The Gabonese Republic (French: République gabonaise), located on the equator on the west coast of Central [Africa], is bordered by [Equatorial Guinea], [Cameroon], and the [Republic of the Congo]. Its capital is Libreville. Gabon achieved independence in 1960 after being ruled by [France] since 1895. The population is comprised of forty ethnic groups, most descended from Bantu speaking peoples. The relatively low population density and rich resources have made the per capita income relatively high for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Both traditional and modern uses of figures are found in Gabon.
Figures, dolls, and puppet theatre relate to spiritual beliefs and rituals tied to animistic ancestor rites and the mystical dimensions of the cosmos. The term for puppetry is not uniform across these groups: in the Orungu country, it is called ogana (especially among the Nkomi of Etimboué), and among the Mitsogho, ghetsuda (“spirit”) or mighondji-mya-ghongo (“ghosts from on high” because figures usually appear above cloth masking, stretched vertically to a certain height). The manipulated figures of the bwiti (animistic initiation) cults originally practised by the Mitsogho but today also by the Fang have, in turn, different names for figures according to their attributes.
Some stories link these figures to the divine: according to a Mitsogho myth collected by Theresa Modanga in the District of Mimongo in 1968, the first puppet was carved into a tree by the god Nzambe Who-knows-no-one. His great rival, the god Nzambe Who-ignores–no-one, had memorized the name of all human beings. These two rival gods lived in the same village, houses facing one another. The jealous Nzambe Who-knows-no-one carved a beautiful woman to test his neighbour, animated her by magical power, and introduced her as his niece to his neighbour. Nzambe Who-ignores–no-one fell in love, but could not name this mysterious beauty. When her true identity as a puppet was revealed, her figure returned to the tree as lifeless wood. This story envisions the puppet as “other” and unites themes of the living and inert/dead.
Figures can be used for protective functions, in funerary practices, or in initiations.
Various records discuss protective statues with unusual capabilities. In the 19th century, explorer Paul du Chaillu (1831-1903) noticed in the richest house of the village of Damagondai near Cape Lopez, a powerful wooden “idol” (mbuiti) representing a woman dressed in the Shekiani ethnic group’s clothing, the powerful “Dama Gondai”. Her eyes were of copper and her tongue made of a sharp, sword-shaped piece of iron; this explained her chief attribute – she cuts to pieces those with whom she is displeased. She was said to speak, to walk, to foretell events, and to take vengeance on her enemies. She comes to people at night and tells them in their sleep what is going to happen. Such figures were featured objects of a cult that included dances, praise singing, and offerings. Paul du Chaillu acquired another anthropomorphic effigy/mbuiti, which was believed to protect against theft. The golden-eyed figure was 60 to 70 centimetres tall and made from a piece of ebony.
Funerary rites are often associated with figures; a casket or even the dead body may be manipulated in a puppet-like manner. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852-1905), the Italian born French citizen who laid the groundwork for French rule in the 19th century, attended a funeral in Ondumbo, near Franceville in the region of Haut-Ogooué (named after the Ogooué River which he explored). Brazza noted a coffin in the shape of a tower, 2 metres high, which rested on three long pieces of wood. Three or four men, who turned and danced to the quick rhythm of the drums, explosions of guns and shouting, carried it. This “manipulated casket” seemed to him a true performance and, after the presentation, palm wine was “taken in” by the deceased via an ingenious system of strings and a bottle.
Moreover, among some Gabonese peoples, actual puppet shows are sometimes presented either outside or inside the house of a deceased dignitary. In the Mitsogho region the bodies of the dead were sometimes manipulated – made to walk and talk. In the Mitsogho and Bavongo groups, the mortal remains of a person who died before initiation were brought to the cemetery and suspended from a pole. In contrast, the corpse of someone initiated into bwiti, the animistic male society, would be sent to the other world with drumming, singing by a chorus, and with the aid of powerful magic so he “could join” his grave. These special “magical acts” were still being reported in the 20th century.
Figures are also widely used in initiations and by the initiated. The Mitsogho also use figures in a “shining” performance space, the layout and images represent cosmic elements: sun (Kombe) associated with male and life, moon (Ngode) associated with female and death, stars (Minanga) and so on. Other figures may be of a gorilla, mandrill, hornbill, swallow – mythologized animals. The iconographical use of space correlates the human body (microcosm) with the spaces of religious practice (where the initiations may take place) and even the whole universe (macrocosm). These cosmological visualizations are dramatically delivered in the glow of torches and flashlights and the ideas may be presented in different sites, making this a highly performative communication of the local cults ideas. Local variations, of course, occur. Puppet-like figures sometimes mingle with masks during performances. Bwiti initiation societies in southern Gabon may organize night time presentations of masks and figures to promote dialogue with the spirits. Figures have a central stick ending in a well-sculpted head; arms may be affixed to the shoulders. These “secret” apparitions are traditionally reserved for only the initiated, but are becoming more frequent as performances are now shown in other regions or abroad. Additionally, objects have been increasingly sold to international arts collectors.
