The Republic of Senegal (French: le Sénégal and République du Sénégal), a coastal nation in West Africa, is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with bordering nations Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. Senegal’s capital is Dakar.
Although everyone in Senegal remembers having seen or made puppets in their youth, today puppets are rarely found. Researchers confirm that puppetry in Senegal was practised in rural areas and point out the use of a figure in circumcision ceremonies. For the Wolof people, when this ceremony is held, a woman is asked to cook for the circumcised boys. During the evening, these boys dance and sing around the fire and create a puppet as a thank-you gift for the cook’s kindness.
The Wolof name for puppetry, which has spread throughout the country, is xuus-maa-ñàpp, a term which designates the pantin (jumping jack), puppet and puppetry. Kuus is a benevolent/divine bush dwarf close to humans, and maa-jàpp literally means, “I catch”. Xuus means walking in mud and ñàpp is sticking by suction. In Saint-Louis (capital of French Senegal from 1673-1902) xuus-maa-ñàpp was a type of fish with webbed “feet” that crawls in mud and can climb trees. The analogy between the pantin that moves its arms and legs and this strange fish is clear, but it is not apparent which (puppet or fish) gave its name to the other.
The xuus-maa-ñàpp is mainly associated with children. The puppets entertain, but also explain traditions (historic, religious and philosophical) and provide news (propaganda, publicity, political protest, and social criticism).
Measuring between 60 centimetres and 1 metre, these puppets are made of cardboard or plywood and crosspieces. They are often articulated with strings like the European pantins or jumping jacks. They can also bear slogans on their body. Although they are most often made by children of recycled materials, more complex, well-articulated puppets, with hats and beards, clothing and jewellery are made by the carpenters of the organizations of “Lanterns of the City of Saint-Louis” (illuminated figures/floats see also [lier]Sierra Leone[/lier]). These makers preserve this otherwise rare art of figure making and are part of the caste of woodworking artisans (lawbé) who have taken up the creation of the xuus-maa-ñàpp. The rough manipulation is done by men, women or children and is not hereditary: the only criterion is talent. The viewers are those on the street, mainly children.
Related figures are regularly displayed as the “lanterns” (fanal) of Saint-Louis. This annual festival on December 31 (the Feast of St Sylvester) is a long carnivalesque procession, an occasion for neighbourhoods to compete. Each group follows the “lantern”: the cardboard or wooden float lit from within. These models represent themes chosen by the neighbourhood: a landmark (for example, Church of Saint-Louis), a boat or canoe. The xuus-maa-ñàpp groups shout insults as they encounter a group from another area.
In Senegal, because oral forms are strictly codified, the puppets are an added means of expression that work well. Parades are accompanied by chants and drumming. Such public dance displays in Senegalese society can reflect various groups and figures (women, griots poet-storytellers, homosexuals), but these puppets are the occasion for laughter and mockery – particularly when they represent figures of authority, for example, a governor.
Part of public festivities since the beginning of the 20th century, these puppets are an element of the political scene. Therefore, the writing that they have on their body often carries political slogans. The puppet becomes a prop for political expression especially when it is a caricature of an official. In 1914, Blaise Diagne (1872-1934), who was running for the French Chamber of Deputies, faced François Carpot of Saint-Louis (1862-1936) who was then representing Senegal in the French National Assembly, as to who would represent the mixed race citizens of the Quatre Communes (Four Cities: Saint-Louis, Rufisque, Gorée, and Dakar). For this contest the people of Saint-Louis created two kinds of figures: one painted white to represent Carpot, the other black for Blaise Diagne.
The puppets found in Ziguinchor in the 1950s – called kacapan – are likewise connected to social transgression. The term implies a provocative and overtly sexual character. The puppets, a couple, are naked, with realistic sexual organs and are the source of lots of jokes, but at the same time serve as sex education.
The kacapan are also associated with the goumbé, a Wolof dance practised particularly on Gorée Island, which is accompanied by bawdy songs, repeated as a chorus by the assembly that does a line dance.
In the 1950s in Ziguinchor, children created kacapan as a substitute for movies that were too expensive for most families. The young people’s spontaneous shows in the courtyards of homes were also an opportunity to practise being a “puppeteer-storyteller”. In the countryside, children created pantin-style puppets (see Jumping Jack) with vegetable fibres from a type of poacea or gramineae plant that were joined together to form a figurine with arms and legs. The central rod was activated to move the arms and legs.
Other types of puppet shows in neighbourhoods include children’s shadow theatre practised by and for a young audience with a repertoire from comic books popular in urban areas since the 1950s. Whether doing shadow puppetry or using doll-figures, the makers presented mostly historical stories: pre-colonial kings such as Lat Dior (1842-1886), the Wolof ruler (damel), who fought against and was deposed by the French; Sundiata Keita (1217-1255), the founder of the Mali empire and hero of the Mandinka people; or other epic tales and origin myths recounted by griots (travelling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa).
In the 1950s, puppets, specifically the kacapan, were banned, provoking protests in the local press. On the one hand, the colonial government accused puppetry of disturbing the peace, especially at election time: and on the other hand, Islamic religious authorities banned human representation and questioned the morality of kacapan. This censoring of the use of puppets seems to have brought about their decline, and today adolescents barely know the names of the different puppet genres.
Colonization introduced European-style puppetry. Auguste Weiss from Lyons, who taught in Rufisque and then in M’Bour, created a glove puppet theatre in 1939 giving his students at the teacher-training school William-Ponty of Rufisque “a media of expression”. The initiative was very successful at the time, but there was no long-term effect.
Puppets at the End of the 20th Century
The UNIMA Senegal centre had two associations whose goal is education for children: Sénégal-marionnette (in Thies) and Ndoumbélane-marionnette (in Dakar). Their objective is to spread and rehabilitate puppetry in Senegal. The two companies use recycled materials to create puppets that represent animals and humans, and they hold free performances in public squares, in hospitals, and in schools, with shows based on contemporary literature.
An example of new puppetry is Moi, Monseiur, Moi (I, Sir, I) by Patricia Gomis, an autobiographical piece which deals with issues of childhood suffering when a girl is sent to live with her aunt at the age of seven. The solo actress-manipulator uses articulated female figures to explore issues of female circumcision, early marriage, slavery, and sexual abuse in the play which the puppeteer developed with the help of Marcia de Castro, a Brazilian teacher.
Other kinds of figures may be created for particular uses. As in 2008, when a protest was organized to mark the opening of an international AIDS conference, large figures representing US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were paraded through Dakar with the message: “Obama, Sarkozy, keep your word in the fight against AIDS”.