Puppet for funerary rituals of the Bassar of Togo. The unil is a figure of a woman, highly stylized, made of knotted and braided fibres. Her size does not exceed 10 centimetres (4 inches). The uterus is marked by a tight loop between the “legs”. Braiding this kind of puppet is an art handed down from mother to daughter. While the women fetch the figurine from a specialist, the men prepare the bamboo stretcher, which is one of the essential accessories for this rite. Everything is prepared as if for a real funeral, even though the actual burial took place one or two years before. The unil is decorated, rolled into a mat shroud and attached to the stretcher. The unil is then given a final farewell that includes speeches and offerings.
This ceremony must resemble the procession of the previous actual funeral. Two sons-in-law of the deceased lift and carefully place the stretcher on their heads. The cushioning must be tightly attached to their heads since it is the unil that guides the path of the procession accompanied by the beat of drums. The bearers alternate between a slow and fast walk and sometimes even run or change directions as ordered by the unil. The other participants therefore have trouble following them and bump into one another in great confusion. It truly is the “puppet” that leads the procession. “She” picks houses where she wants to stop to greet her family and friends before departing and so she has the bearers bow their heads toward the doors. Nobody knows beforehand where the unil will want to be buried. It is she who decides at the last moment. Drums suddenly beat at a faster rhythm as bearers start to run and the participants shout, as everyone rushes to the house that the unil has chosen. The unil is then buried, exactly as in a real funeral.
The unil is therefore the main actor during the entire ritual and it is “she” who “forces” the carriers to obey her orders. When interrogated, the bearers say that they cannot explain this phenomenon and that they just follow the orders of the deceased. Thus, they themselves are the “man/human-puppets”, manipulated by the unil, whereas the figure is both subject and object, puppet and puppeteer.
- Pawlik, Jaček Jan. Expérience sociale de la mort. Étude des rites funéraires des Bassar du Nord-Togo [Social Experience of Death. Study of the Burial Rites of the Bassar of Northern Togo]. Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires, 1990.
- Pawlik, Jaček. “Performance of life after death: The Unil Object-actor of the Funeral Ceremony”. Unima informations: L’Afrique noire en marionnettes. Charleville-Mézières: Union internationle de la marionnette, 1988, pp. 19-24.