The Republic of Kenya (Swahili: Jamhuri ya Kenya) lies on the equator in East Africa, its neighbouring countries Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Kenya’s capital and largest city is Nairobi.
In Kenyan theatre, the traditional role of the theatrical doll has not been sufficiently studied. This article will discuss different kinds of traditional practices that can fall under the rubric of puppetry: traditional figures linked with fertility and funeral rites and modern puppetry used in theatre for development, political satire and entertainment.
Clay or wooden dolls dressed in leather and decorated with coloured glass beads and costume jewellery can be found among the Turkana, the Massai and the Kamba peoples. These dolls are used as toys by the young girls and sold to tourists. In earlier times they were associated with fertility. The Turkana people, for example, used a fertility doll (called ikideet child or gnide sing). The young girl received it from her mother when she became nubile. She might sing to it, calling it by name, and sleep with it, holding it to assure a large number of children. A successful doll might be given to a younger sister. Older childless women might make their own figures. The ikideet’s rounded shape is thought to resemble a pregnant woman.
With the Giriama people of the east coast of Kenya, gigantic wooden figures appear during funeral rites. They represent animals, such as the elephant, giraffe, and python. The head of each animal is placed at the top of an immense carcass that can hold about fifty animator/dancers. Also shown during such occasions are “flying figures” in the form of birds or fish, such as chicken, ostrich or shark. These totemic animals are connected to a particular dead person. They are destroyed after the ceremony.
The traditional theatre in Kenya is distinguishable by its masks, drums, chants, and narratives. All of these elements can be found in the contemporary puppet theatre, with the addition of influences from outside of Africa. The contemporary puppeteer, Massimo Wanssi, who has also worked in Togo and Ghana, is Kenyan and in his work combines the sculptural and performance. He learned carving and began making puppets after a 1970 encounter with a Japanese puppet maker trained in Prague. Mention must also be made of the Lilliput Theatre of Nairobi. These testify to the presence of earlier puppetry in this country.
Educational and Social Puppetry
Contemporary puppetry in Kenya is known especially for the grand scale of its educational thrust, which is part of the theatre for development work. About forty theatrical companies, numbering about four hundred puppeteers, offer their presentations regularly in almost all of the regions of the country in the 1990s, particularly in Nairobi, Nakuru, Machakos, Kisumu, Eldoret, Mombassa, and Nyeri.
This method of education through dolls was started in 1994 by the manipulation workshops of Gary Friedman, a puppeteer from South Africa, initiator of the programme Puppets Against AIDs. Friedman had been invited to Kenya by Eric Krystall (director of the FPPS Project – Family Planning Private Services, formerly Family Planning Private Sector – from 1984-1996). FPPS developed CHAPS (Community Health Awareness Puppeteers). These puppeteers (400 in 40 troupes), generally volunteers, come from all over Kenya. After training, they offer shows using local languages as well as English and Swahili, the two official languages of the country. At first the themes concerned primarily HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and family planning. Subjects have expanded more recently to include gender equality, education for girls, genital mutilation, the plight of street children, child labour, forced marriages, prostitution, drugs, environment issues, malaria, overpopulation, corruption, and human rights.
The creation of a script is always preceded by observation in the area. Each script is a dialogue between the puppeteers and the public, and encourages an active attitude in the spectators.
Giant costume puppets – very large head, small body and short legs – walk, dance and play with the children to gather a crowd, as music and slogans are chanted by a narrator. Dance, masks, drums and songs are also incorporated. Then, behind the screen, the puppets appear – Muppet-like glove puppets with an articulated mouth, called “edupuppets”. The manipulation of the limited cast is dynamic and the puppets have lively conversations. The narrator continually serves as an intermediary between the public and the action, explaining or commenting on sequences. Each presentation includes comic elements, as well as educational material that the public can understand.
The Kenyan puppeteers have presented their shows and workshops in South Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Poland, Austria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.
Kenya International Puppet Festival
In addition, the FPPS (Kenya) project organizes the Kenya International Puppet Festival, which is unique in East Africa. The first edition, called Edupuppets, took place in 2002 in Nairobi. Geared towards pedagogy, it brought together the theatres from Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Indonesia, Israel, the United States, Uganda, and South Africa. In addition to the presentations, several workshops were included. The puppets of CHAPS presented as well and used the festival to introduce additional puppetry techniques, particularly string puppets and shadow theatre.
The second Festival took place in 2004 and the Kenyan puppeteers led by Phylemon Odhiambo Okoth of CHAPS became part of UNIMA the same year. In 2006, the group became Kenya Institute for Puppet Theatre (KIPT). Projects included puppetry for therapy and puppetry in schools, general puppetry workshops, promotion of street and outdoor puppetry, and the development of shows for indoor viewing. The festival, headed by Okoth, changed its name to the Kenya International Puppetry and Folk Media Festival (KIPf) and, in 2013, mounted the fifth festival with a focus on peace and unity. The ongoing event is a place for puppet companies from across Africa to come together and build capacity.
Puppetry and Television
The XYZ Show, a comic-satiric look at politics in Kenya and based on the French Les Guingols de l’info (News Puppets), is a highly successful television show presented in English and Swahili using latex puppet caricatures of political figures. Gado (Godfrey Mwampembwa), a Tanzania born cartoonist and filmmaker, began work on the show in 2003. Another member of The XYZ Show team is puppeteer, scriptwriter, puppet builder, and percussionist, Fedelis Kyalo Kithome. UNIMA members helped Mbuni/Buni television develop the idea. The project was finally launched in 2009 to positive reception. International media has noted the latitude allowed to the presenters, in a country where censorship has in the past had serious implications for artists. The show has inspired spin-offs in Tanzania.