The Central African Republic (Sango: Ködörösêse tî Bêafrîka; French: République centrafricaine or Centrafrique) is a landlocked nation in Central [Africa]. This country of Ubangian, Bantu, and Sudanic people was a colony of [France] from the late 19th century through 1960 when it gained full independence. Political instability has hampered development despite mineral and agricultural potentials. The majority of citizens adhere to Christianity or indigenous religions with a minority embracing Islam.
The puppet theatre in the Central African Republic dates from pre-colonial times. Its origins in ritual remain evident, especially during religious, family or social ceremonies, such as marriages, agricultural festivals, etc., to the present. Offerings and sacrifices are made to gods and guardian spirits to bless agricultural, hunting and fishing activities. These celebrations, formerly of a carnivalesque nature, come with great popular rejoicing where dance, music, and theatre play a major role.
The Gbaya Boro-Zango people, for example, believe that many gods are at the origin of life. Gbako-Son (representing a coalition of all supernatural beings that have a communal influence) is the god of creativity, invention, and malice. He is depicted as a figure whose head is symbolized by a ring and a few feathers, which carries two amulets around the neck. He is activated at major ceremonies of Mon-Enou, the worship of the spirits of ancestors.
Gba-Zimi, god of agriculture, rain, and medicinal drugs, is represented by two objects: one is a sort of scarecrow placed on a rack (yawa), installed at the corners of the field before which the followers lay the first fruits of their harvest; and the other is a figure carved from sacred wood with a long articulated penis. During two ceremonies in honour of Gba-Zimi and regulated by different dance steps, the local priest manipulates the figures while in trance.
Ngafo, god of fertility and musical arts, is represented by a [marotte] (gbafio). This carved wooden figure measures approximately 50 centimetres. It is dressed in intricately woven cloth. The figure is held in the right hand of the priest of initiation (olongafo) and moves vigorously. The Ngafo image is displayed in relation to sacrificial practices to intercede for the faithful.
Gbafio-Gbowire, god-creator of man, to whom the Gbaya attributes the responsibility of good and evil, is represented by a figure of sacred wood. Intended for the sole use of the priest, it is stored either in a cave, tree hollow, or in an animal carcass. It provokes a kind of trance in the user leading finally to a state of ecstasy for the priest-animator.
Dane, god of twins and fertility, is usually symbolized by two small figures made of sacred wood, coated with white clay, wearing glass bead necklaces, and are called sore or kpokpo (the latter name used by the initiated only). Activated by the priest, the two figurines draw closer, meaning that the sacrifice is accepted by the divine.
Thus, between the living and the eternal, figures carry a sacred message. These statues are not mysterious fetishes, but rather tangible objects of artistic expression that use sculptural manipulation, theatrical staging, and serve communication.
This traditional richness was swept aside during the colonial era, which moved away from indigenous practices in favour of a new form of theatre. In schools, French authors were studied and their plays performed. Then, in the 1950s, the Central African modern theatre, represented by the Association Théâtrale Africaine (African Theatre Association, 1952) was born.
With independence (1960), the theatrical activities evolved and modern puppetry appeared. However, there was no formal training for puppeteers between 1952 and 1970. Self-taught artists filled the vacuum with their plays.
In the 1970s, amateur puppeteers travelled from neighbourhood to neighbourhood with articulated puppets whose movements were often accompanied by rhythmic song and clapping from children in the audience: “Saman we ye-ye, saman gba yang-thi-thi-gbayang-thi-than-thi gbayang” (“This is a new play, not the destructive play of the gods, but something new”). These street puppeteers received modest rewards usually in the form of food in return for their service. Students also were invited to make articulated figures to present at school celebrations.
Between 1972 and 1974, puppet theatre emerged under the leadership of Gabriel Coulibœuf, a French audiovisual expert at the centre for training community development workers, with the purpose of working with farmers and facilitating rural development. In 1974, the first puppet performance was played for the people of Damara. This introduction led to a lasting use of the art of puppetry in rural areas.
In 1993, the French Cultural Centre in Bangui organized a training course led by puppeteer Jeff-Mann. The German Cooperation in turn offered a workshop under the leadership of Gregor Schwank (of Figurentheater Gregor Schwank in Freiburg). This training for beginner puppeteers focused on educating young people about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Between 1993 and 1996, this newly trained group gave many performances, primarily in community education centres.
In May 1993, the Compagnie Artistique Sanza Centrafrique (CASCA) was created at the initiative of performer Julian Yamakana. In 1995, in Bangui, CASCA presented its first show, L’Arbre du voyageur (The Traveller’s Tree), a mix of storytelling, traditional dances, drama, songs, music of tam-tam and balafon (wooden keyed percussion instrument) in which puppetry was featured. Sponsored by several institutions, this production was performed at various venues including in Yaoundé (Cameroon) during the Rencontres Internationales Théâtrales (International Theatrical Meeting) in 1996, and at the Festival International des Théâtres de Marionnettes (FITHEMA, International Festival of Puppet Theatres) in Lomé (Togo) in 1997.
- Devenir de la littérature centrafricaine [Becoming the Central African Literature]. Document élaboré dans le cadre de la Semaine culturelle du 6 au 12 mai 1990 [Document prepared as part of Cultural Week, May 6 to 12, 1990]. Bangui: Association des poètes et écrivains centrafricains, 1990.
- Exposition, 30 novembre 1997 – 1er mars 1998 [Exhibition, 30 November 1997 – 1 March 1998]. Roanne: Musée Joseph Dechelette, 1997.
- Fanon, Frantz. Les Damnés de la terre [The Damned of the Earth]. Paris: Maspero, 1970.
- Traditions et magie d’Oubangui. Donation photographique d’Antonin Marius Vergiat [Traditions and Magic of the Ubangi. Photographic Donation of Antonin Marius Vergiat]. Exhibition catalogue (30 November 1997 – 1 March 1998). Roanne: Musée Joseph Déchelette.
- Vergiat, Antonin Marius. Les Rites secrets des primitifs de l’Oubangui [The Secret Rites of the Primitives of Ubangi]. Paris: Payot, 1951.
- Wurtz, Jean Pierre, and Valérie Thfoin. Guide du théâtre en Afrique et dans l’océan Indien [Theatre Guide in Africa and the Indian Ocean]. Afrique en création, 1996.