Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Doubting Thomas and the Puppet Contest

My grandfather was a minister who wore his clerical collar, a stiff white band atop a black shirt or dickey, most of the time. A huge gilt-framed picture of Daniel in the Lion’s Den dominated the front room, almost as wide as the three-seater chesterfield over which it was hung. This photoengraving was a truly remarkable work of art of a size only seen in art galleries. When I inquired much later what had happened to it, one of my aunts told me that its golden frame was sold to an antique shop when my grandparents moved to a one-story bungalow. For me as a child, the picture was riveting. For a long time I believed it was an photograph of an actual event, perhaps because bible stories were regarded literally as the truth.

Christened as John Thomas and often referred to as JT, my grandfather was known to his friends as Tom. Doubting Thomas was thus his biblical namesake. More than a simple phrase or metaphor, the Doubting Thomas of my childhood was a fully fleshed out story in grisly detail of the actual probing of the gaping wound in Jesus’ side by one of his followers. Being a doubting Thomas was applied frequently for both small and large lapses of faith.

Even now, the idea of actually poking fingers into a recent wound to prove it is real, continues to capture for me, the very human failing of wanting to be grounded in the physical despite knowing that it doesn’t even begin to capture reality.

On my recent return to Uganda, the project staff arranged for me to observe the final four Puppet Contest performances. In areas where our project works, the volunteers have been making puppets from banana fibre, barkcloth, old socks, pieces of material, buttons and paper machiet as well as puppet theatres for weeks in preparation for Puppet Contests. Such was the enthusiasm that it was decided not to have a winner but to have finalists in each area present their shows for the “contest”. No prizes! Everyone a winner! A wholly African approach!

What a sensual and visual delight. Each group selected a group of puppeteers to perform with the group assisting them to make the puppets and to prepare the show. In Mabira, we arrive early and sit on the porch of what was called the Mabira Pub, a mud and stick box-like structure that serves as a shop in the center of town waiting for the performers to arrive. A group of children gather and statuesque young girls move past carrying wood kindling on their heads. Soon a theatre is pulled together in a banana plantation at the edge of the village using a long cloth made of red, blue and white bunting to shield the puppeteers from the audience.

As the action starts, more people arrive settling down on the mud ground to watch intently. An intoxicated gent wanders by garrulously mixing English and Runyankole and is shushed by the crowd who are glued to the show.

The characters in this play about malaria include a long-billed bird, a striped snake and a wooden mask, all brilliantly executed from local materials. After the performance, there is a stunned silence as if people can not believe such a marvelous event has actually occurred in their village.
One of the children comments sagely , “So even that bird knows about malaria.” Laughter and loud clapping follows. I request an encore, asking if they could do a different health message, knowing they have been practicing several recently. After a quick conflab they put on another performance that is equally entertaining to the audience.

The CORPs (Community Owned Resource Persons) seem somewhat surprised by the acclaim their performance has caused. They had made little effort to advertise other than to stage it during the middle of the day in the center of the village. Their performance has been enough to make for a perfect day for me but we have to move to the next site so we proffer copious praise and thank them profusely.

After the two day workshop to teach CORPs how to make puppets from local materials in March this year, I doubted, seriously as I now recall, that our efforts were going to result in much production of local puppets. Everyone enjoyed the workshop and some colourful puppets were produced with help from the Makerere Art students, but I was a doubting Thomas. I returned to Canada thinking my efforts had been in vain and puppets in general were likely to bite the dust in Uganda. It was, in retrospect, a serious deficiency of faith.

The second Puppet Contest in Katyazo is, if possible, even better. The Katyazo group have used some baseball caps provided more than a year ago as a way to start an income generating fund. They have used their profits to buy material and sewn matching skirts to wear with their blue project T shirts. They are proud of what they call their uniforms and do indeed look sharp. They have many puppets with everyone having produced one. Each puppet seems to have adopted a specific character. But what takes away my breath is the site they use for their puppet contest, a local Church of England mud walled and mud floored building with an elevated wooden pulpit and stairs ascending to the pulpit carved locally from muvule wood, one of the hardest hardwoods available. Here in this out of the way spot deep in the rural countryside far from the highway is a carved, elevated pulpit such as you would expect to see in York Minster. What a magnificent leap of faith to build this pulpit in this place, I can’t help thinking, acknowledging my own serious paucity in the area of faith.

Katyazo CORPs have also not advertised the puppet contest but a nearby school and friends of the puppeteers swell the audience here. Again the puppets are charming. One even has arms that move and flap at appropriate spots in the show, causing the children to coo in delight. I move around trying to capture the event on film. One of the English speaking health workers slips in beside me during the show to translate the dialogue which also focuses on malaria. Humour plays a big part in the dialogue and there is lots of laughter. Attention is glued on the makeshift puppet theatre the whole time.

Now I am starting to think that maybe, just maybe, these puppets and puppet shows could provide a possible income generating activity for the CORPs. That would be nice, to combine both health education and income generating,

When I first proposed we use puppets in the project it was in part a response to the CORPs saying that people were tired of listening to their health messages. Our Ugandan project manager thought puppets were just for children and was definitely not interested.

During a recent training workshop we were asked for examples of times when we had made drastic reversals in our ideas and she told the story of how she was convinced that puppets were a big mistake and was opposed to them when they were first introduced. Then, after reading an article I gave her about UNICEF’s use of puppets in several countries, she began to see their potential.
Now she is the one encouraging others to make and use them. It was her idea to have the contests. And in order to encourage CORPs to make their own puppets, she forbade the use in the contests of what they call the “exotic” puppets which I have brought from thrift shops in Canada. Her ideas are usually productive and they certainly seem to have worked very well in stimulating local production.

And I have learned another lesson. I need to plant my seeds and fertilize them with faith, large dollops of pure, sustained, unadulterated faith. The ground here is fertile and the potential is great. A doubting Thomas focusing only on what is right in front of him is blinkered and in failing to take in the whole picture, is bound to miss a lot.

Photos: Mabira puppeteers, Mabira puppet show, Katyazo CORPs, Church site & puppet show, Katyazo puppet theatre and locally made puppets



Blogger Ruth said...

Glad to see you back! What a wonderful story of "mustard seed faith" reaping a harvest. I admire the creativity and community efforts of these people, and the growth of the seed you planted.

4:40 AM  

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