Located in Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire; French: République démocratique du Congo; also known as DR Congo, DRC, DROC, RDC, Congo-Kinshasa, or simply Congo) is the second largest country in Africa by area. From 1908 to 1960, the region was annexed as a colony of Belgium (Belgian Congo). Today, around 250 ethnic groups populate the nation, of which the majority are Bantu people; Mongo, Luba and Kongo peoples (Bantu) and Mangbetu-Azande peoples constitute around 45% of the population. While several hundred local languages and dialects are spoken, the linguistic variety is bridged by the widespread use of French and the national intermediary languages Kituba, Tshiluba, Swahili, and Lingala.

Even though the tradition of puppetry has long been in existence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was never considered as such until the decolonization of the country. Undoubtedly, traditional theatrical expression was stifled by major emphasis on the importance of European theatrical models during the colonial era.

There are two principal currents in the Congolese puppetry theatre: traditional and modern. The first is less known, perhaps because performances are only given in specific circumstances, for example when the equilibrium of an individual or society is broken, or during an initiation ritual. However, traditional puppetry is increasingly performed in some provinces, as in the Gungu festival in the Bandundu region, putting the spotlight back on its performance dimensions.

What is called modern puppetry is better known by the Congolese public and can be of two types: European inspired theatre, introduced with the support of the Coopération Française (French Cooperation Agency); and local secular puppet shows, whose origins are unclear, but are performed in the streets of Kinshasa and other towns.

Traditional Puppet Theatre

Traditional puppetry includes dance, mime, short dialogues inserted sometime in percussion music, and songs. The origins of this type of puppetry are very old and its activity can be seen throughout many regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the Pende in Bandundu, for example, puppets are part of myths and are often used to educate children and adolescents. During initiation rites, the puppets are shown in a secret location and teach young people respect for nature and how to live. The puppets, made from bamboo, operated from behind, crafted and animated by initiated individuals, are called masenda, mayogo or nansa. After the initiation itself, these “secret” puppets are displayed in public and returned to the village where they play in performances at the weekend or during holidays, for an audience of all the villagers and neighbours.

Since the creation of the Gungu Festival (initiated in the Colonial period but relaunched after independence and since 2008 called the National Gungu Festival) – an event that includes mask and puppet performances, dance and song from Congo and from all over Africa – the mystical aspect of this art has faded in favour of pure aesthetics, but still the “power of the double” remains within puppetry.

Along with the masenda, mayogo and nansa, there are very large body puppet-masks, called mbuya, whose multiple functions include education, bufoonery, moralizing …The Ngiamba puppet-mask in the shape of an elephant with a large head and small eyes, surrounded by many ancestral prohibitions, is very popular with the public. The Tundu, chief of all other puppet-masks, is responsible for introducing each dance. Then there is Gilelesa, with its tattooed black face, holding leaves in its hand, it is a kind of guignol, amusing women and provoking every one.

Without the presence of Tundu, no other puppet-mask is allowed to dance which is why the tam-tam drummers call it first. They then beat the specific rhythm of the Ngiamba dance and the majestic elephant arrives, completely covered by woven raffia. In contrast, the Gilelesa enters on its own, and as soon as he sees the Tundu, rushes at it, laughing insistently, thus winning the sympathy of spectators. The performance ends with the Mushebele dance, performed solo by the Tundu who dances holding two machetes. The audience forms a circle around it and while some sing the old chant, “Oh! Oh! Sex is red!”, others respond to them in chorus with, “Sex is red.” The chants end with, “You leave! Ah, my sisters, you leave! Oh Mukonzo wept, Oh Maya!”

According to custom, after the dance men water the yard which serves as stage. Women cannot cross the space where men only perform the mbuya puppet-masks. A woman who transgresses is forced to pay the circumcised men a goat as her fine.

Modern Puppet Theatre

The first attempt at creating a modern puppet theatre troupe goes back to 1980 in connection with a workshop organized by the Institut National des Arts or INA (National Institute of Arts) in Kinshasa, in collaboration with the French Cultural Centre. Several workshops were then organized, notably with the help of French puppeteers Geneviève Vedrenne, Gisèle and Raymond Poirson, and German puppeteers Pieter Klaassen and Bernard Kleybolt, and Togolese puppeteer Danaye Kanlanfei.

These activities have helped toward the establishment of a professional vocation and company, the Théâtre de Marionnettes du Congo (Puppet Theatre of Congo) or Themaco (previously called Themaz), and the production of a new show, with foam puppets, titled, La Tortue punie pour cause de trahison (The Turtle Punished for Treason). A number of Congolese puppeteers such as Mavese Mbizi, Malvine Velo Kapita, Tshingombe Kalombo and Tshamala Mufubela, had their start at Themaz.

In 1992, a second theatre company called La Rosée (The Dew) emerged under the leadership of Mavese Mbizi. While conducting research on ways of creating material for a typical Congolese puppet theatre, the company stages plays for children, played by children. In one of the shows on juvenile delinquency, young people explore the culpability of parents who abandon them.

Street theatre composed of travelling troupes and solo performers can be seen in towns like Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, and Bukavu. In Kinshasa, for example, the puppeteer Kanga Lokaka would present a small theatre of automata on a cart in the municipalities of Kalamu, Bandal, and in the Grand Market of Kinshasa. His puppets, placed on stacked trays, were activated by a series of pulleys and ropes, by hand at first, then later by electricity. Each new cart was made from found objects, and Kanga Lokaka created four in ten years. His characters told stories about current political and social issues including the topic of HIV/AIDS.

Other itinerant theatres perform with dancing and singing puppets. Their repertoires are practically all the same: health and disease (AIDS), family, freedom, and democracy. Principal themes concern daily life with the thorny problems of dowry, marriage, juvenile delinquency, respect for elders, malnutrition, literacy, etc. Patience Bonheur Fayulu of the Espace Masolo Center, founded in 2003, worked with child soldiers, street children, and those from broken homes using puppets as a therapeutic tool, before seeking asylum in Canada. Troupes from this centre tour the country and internationally, for example The Extaordinary Adventures of Oulala which Serge Amisi Mugo and Yaounde Mulamba, former child soldiers, developed with the help of Hubert Mahela was presented in Berlin in 2010 as part of the Theatre of Peace event.

Manufacturing Materials and Animation Techniques

Wood and plant fibres are the most common materials used to manufacture traditional puppets. For modern puppets, there are more options. Aside from wood, other elements can be used such as foam, newspaper, cardboard, wire mesh, and old cloth, as well as materials found in the immediate environment like bamboo, raffia, calabash (gourd), fruit hulls, and salvaged items (wire, string, used kitchen utensils, cans, plastic, rubber). Every type of manipulation technique seems be used by the Congolese artists, especially string, glove, rod and also shadow puppetry. Efforts to produce television work such as Bobo and Kipi in the Congo, a TV series for children with puppets, animation and live-action, were undertaken by a Canadian couple in 2009.