A country in East Africa, Tanzania is bordered by Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and the Indian Ocean to the east. Germany and Great Britain had colonized Tanzania and the Zanzibar Archipelago during the late 19th century. After independence (in 1961 and 1963, respectively), the two regions merged in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania (Swahili: Jamhuri ya Muungano wa Tanzania). With more than 120 ethnic groups, the majority Bantu, Tanzania’s population also includes a small minority of people of Arab, Indian, Pakistani, European and Chinese origin. The official languages are Swahili and English. Tanzania’s capital is Dodoma, and Dar es Salaam is its largest city.

The puppetry of Tanzania has been researched only in the last decade of the 20th century. The initial research reveals puppetry is part of initiation, related to magic, sex, or music ideas and used for entertainment.

Initiation Statuettes

In Tanzania there are several non-coastal societies in which unbaked clay figurines that have a didactic function during initiations present mythical and moral themes. The performance, which is presented inside the initiation house, is a “theatrical lesson in proper behaviour”, dispensed by the fully initiated members to the novices. The figurines hidden under a cloth move and are revealed as the ritual continues in a performance accompanied by narration and chants.

Fertility Dolls

Magical fertility dolls (mwana hiti, “wooden child”) are found throughout Tanzania. Among the Zaramo, the dolls are given to young girls on the occasion of feasts and dances organized one year after their first menstruation. Each girl receives two wooden carved dolls, one tall and one small, which she keeps near as a sort of prescription against sterility. The tall doll is supposed to incite many births and is always kept by the girl as a bedside object, whereas the small doll can be discarded after her first birth. These figurines are not simple child’s toys: they are cared for with deference and subject to particular rules that the young owners must scrupulously respect.

Substitution Puppets

The Zaramo observed a funeral practice using articulated and dressed wooden statuettes. In the absence of the son or nephew of the deceased, these effigies replace the missing family member during the funeral ceremony. These figures, taken to the cemetery, would be animated and voiced by a hired ventriloquist-manipulator who imitates the voice of the missing son.

Other Types of Puppets

Among the Sukuma, the dance society called bacheyeki has a figure of a drummer which is used during dances. This wooden puppet has two movable arms to keep rhythm on its small drum and wears a crown of feathers symbolizing life, strength, fertility and sacrifice. In the Masua and Bariadi villages, famous for their musicians, in 1992 twenty or so puppets (amaleba) that had belonged to the associations of musicians were found. These figurines used to be rented by villagers for agricultural rites performed during the dry season from June to September. They were carried by dancers who attached them to their heads, moving them while dancing. The amaleba were usually naked figures, couples or individuals, with generously proportioned sexual organs. Some were grotesque, like a one-legged husband who was obviously sculpted with much humour.

There are also “erotic” puppets – whose sexy episodes produce bursts of laughter when presented on wooden beds by four manipulator-dancers.

Young villagers also create toy puppets using a banana leaf and sticks for the arms and legs. With these fragile creatures, boys improvise a battle whose final outcome transpires when one of the puppets breaks into pieces.  

Makaragosi (the name comes from Karagöz) puppet shows were also popular in Zanzibar (the island which is a semi autonomous region of Tanzania) and were presented in Mnazi Moja Park especially during Ramadan, the fasting month. The tradition died in the 1960s.

In 2012, Creative Solutions Mangapwani, an NGO, began to revive puppetry in Zanzibar. Aida Ayers from Creative Solutions together with Zanzibari-Norweigan playwright Issak Esmail Issak and young Zanzibar actors created works like Ruya and Rabia, a story about two sisters set in Makunduchi in the 1930s.

Development groups have held some workshops on the use of puppets in health and related issues at Dar es Salaam University. In 2012, Dharmira Artist Company under Robert Mwampembwa with support from the Tanzania Media Fund created Pikabom Puppet Show, a television offering that uses puppets to humorously caricature and critique socio-political issues. The group incorporates ideas from Civil Society Organisations (CSO), and the idea for the show and initial puppet training came from Kenya‘s XYZ Show which Gado (Godfrey Mwampembwa), a Tanzania-born cartoonist-filmmaker, developed.


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