The Republic of Chad (Arabic: تشاد Tšād, جمهورية تشا Ǧumhūriyyat Tšād; French: Tchad, République du Tchad) extends from the Sahara Desert to tropical Africa and includes two hundred diverse ethnic groups with a Muslim majority as well as significant Christian and Animist groups. Agriculture and herding are the main occupations (cotton and, since 2003, oil production are other significant economic activities).
Although puppetry is documented in research and reports of the French colonial era (1913-1960), since independence in 1960 reports on puppetry activities have been limited.
Traditional Puppets and Manipulated Objects
Prehistoric clay figures, with marks suggesting they were jointed, were found in archaeological digs and may be considered the earliest evidence of puppetry in Chad.
The art of animating magical objects can be compared to puppetry. General Henri Gouraud (1867-1946) described a lucky calabash he saw used when stationed in the area at the end of the 19th century. The calabash ritual was said to bring prosperity in trading. The gourd was specially prepared through a defined ritual wherein it becomes an animated and magical object. Some fetishes and dolls could be used in the same way.
Marcel Sauvage in 1934 reported on what he called a “manipulated corpse” (“cadavre marionnettisé”). A funeral for the village’s chief was set up near the pyre. The dead body was presented with its head wrapped in a curious way and surrounded by axes, assegai (lances), antique bottles, and cooking pots. Next to the pyre, men with their faces covered by a mask “rode” three long drums. The participants might roll on the ground or dance in place.
One of the traditional forms of Chad has puppets set in motion by the puppeteer’s feet, found in the Musey ethnic group particularly (see Toe/Foot Puppet). Very popular in the past, these little puppets that are found in pairs are attached with a line to the big toes of the puppeteer, who is seated with legs separated. While singing a refrain, the puppeteer beats his calves with the flat of his palms and activates the figures so that they can move forward and bump into each other. The scene usually ends with a simulation of intercourse (see Rites and Rituals). This type of puppet theatre was seen as late as 1997 in Musey festivals, but was definitely on the decline, though still a performance for children’s play.
Chad had always been crisscrossed by travelling performers, acrobats, street-musicians, and puppeteers, who can be flamboyant in appearance or exhibit transgender behaviour. An older example is Kanuri puppet theatre, which was still very active in the 1940s. A picture from this period shows a performance during the day, outside and near a village. Spectators sit on the ground. The puppeteer is hidden in the tent-like booth of dark fabric set up on the ground and at a certain distance from the audience. The scenic space is defined by a line traced on the ground. Two drummers are in position between the “stage” and the audience. The puppets came out of the opening at the top of the puppet booth. For this type of presentation, the puppet needed a “small” voice to fit the diminutive size, so a voice modifier (similar to a swazzle) was “played” in the performer’s mouth or his nostril. The repertoire was several short comedies of social satire, inspired by daily life. Topics included sexual misbehaviour, corruption at all levels of society, misfortunes of village leaders, mocking attacks on colonists, etc.
Another traditional theatrical form uses a hunting lure shaped as a calao (hornbill) bird. This “puppet” is made out of a real hornbill beak that is placed on a central wooden core/rod covered by leather and adorned by red seeds and mirror pieces to represent the bird’s eyes. The bird image is mounted on the head of the performer on a headband and the mime/puppeteer then moves on all fours, his body hidden by grasses and bushes as he gives the figure life. This hornbill performance, quite elaborated and spectacular, could be part of larger traditional or modern celebrations.
Since 1991, the puppet has been increasingly used as a popular educational tool. The Swiss Jean Bindshedler and Noudjiri Isidore Balyom from Chad worked together to develop modern puppetry. Their repertoire used puppetry for education and social development on topics such as alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, and illegitimacy. More recent work to establish an UNIMA centre has been begun by Mariam Mayoumbila (b.1963) who has been an actress-playwright for Radio-Chad (1984-1996), director of the National Ballet of Chad (1996-2006), and president of the commission Education-Culture-Youth and Sports for the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of Chad. Her group, Kadja-Kossi, supports cultural exchange and uses theatre to educate and entertain.