Officially the Republic of Mozambique (Portuguese: Moçambique or República de Moçambique), located in South-East [Africa] with Maputo as its capital, Mozambique is bordered to the east by the [Indian Ocean], to the north by [Tanzania], to the north-west by [Malawi] and Zambia, to the west by Zimbabwe, and to the south by Swaziland and [South Africa].

Information about the puppets of Mozambique is limited and the literature is often available under the larger rubric of masquerades traditionally related to the cultural realm of either male or female initiation or other performance rites, but more recently subsumed in national celebrations, theatre as education, or secular entertainments. The situation of performance has also been complicated by the strains of colonial rule (under the Portuguese beginning in 1505 and ending with the late 20th century struggle for independence beginning in 1964). The fight for freedom was led by the Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELINO), which was successful in 1975, but followed by civil war (1977-1992). Since the elections in 1994, the situation and economy have stabilized, but political and social changes have continued to affect the performing arts. Portuguese is the common, albeit second language spoken by about half the population in this nation dominated by Bantu peoples.

The Traditional Puppet

Woodcarving and puppet-like figures are associated with the founding myth of the Makonde people (who live in Mozambique, Tanzania, and [Kenya]). In a version collected in northern Mozambique, a lonely man carved a wooden figurine that came to life becoming the first woman/wife who later gives birth to the Makonde. The animated statue in this story thereby alleviates loneliness, sterility and ensures the beginning of the Makonde. Figures were associated with shetani (spirits), ancestors, and humans.  

There are several categories of traditional puppetry, all generally subsumed in the category of masks (mapiko, singular lipiko). According to the poet Virgilio de Lemos (b.1929, the anti-colonial poet, resident of France), the Makonde have practised masking/puppetry since ancient times. Helmet/face masks, protective figures, puppets in pairs or individual figures are important. Performers can manipulate several wooden puppets at the same time and de Lemos reported seeing such puppetry in the 1970s when evening shows conveyed stern but benevolent social lessons. Sculptural figures could also be protective and, in the past, might be carried by people when travelling as protective devices.

The Makonde make remarkably expressive masks and figures that traditionally are used for initiations where they are used to illustrate traditional teachings. For males the initiation was conducted by men and called likumbi, during which boys were circumcised and taught, via masks, puppets, drums, body bells/rattles and song, aspects of their society and history. Material ranged from everyday comedies to historical incidents. Dancers in body costumes including a female helmet mask with traditional scarification/tattoos and a carved “body” of wood with full breasts and pregnant belly worn on the front of the dancer’s torso are also featured in male masquerade, such as fertility dances. Additional figures might represent colonial officials or Catholic clergy, responding to the realities of Makonde life. The plural term mapiko refers both to masks, the choreography/music/performance patterns, and the place where figures are stored. The smaller puppets, made of wood and sometimes clothed, are kept in a basket in the mapiko house.

The women who used figures/masks made of clay pottery not wood initiated Makonde girls; teaching was considered important for marriage and fertility. For example, in the female ciputu initiation, girls were given sexual instruction, taught to induce vaginal distention with a manipulated object, sung explicit songs, and saw intercourse mimed with figurines. Such figures, sometimes called vanyano, or puppet couples are common to several countries in Africa (see [Rites and Rituals]) and are operated using the feet of the player who works rods and strings to make the figures dance (see [Toe/Foot Puppet]). The puppeteer, sitting with legs apart, chants, keeps rhythm by tapping the thighs, and viewers join in. The repertoire always consists of a “dance of lovemaking that ends with intercourse”.

The Tsonga people in Mozambique use ritually prepared dolls, which some researchers liken to theatrical puppets. They are used, and transmitted, by female family members of a family and are fertility images with beadwork covering the torso and head. Called mwana (child) or mwana hiti (wooden child), these dolls are believed to possess spiritual power: they are a part of the “deep knowledge” of the Tsonga and have their own special “laws”. Mwana, a doll with symbolic breasts, buttocks, etc., are given to pubescent girls. The dolls are fed, bathed, dressed, and given gifts (including money). For instance, a gift must be given to the doll in order for the girl to show the mwana to another or to respond to the questions of that person. The young woman keeps the doll intact until after marriage. The doll is often carried on the woman’s body until after the birth of her child. When a child is born, the new mother might use the doll’s beadwork to adorn the child. The mwana are kept in a place of honour in the woman’s home.

