhymes, and techniques and Christian prohibitions which interfered with indigenous performance. Today, Western artists sometime tour as, for example, the French company Royal de Luxe in 2000. But, in general, puppet theatre of Cameroon, including that which now tours internationally, retains reference points anchored in tradition with its sacred character.
Festivals and Workshops
There is an annual festival of mask and puppet performances, International Meeting of Cameroon Masks and Puppets (RIMAC, Rencontre International des les Masques et de Marionnettes du Cameroon), founded in 2004. This provides an opportunity for artists from across Cameroon and around the world to share work in the cities Douala and Bamendjou. Workshops are conducted as well. Meanwhile Didier Nyoumi, who is an actor and works in theatre by and for young audiences, facilitates educational outreach which explores the interfaces of modern performances and education on issues of heath and society. Contemporary artists continue to mine Cameroon’s long tradition of masking and puppetry.