The Republic of Rwanda (Kinyarwanda: Republika y’u Rawanda; French: République du Rwanda) is situated in Central-East [Africa], bordered by Uganda, [Tanzania], [Burundi], and the [Democratic Republic of the Congo].
Colonized by the Germans in 1884 followed by the Belgians until 1962, with a population of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa (pygmy), Rwanda was adversely affected by the missionaries, merchants and the military whose colonization destroyed foundations of Rwandan beliefs (death cults and cults of the deified hero Ryangombe and the goddess Nyabingi), which were branded pagan and archaic. Bead amulets (impigi) and other cultural instruments were burnt during the colonial period or hidden and cultural energy that had activated them was redirected into Christian objects (scapulars, rosaries, Christmas crèches, etc.) or toward everyday life. Yet, despite this colonialism and the civil war beginning in 1990 which culminated in the genocide of 1994, syncretism persisted in the artistic milieu, founded on internal contributions and external influences, notably with Africa’s Great Lake region (Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika).
The Rwandans embraced the domain of animated objects and puppetry. For example, scarecrow figures can be used to dissuasive ends. Some are mythical characters, for example Akavumburamashyiga (flame-spitting eater) who punishes children who cry in the night.
The idea of puppets telling fables or legends has its origins in the antics of the wily Bakame, a trickster hare. In everyday life, the scarecrow used to deter birds in the fields – of green beans or finger millet (eleusine corocana), depending on the region – and was named differently according to his vigilance: Ikidahumbya (“he never closes an eye”), Kadahwema (“he doesn’t let himself be spun in the wind”) or even Kadahumeka (“he doesn’t need to catch his breath like humans”). Increasingly sophisticated (some were even articulated), these scarecrows menaced intruders with their weapons and the grimacing faces (often made of banana plant). Bells, shaken from a distance by a rope, were incorporated into the design, and people often imitated the barking of a dog while activating the figure.
In children’s hands, toy puppets are used for more playful and pedagogical purposes. Using mud, clay or branches, children make figurines resembling herders, hunters, cows, or dogs, to animate and re-enact scenes from village life while adding dialogue to their enactment. The summer harvest of sorghum has always given children the chance to create figures, using dried shafts and cut-up strips. Representations nowadays tend towards imitation of the gadgets of modern civilization: glasses, bicycles, cars, aeroplanes with paper wings, cowboys, etc. Similar objects can be made of wood, as well as dolls made of paper materials representing babies, puppies, kittens and rabbits. Young competitors may organize races for articulated cyclists that look almost real.
Puppetry is however not confined to the young. Initiation figures are found particularly in the regions bordering the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and Uganda. Magicians, mascots and diverse masters of the occult use them in their rituals in order to hold power over admirers. Puppets continue to amuse people on hillsides during festivals or markets.
In Gisenyi, in the north-west of the country, famous puppeteers from the 1950s tended to perform in areas nearby to the Sunday mass services. These men/performers came from afar and, according to the memories of M.P. Bastin, their small size indicated their pygmy origins. Before thunder-struck spectators, they mumbled words in argot whilst animating, with their feet, a puppet couple which intermittently performed sexual acts so salacious that the adults would draw their children away (see [Rites and Rituals] and [Toe/Foot Puppet]).
These days, street puppetry is renowned in the working areas of the capital, Kigali, notably in Nyamirambo. To improve upon the simplicity, ingenious adolescents use them to tell the local “hot stories” and relate gossip under the attentive gaze of passers-by ready to pay for a juicy story concerning their neighbours.
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