At Oyem, among the Fang people, during the ancestor cult rituals – the Byeri cult, dedicated to ancestors who can protect the living; the Byeri initiation is called melan – worshippers display statues (Byeri) or the bust or heads sculpted from wood depicting the ancestors. Figures are danced as the small orchestra plays. The manipulators, all initiated men, are masked behind a curtain of cloth body wraps or raffia covering between two trees or dwellings. The Fang also have a puppet called Ngunemelan, a mystical figure shown only to a small group of the initiated and at night.
Likewise, there are the puppets presented at the end of the initiation to only the circumcised, a practice deeply rooted with the Nkomi and the Kota peoples. A spectacle includes an astonishing and enormous tortoise believed to be the vehicle of a spirit. The speed with which the tortoise moved had led the public to call it “taxi”.
Meanwhile, in the region of Woleu-Ntem, Fang specialist Tsira Ndong Ndoutoume reported that, in Fang initiations, puppetry in former times would be included at the end of young men’s initiation ceremony. But this custom has now disappeared. Likewise, near the bend of the Ogooué River, among the Masango people, initiated men use puppets for night presentations and in a sacred, “secret” place. While at Lebamba, another Masango area, it is reported that a puppet held by a vine was manipulated during bwiti ceremonies.
Usually, in such bwiti initiations of young men, apparitions of the ancestors are needed and may be represented by puppets shown over a cloth that masks the manipulators. For several days before such performances, the novitiates would be given a drink made from iboga, a hallucinogenic plant which is felt to promote spiritual introspection. Under the effect of the intoxicant, the young men might see these “ancestor” puppets surrounded by a halo of light.
Among the Punu ethnicity, the Tat’Ekumbu male society organizes every two or three years an unusual public performance outdoors in a large space. A large mask-puppet and two small puppets are included. These figures appear over above a stretched cloth masking the manipulators’ bodies. During the performance a real baby is handed to the two small figures, who deftly pass the child from one to the other. The noted actor Daniel Odimbossoukou saw such a performance in 1977.
Other genres of puppetry are also found in Gabon, for example there is a kind of [hand puppetry]. The showman, partially hidden under a body wrap cloth, performs a solo show wherein hands become the head and neck or represent its feet and tail of a bird called totmwiri (woodpecker). The audience dances and sings a choral refrain in honour of the bird.
Sound also is involved in puppetry. In the traditional performance, the puppet voice is often created by a [swazzle]-like device inserted in the puppeteer’s nostril. This makes the sound seem to come from a distance and gives it a nasal timbre, lending greater mystery to the performance. In addition, some musical instruments are puppet-like: harps sometimes are carved with the head and figure of a woman and these are sometimes even dressed.
Reports of contemporary puppets are found from the 1960s. These presentations are for entertainment or edification. In 1962 and 1963, two painters reported Nkomi and Orungu peoples in the Port-Gentil region presented small, non-speaking puppets which danced above a raffia curtain, delighting audiences for events like Bastille Day on July 14 or Independence Day on August 17. Two drummers provided the music. In Libreville, Jean Binet, writing in 1972, described a performance of the Fang dance company Ngan Ngom that included a piece with a mask and three puppets. The poignant story showed an adulterous wife who falls in love with her husband’s younger brother. The figures looked European and had Spanish names, but the narrative might have been a reflection on local domestic problems.
Some theatre and television entertainers have brought new visions and impetus to puppetry. The actor Daniel Odimbossoukou, director of Gabon’s National Theatre in the late 1970s, introduced in Libreville theatre “happenings” in which “body puppetry” flourished. Behind a curtain held up by two children in an outdoor market area this talented comic and mime would model his face into many different visages. Drumming and street performance of Odimbossoukou delighted the passing audiences. In the 1970s, Gabonese [television] broadcast Sakadi Sakada, which featured puppets in an entertaining show, reflecting on Africa in general as well as specific countries. In recent years, puppets have been used by NGOs in environmental education. A wide campaign to raise awareness of sea turtles around 2010 involved workshops in which Gabonese children create turtle costumes and puppets to use in performances about protecting sea life and environmental integrity. Professionally made figures were provided to local Gabonese groups to use in performances as the country, which has set aside large tracks as national parks and world heritage sites, developed eco-tourism and educated audiences through such presentations. Around Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, the Gabonese NGO Ibonga set up a ten-site tour with presentations on turtles and included puppet theatre performances and film projections. Western-style educational puppetry is also found in schools, especially in Libreville.
But to understand the complex world of puppetry in Gabon, one must move away from the narrow, colonial images that the West tends to use in regarding African cultures. The transmission of artistic knowledge is primarily done by and in the many initiation societies. Thus, puppetry confronts us with plural forms of expression that are at the same time religious, social and political – puppetry in Gabon can be considered a “total” art that provides social equilibrium and deals with negative forces, even death itself.