In 1966, Portuguese ethnologist/folklorist Viegas Guerreiro (1912-1997), who did major work in Mozambique especially among the Makonde, reported another type of “theatre” that is close to puppetry. To report a seducer, a figure – built of straw, branches and leaves – is placed on the highway. This “effigy of shame” exposes the guilty before the whole community.

Modern Puppetry

In the 1960s, in the capital, Maputo, [string puppet] shows were often given by itinerant street performers-musician-singers. The small jointed figures, cut from lightwood, had painted faces and clothes. They were suspended by string or wire from one end of the rudimentary percussion instrument or makeshift “guitar” constructed from an empty can, board and wire. Performers danced the puppets on the ground.  

After independence, in 1975, puppetry was included in the socialist-Marxist agenda including educational programming and political consciousness. Puppets were used to support the initiatives of President Samora Machel who was in office 1975-1986. In this period gender inequalities, hierarchies, and spiritual beliefs of the past, which were part of forms like the mapiko, were attacked. An ideology of socialist realism in visual arts made images less abstracted. Belief in the spirits was denounced as “obscurantism” that needed to to be abandoned.

With modernization, veneration of elders was also questioned and could lead to the development of new satirical masks. For example, Mario Nchilombo of Mapate devised new masks of a traditional father-mother-son to be performed before the president in 1978. New visual forms and figures could be more realistic and sometimes recognizable characters (such as masks of President Samora Machel) rather than iconic figures/images.  In the same period, use of puppets was part of a therapeutic project at the Central Hospital of Maputo, where the puppets were explored in connection to psychotic disorders of patients.

Women began performing openly in this era (though they used cloth to make images rather than woodcarving which has remained male): women masquerade performers toured to Tanzania in 1985.

With the end of civil war and continuing changes in life, the traditional masquerade has continued to evolve. In Makonde mapiko, for example, younger performers see it as a secular form that can be modified (though traditionalists may frown on it). Mang’anyamu mapiko (animal masking) was a new creation in 1994 when sculptor Martins Jackson carved relatively realistic animals (monkey, leopard, crocodile, rhinoceros, lion) miming animals, doing pre-choreographed routines or inducing semi-pandemonium by chasing the viewers in a cross between play and real threat. In 2001, mapiko naupanga was created in which the drunken behaviour of an actual old man, Balidi Albert who had seduced another man’s wife, was parodied and became popular entertainment. This was considered a social critique by youths of the misbehaviour of older men.  

In 1997, the street artist Orlando Chale was invited to the Evora Biennale in Portugal, where he created his theatre performance, the House of Film, based on the principles of the magic lantern. He makes hinged puppets out of flexible paper and they come alive on two levels in a light cast by a candle. His repertoire is comic and deals with the ordinary scenes of everyday modern life, and, at the same time, it remains attached to tradition when he performs his “sex scenes”. He has also made a documentary film about the life of a young film director who makes shadows on the streets of Maputo.

Street theatre remains very popular and spontaneously inspired, rooted in current events, and some puppeteers are considered true stars. In 2007, artists from Europe and various African nations united with local artists from Núcleo de Arte gallery and Escola Nacional des Artes Visuais (ENAV, National School of Visual Arts) to create thirteen giant puppets for a performance of The Market and Its … . Another group of urban artists, Massacre de Mueda, explored their cultural roots and checkered recent history when they performed a contemporary version of mapiko at the Cape Town Out of the Box Festival (see [South Africa]) in what researcher Palo Israel calls “the assertion of ritual dance as contemporary expressive idiom”. Puppetry is also found in programmes sponsored by religious groups, youth educators, cultural workers, health educators, and others.