Monday, April 09, 2007

Making Puppets

The first thing to notice about Africa if you are from North America, is that you are in the driver’s seat without a steering wheel. The Puppet Making Workshop is just another example. At 10:30 pm the night before the workshop is to begin, the facilitators engaged to show us how to make puppets, have not arrived. My friend, Lou, has arrived from Kampala and we have eaten by candle light because the power is off. Out there in the dark, somewhere in Mbarara, are 25 others who have come from various parts of southwestern Uganda expecting to learn how to make puppets tomorrow.

“Let’s have that wine you brought,” I say to Lou, thinking darkly that I am going to have to come up with a Plan B before 8:30 am tomorrow.

At 11 pm there is a call from the university gate that two art students from Kampala, Jeff and Livingstone, have arrived. They are substitutes for the professor who has fallen ill at the last minute. They have been delayed in part because they have been learning how to make puppets. They arrive with a shy diffidence, some potters clay and quantities of enthusiasm. As a result of their preliminary efforts in making papier mache, they have also brought along a hair dryer.

Their professor was to stay at our place, so I ask them if sharing a double bed is OK. They are easy with the arrangement. It is impossible to get annoyed, thinking how awful it must have been for them to drive in public transport for five or six hours on these roads in the dark with intermittent stops along the way waiting for the van to fill and disgorge passengers at regular intervals.

“Ah, well”, I think to myself, “Life itself is probably a trial run for something we never imagined and enthusiasm is always welcome.”

Quantities of wood glue, brushes, paint, markers, cloth, thread, needles, buttons, balloons, felt, honey combs, paint brushes, cardboard, paper, old socks, markers, scizzors, string and banana fibre have been assembled. Jeff and Livingstone are more used to working with art students than running workshops, so are less directive than might be necessary, but they know art and soon the participants begin a number of different projects.

Lou and I take off for the university for a couple of hours to hear the presentations by medical and nursing students of their community field work. When we return we see that the Jeff and Livingstone have completed a couple of papier mache masks and heads of puppet heads but nobody else has followed suit.

“Why is no one making papier mache heads?” I inquire.

“We showed them how," Livingstone replies. “but they wanted to make soft hand puppets.”

Most of the group is busy decorating socks to make puppets, even the men are sewing up outfits and stitching on buttons for eyes and felt for mouths. Some of the puppets are elaborately dressed in bright dresses and hats. However, if the group doesn’t learn how to make papier mache from these guys, we will have missed a real opportunity.

“Maybe we can tell them they can finish up the soft puppets later,” I suggest. “If we don’t start soon making papier mache heads, they won’t have a chance to dry and be painted.”

Soon the room is humming with papier mache projects. Jeff and Livingstone move around with helpful suggestions, keeping people on track and assisting with development of recognizable features and exaggerated expressions. A couple of moveable jaws are created and plans are made to cut mouths open later on other heads.

We encourage people to use our workshops as a vehicle for spreading ideas related to health. So during a break, James, one of the CORPs (Community Owned Resource Person) who has begun making energy efficient stoves from clay, wire and bicycle parts brings in a couple of different stove varieties to show the group.

Using such stoves can cut down substantially on the amount of firewood needed as well as on the amount of smoke and hence air pollution created during meal preparation. There are lots of questions and a free consultation from the art students who are sculptors. They note that clay and metal heat up at different rates and firing these versions would cause cracks in the stove. James acknowledges this is so and shows them how even cracked the stoves can still function effectively. We ponder for a while an alternative design which might avoid this problem.

By the second day, bundles of cloth scraps have been used and a whole cast of characters has been created -- nurses, farmers, children and pregnant women.
The group needs no instruction on how to make banana fibre dollies, as they call the puppets, since they have been making them from an early age. Now they have fun decorating them with cloth and felt to transform into characters.

The ant hill clay brought by participants as well as the potters clay brought by the art students has been used for the molds on which the papier mache has been wrapped. As the clay takes a long time to dry, the hair dryer is pressed into action. The honey combs brought by participants don’t provide enough wax for making molds so a decision is made to leave that for now.

A wonderful session is conducted by Jeff on how to make paint from local materials such as bougainvillea petals, rose petals, marigolds, and other flowers and leaves. The group crowds around amazed at what can be produced from the world around then. This is followed by a session on mixing paints to produce various colours. Some of the participants obviously regard this as magic. And soon everyone is busy brightly decorating their papier mache creations.

The room is a veritable mayhem with papier mache, mounds of clay, material, banana fibre, cotton filler and foam scattered around. Livingstone starts to create an enclosed theatre from a cardboard box with a curtain that can be raised and lowered, opened and closed so we can have a demonstration of their newly minted puppets used for health education before we leave. Tables and chairs are arramged to allow the puppeteers to conceal themselves behind the theatre.

The health education plays the group puts on at the end of the workshop are enchanting. The theatre seems to have helped. A couple of the groups have added in colourful visual images on sticks. The curtain opens and closes with a flourish. If nothing else, making their own puppets has inspired everyone to a whole other level of creativity. We use an applause meter to decide on first, second and third prizes.

Jeff and Livingstone have seen their efforts move the process one notch higher. While they were shy to start with, they have also grown with this experience. Their expertise has been valued and appreciated. It is equally obvious that while our trainers and volunteers have lots of enthusiasm and are enjoying the opportunity to be creative, that it is rather unlikely that puppets are going to be an income generating activity very soon.

But you never know. This is it, you just never know. Maybe interest has been ignited and a new possibility will take shape in the future. Or maybe we were just meant to have fun trying. Lou has gone home with a delightful Sweet Lips the Orange Potato puppet and I have a sporty, as yet unnamed, hippo.

With little effort, puppets seem to have become an effective medium for health education. Seeds have been planted. A wonderful article by UNICEF on Puppets with Purpose describes how puppets are being used around the world and we are poised on the precipice.

Photo: Our artists, sewing sock puppets, making banana fibre puppets, energy-efficient stoves,working with clay, Sweet Lips the Orange Potato & puppet theatre


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