Officially the Togolese Republic (French: République Togolaise), a country in West Africa, Togo is bordered by Ghana, Benin, and Burkina Faso. Its capital is Lomé. In the late 19th century, Germany declared the region a protectorate, and after World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence in 1960. The nation’s official language is French, with many vernaculars spoken in Togo, particularly several of the Gbe language family. While the majority of Togolese practise indigenous beliefs, there are significant Muslim and Christian minorities.

Puppetry in Togo offers diverse forms and a broad range of techniques. While figures are used in ritual life and initiations, modern puppetry is a development of the 20th century and the form is evolving to link aspects of tradition with contemporary artistic and social interests of performers.

Puppets in Ceremonial Use

The use of specific sacred figures during religious events is very similar to puppetry, and this regardless of the social background of the Togolese.

A representative case is found in Vogan in south Togo. Every essential element of a puppet show is present: a dressed figure that portrays a character, a theme, a puppet stage, a playing space, a puppeteer, singers, drummers, dancers and an audience. In this community, a sacred puppet made out of a wooden rod adorned with a short raffia dress represents Hèbiesso, the god of thunder. This fetish figure can be seen on special occasions especially during ceremonies invoking rain.

In this event, differentiation in three theatrical levels can be distinguished. The puppeteer moves in the centre of a circle. His clothing, under which he hides the puppet, becomes the “puppet booth”. The intensity of his gestures follows the dance rhythm set by the drums and song. The “puppeteer” briefly reveals his “puppet” to the audience and makes it swirl around for perhaps fifteen seconds. He does not expose it too long to avoid the wrath of the thunder god. Wild applause rises from the crowd to honour Hèbiesso and implore him to bring the rain. The figurine is shown now and again, building the intensity of the event. Then, the puppeteer hides it quickly under his costume and joins the other dancers at the centre of the circle. Soon the musicians and the singers come inside the circle, followed by the audience lined up behind them. This ceremony lasts all night long.

The “puppeteer”, the dancers and the musicians act in this event called Tchonhouin. After their performance, the initiates of Hèbiesso carry out a purification ceremony of the area since it is felt the Tchonhouin pollutes it. Then, finally, the rain can come.

The puppet, which is considered as a divinity, is always made of wood. In Dapaong, North Togo, during initiation ceremonies, every novice builds a puppet that he himself will manipulate. The puppet symbolizes his transition between puberty and adulthood. It symbolizes the new mature man, who is able to make his own decisions and face every situation. An uninitiated person who touches the initiation puppet risks sudden death and being killed by the strength of the figure which is no ordinary image but contains a spirit which remains in permanent contact with the initiated alone.

Various other entities are represented by figurines in Dapaong: Konjen (spirit of a deceased initiate who comes back for a final farewell to parents and friends), Finfandu (spirit of death) and Tchilènu (evil spirit who appears after harvests).

In Atakpamé, a town located north of Togo’s capital, Lomé, people dance the tchébé, a traditional choreography performed on tall stilts of between three and five metres (ten to sixteen feet). Because of costumes, masks and stylized movements, tchébé dancers can sometimes resemble giant puppets.

Egun, Guèlèdè and Zangbèto – three characters from ritual ceremonies – wear mask-costumes that cover the full body. Zangbèto (translated as “night man”), a popular figure in South-Togo, is a protector and city guardian. His costume is made of supple straw and nobody is allowed to see his face. In the same area, Egun is a sacred character whose appearance is meant to pay tribute to a dignitary or a deceased initiate. This figure is dressed with rich fabrics with shimmering colours. Nobody is allowed to touch him under penalty of being cursed. At Kambolé, at the centre of Togo, Guèlèdè is a spirit that protects mothers. Guèlèdè are beings shown as groups and their performance is a parade. Every character wears a giant mask painted with bright colours and representing several kinds of animals: snake, lion, panther or owl. Because of their precise gestures and meticulously executed dance steps, Egun, Guèlèdè and Zangbèto look like human-sized puppets. This particular appearance makes some spectators say that they are puppets inhabited by men and spirits.

Outside of ceremonial puppets, we can also find king’s sceptres whose end is adorned with various patterns: panther, lion, fish, royal stool, and cowries (the porcelain shell that was traditionally used as money). The sceptre’s movements are stylized and obey a specific code. Skilfully manipulated, these objects recall the art of marotte.

Among the Éwé and Mina (peoples of South-Togo), the doll called “achanti” is a symbol of fertility. Vénavi-Atikpakpa, the wooden figurine(s) representing one or more deceased twins, is carried by the mother and symbolize the continuity of life after death.

In North-Togo, the Bassar tribe invented the unil doll (see Unil). This female figure, whose size does not exceed 10 centimetres (4 inches), is made of braided cotton. The figure stands in for the corpse of a woman whose funerals have already taken place and whose spirit manipulates the men that carry her during a special ceremony.

Puppets in Non-Sacred Performances

The use of little statues, masks, disguised characters and puppets come from very long ago, but it has evolved through time. This is how we can find in Vogan puppets made with dried coconuts that are sold on the market. In Lomé as well as in other large cities, people have watched for quite some time street puppet shows that use string puppets called tsitsavi. These puppets are part of secular shows where everyone can touch and manipulate the figures without danger. The owner of the tsitsavi is an itinerant puppeteer. He sings while he makes the little character dance. A drummer sometimes accompanies the puppeteer. But this kind of show has become more and more rare nowadays. It is similar to the tsitsavi in Benin.

However, it was only in 1975 that Togolese audiences could attend their very first “modern” puppet show, with paid entrance, at the French Cultural Centre of Lomé.

Almost simultaneously, the cultural Togolese authorities organized, with the aid of the Coopération Française (French Cooperation), a workshop at the end of which the Troupe Nationale Togolaise (Togolese National Company) created a puppet section under the direction of Danaye Kanlanfei. This company later became the Compagnie Danaye. Three other more recent theatre companies were created since then: Calebasses et Cauris (Calabash and Cowries), directed by Akakpo Houndegla; Les Compagnons Wonude, directed by Agbo Sotonou; and the Groupe Artistique de Marionnettes Akitan (GAMA), “le défi” (the challenge), also known as Compagnie Coco Théâtre, directed by the late Koulekpato Folly Ekué. The puppeteer Kotoko Vissewo performs solo or sometimes in a double act.

After 1987, in Lomé, two companies were founded by women puppeteers, Bouam Troupe Féminine de Marionnettes et autres ArtsThéâtraux, directed by Adama Bacco Assinguime, and Evaglo Compagnie Féminine de Théâtre de Marionnettes, directed by Vicky Tsikplonou. Other companies currently performing include Compagnie Cicilik-Solo, directed by Bnoa Kanlanféï Djanwali Danaye; Compagnie Zenith, directed by Anani Gbefan; Troupe N’Dambaka Théâtre de Marionnette et autres Arts, directed by Kiza Diallo N’Dambaka.

All of these companies build their own puppets: string puppets (the most popular kind), glove puppets, rod puppets, rod and string (rod marionettes or marionnettes à tringle), and include numerous materials such as calabash, wood, raffia, fabric, papier-mâché, moss, pearls, and recycled objects. None of these companies is sponsored by the government. Only the Compagnie Danaye regularly tours across Africa, Europe and the Americas. The women’s companies have also started to travel abroad while the other groups only occasionally perform on a national level and compete for international openings.


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