The Republic of Niger (French: République du Niger), a landlocked country in Western Africa named after the Niger River, possesses a remarkable traditional Hausa puppet theatre (which can also be found in Nigeria among the Kanuri people) called diyan dabo (“children of magic”). The puppeteer is called maï dabo (“master of magic”).
The first account written in French about this theatre dates from April 1899. Entitled “Guignol Touareg” (Puppets of the Tuareg People), it was penned by Fernand Foureau, chief of the Foureau-Lamy French Sahara Mission. Another mention can be found in the account of the 1923 Citroën Central-Africa Expedition, La Croisière Noire (The Citroën Central Africa Expedition: Black Journey), and also in a 1928 article by Henri Labouret and Moussa Travélé. French puppeteer and collector, Jacques Chesnais, attested to the continuance of this satirical Hausa theatre from a performance he saw in 1965 as did scholar-writers, Olenka and Denis Nidzgorski in 1992.
In 1991, during the 9th Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes (World Puppetry Festival) at Charleville-Mézières in France, the Institut International de la Marionnette (IIM, International Institute of Puppetry) organized the “Marionnettes en Territoire Africain” (African Puppetry) event in which one of the great masters of this traditional Hausa theatre, Djibir Djouli, performed.
The scenic design of this theatre – always produced outdoors – is composed of a puppet booth (French: castelet) in the shape of a tent, usually made from the puppeteer’s robe (boubou) with a forked stick stuck in the ground and one or two other sticks to create a frame. Cloth on top hides the interior of the puppet booth. The puppeteer slips inside with his puppets and, sitting cross-legged on a mat, makes the puppets pop out through the neck opening in the robe.
There are two types of puppets: wooden sculpted figures and cloth glove puppets. Some are wrapped with leather amulets or covered with magical formulas written on paper. The wooden figures with actual faces are considered to represent an older practice (which might relate to older use of fetishes): figures may be clothed or nude and frequently they may have an erect penis or visible vulva. Even nowadays, in the village of Doundou before the performance, two figurines with enlarged erect penises are carried about and placed near the puppet booth. During the performance, a puppet with an articulated penis is paraded about and sometimes thrust toward young female viewers, simulating sexual movements. These entertainments parody out-of-control sexuality, and reinforce the norm that a Hausa must be able to dominate his/her sexual urges. In the same vein, female figures may have a vulva surrounded with coloured pubic hair. All figures have a small orifice for their anus. The figures stimulate laughter and fun.
The cloth puppets do not have a face; this is a more recent development attributed to the influence of evolving Islam. The features are sometimes suggested by a shrewd arrangement of the motifs on the textile, or the “face” is covered with a bandana as is also sometimes found in puppets from Tajikistan in Central Asia. Wool or cotton string is used to create hairstyles and ornaments. A rod is sometimes added to improve the movement possibilities of the glove puppets.
The characters shown in this sort of theatre belong to the overall village community. They represent the different trades (butcher, blacksmith, shoemaker, weaver, farmer, griot storyteller, etc.); different ethnicities living side-by-side (Hausa, Fulani, Bouzou, Beri Beri (Kanuri), etc.); the frivolous imam; the playboy or lazy village chief; the young rival female cousins; and still, despite the country’s independence, French colonizers. The shows are comprised of several short skits, each with one or two characters, and comically attack immorality, affectations, and excesses of all kinds. A single puppeteer manipulates the characters and speaks using a swazzle (French: pratique); his words are “translated” by an assistant (interpreter). Drummers always accompany the performances. The audience participates by chanting, calling the puppets and speaking with them. The atmosphere is lively and comic.
Puppetry is traditionally reserved for men who practise it from father to son as in the artist Moussa Mamane’s family. However, a grand master can have students, who either come to train based on their own interest in the art as with the great puppeteer Alassane Saidou, or who are adopted, which is a complex transaction between the boy’s father and the puppeteer who wants to “buy for life” the child, as in the case of the puppeteer’s aide Oumarou Abdou. A young boy starts as a drummer, and then becomes the interpreter, before ending up as a master puppeteer. The artists are for the most part farmers who practise their art during the nonagricultural season. They make their own touring schedules, but can also perform for hire.
Traditional Hausa puppetry and magic overlap and so magic tricks are an essential part of their shows. Masters perform feats such as piercing their tongues, swallowing animal horns, sitting on a spike, “plunging” a knife into a spectator’s heart, “gluing” together two audience members’ heads, multiplying coins, transforming sand into millet, making animal carcasses talk, etc. One of the most popular tricks is the physical transformation of the puppeteer. Some puppeteers are famous for their very impressive metamorphoses into a devil or a snake-man at the end of a performance. Some say that a puppeteer can even have the power to turn a human into a monkey. Following old traditions, some puppeteers (like the griot or historian/storyteller Agola Mamane) may disguise themselves as women before making their appearance.
This important Hausa theatre is today in danger because of competition of modern media. Old puppeteers die without having transmitted their knowledge to apprentices; others are forced to quit due to lack of audiences.
Other Traditional Forms
In Niger, “expanding” puppets, like the Katoutou bird, are still found. These puppets, also called “zigzag”, are mounted on an articulated support that stretches forward then pulls back, projecting the puppet forward and back, like the European 19th century expandable or “growing Pierrots” (Pierrot grandissants). Initially, a real preserved bird’s head was fastened to a mechanism made of crisscrossed wood and decorated with strands of wool. It is probably this type of puppet that in 1853 Eugène Fromentin saw in the Sahara being carried on donkeys by two old juggler-puppeteers from the Hausa region. Today, these puppets have wood sculpted heads. Similarly, a Calao bird’s head may be set on a headband (but without the moving “zigzag” support) as a hunting decoy or as a very popular celebration puppet.
Cardboard, wire and string puppets crafted by boys are deftly manipulated for the end of Ramadan celebrations.
Contemporary puppet theatre, performed in cities, does not seem to grow from the traditional theatre. Modern puppeteers are trained by Western artists and sometimes do not think of their own indigenous artistic roots.
In the years that followed the country’s independence from the French Community and France (August 3, 1960), an educational television puppet show was presented by AUDECAM (Association Universitaire pour le Développement de l’Enseignement de la Culture en Afrique et à Madagascar; University Association for the Development of Teaching Culture in Africa and Madagascar) and sponsored by the Coopération Française (French Cooperation Agency).
At the end of December 1990 and the beginning of January 1991, the Semaine de la Marionnette (Week of Puppetry) was presented in Zinder with important puppeteers from Niger, Nigeria and Mali. At the end of 1996, Léandre Sossou’s company called Au Fil du Temps (Thread of Time) from Zinder, took part in the FITHEMA (Festival International des Théâtres de Marionnettes; International Festival of Puppet Theatre) at Lomé (Togo), and performed Maï Kyau et la Bête, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). The year 2005 saw the premiere of the Festival International des Arts de la Marionnette au Niger “BIJINI-BIJINI, les 48 heures de la marionnette au Niger” (International Puppetry Arts Festival of Niger, “BIJINI-BIJINI, 48 Hours of Puppetry in Niger”). This festival was created by the Compagnie Koykoyo led by Kotondi Check Amadou, who works for the promotion of puppetry arts in all regions of Niger. As of 2011, the BIJINI-BIJINI festival is in its seventh edition.