Officially the Federal Republic of Somalia (Somali: Soomaaliya and Jamhuuriyadda Federaalka Soomaaliya; Arabic: ‫الصومال‬‎ aṣ-Ṣūmāl and ‫جمهورية الصومال الفدرالية‬‎ Jumhūrīyat aṣ-Ṣūmāl al-Fidirālīyah), Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean border the country. In the late 19th century, Italy (until 1941) and Great Britain (until 1960) had gained control of parts of the region. A predominantly Muslim country with a majority population of Somalis the nation’s official languages are Somali and Arabic.

Strictly speaking, puppet theatre in the Federal Republic of Somalia is absent. However, one can distinguish puppetry in certain children’s toys and in some ritual objects used by adults.

Clay Figurines

Somali children use dry mud to fashion out small animal figurines such as goats, cows, camels, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and imagine vignettes in which they guard the livestock and herd it through the savannah to find grassland and water, defending it from wild animals. They sometimes load their minuscule camels with little sticks, held together with string, and walk them in a procession just like a caravan.

Children’s Dolls

Dolls called alan are generally prepared from a large xaskul leaf (a kind of agave cactus) stripped of its thorns. It is beaten with the end of a stick or rock to shatter its hard bark and take out the fibres inside. The children then create characters (father, mother and their children) to play scenes from everyday life (alama alamey).

Wedding Dolls

Wedding dolls called gaaf (or xeedho) are designed for the gambo saar feast which, in the north and centre of Somalia and in the northern part of Ogaden (ethnic Somali region of Ethiopia), concludes wedding ceremonies. This celebration brings together young men and women for a game that combines education and erotic elements which takes place at dusk. The guests are seated according to a strict hierarchy, forming a large circle presided over by the newly married couple. A doll, 60 to 80 centimetres in height, is placed at the centre of this space. The doll is completely clothed (robe, skirt, shoulder shawl, head scarf, etc.) and adorned with jewellery, and is guarded by a young woman belonging to the bride’s family, often a close cousin, who holds a long flexible rod.

The seemingly simple game consists of undressing the doll. However, this ceremony must be done in a precise manner as it prefigures the order in which the husband must undress his young bride during the wedding night, its lesson. Only young, non-married people can participate in the play. The undressing must be done in the exact opposite way as the doll was previously dressed, which only the doll’s guardian knows, since she helped prepare it. Any misstep merits a tap of the stick, and young women present may teasingly splash with salt water a young man who is helping that they fancy. This game can last from a few hours to a few nights until the figure is completely nude, at which point one can see that the doll is made of a basket of finely woven grass and composed of two parts encased into one another. The bottom round part is a container and the upper part, more elongated, is a conical shaped lid topped by a second smaller upside down cone. The two parts are tied by a combination of skillful, small knots that must be carefully untied by the groom and male relatives. Their care of course symbolizing the appropriate way to value the bride and the tie which now binds the two families.

The figure evokes a female silhouette with a triangular head, the central swollen belly, and the base representing short legs. A bowl, hidden in the “belly container” of this “basket woman”, is filled with preserved meats that the bride’s mother specially prepares for the occasion and which the young men, finally successful, share. The groom will then fill the bowl with an elaborate gift prepared by his family for the bride’s mother and will give this to the doll’s guardian who will present it to the mother. The symbolism of this doll is very distinct. Aside from showing the bride adorned as a princess, the gaaf also represents the procreative status of the woman (the basket’s swollen belly). Furthermore, when the young men in the groom’s party eat the meat, this signifies that the children born (especially the males) will belong to the father’s lineage.

Contemporary Puppetry

When the national theatre was reopened in 2012 after a hiatus of two decades, it was hoped that local and international cultural exchanges could begin and the long civil strife was over. However, a suicide bombing took place within months and though reconstruction was started the situation remained difficult. Some international performance groups have visited refugee camps with clowning and puppet work but puppetry is not normally practised in the country.