Caught between the onslaught of modernization and the constant threat of Islamization, the ancient art of puppetry has largely disappeared in Mali. Today, thanks to a small group of artists, traditional puppet theatre not only revives, but experiments with new forms to entertain and communicate. This is a story of one company, Nama, and its visionary founder, Yacouba Magassouba, who, against all odds, has quietly kept the flame burning since 2010. In a society marred by political instability, poverty, and religious extremism, does puppetry storytelling still have a place? Every November, Nama stages Rendezvous chez Nous a Bamako “to bring together different people, from North and South, different ethnic groups and religious beliefs… for peace.”
The workshop of the puppet troupe, Nama, is in such a discrete location within a quiet residential neighborhood in Bamako that even Maria, my local host, has a hard time finding it.
“Where is School Ecoma?” she asks a passerby.
“Go straight, turn left, for three blocks, turn right, then at the light, turn right again and you will see a gas station, then…”
In Mali, locations are always given as “next to X, left of Y, in front of Z…” After turning around for twenty minutes in the district of Magnambougou, not far from the Niger River, we finally arrive in “the theatre.”
In this sizzling July afternoon, the large square is unusually animated. Over a hundred people have already gathered, mostly children. Kids are just off school; some parents also join. Behind me sit two rare Francophone foreigners; tourists have mostly stopped coming to Mali since the jihadist attacks in 2012. Few people are wearing a mask, despite headline news: “Africa Had Worst Week of Coronavirus Pandemic, Worse to Come.” It has been a year of surreality since I left Canada last July. Plenty of pricey nose swabs and Covid emergencies (cancelled flights and boarding denials), but on the ground it has been largely life as usual in the continent.
The children are giddy with excitement. I imagine this kind of spectacle does not happen very often.
“When was the last time you saw a puppet show?” I ask Kia, my friend’s daughter.
“At school last year, our own production,” she says.
“And you?” I turn to my friend.
“At a show for tourists a few years ago,” she replies.
Puppet shows are rare these days in Bamako and I am happy to see such a good attendance. I make my way “back stage” where the commotion is. Behind a curtain assemble a large troupe of musicians, dancers, puppeteers, trainees, and volunteers. I ask for the puppet-master, Yacouba Magassouba, the former neighbor of my friend, Lucia, before she left Mali. It’s well past four and the show is beginning anytime now. I snap a few quick shots of the young director and the colorful wooden puppets lying inert by the window before making a beeline for my seat.
A band of boisterous musicians comes on stage before the storyteller announces in French and Bambara, “This is a fete de village/village festival! To show gratitude for good harvests and our good earth!” In succession out comes a panoply of colorful traditional characters – the lion, the hunters, the fishermen, the villagers… Oohing and ahhing, the children look transported by the spectacle.
There are five main types of puppets in Mali: mask, stick, string, wearable, and giant puppets, the latter being of European origin but now adopted in Africa. Traditionally, the two big shows of the year in the villages occur at the beginning of the rain season and at harvest time. Other performances are organized for festivities and celebrations. While most stories are based on fables and fairytales, they can also be on demand for specific occasions, like weddings and anniversaries. Why not for a golden jubilee?
A group of tall, muscular dancers carrying paddles, and then wooden guns comes on stage and electrifies the audience. This is the classic fishermen’s and hunters’ dance, of which each region and tribe has its own variation.
Inheriting puppetry art from his father and grandfather, and trained by his uncle, Yaya Coulibaly, a renowned puppet master (Sogolon Puppet Troupe, founded in 1980), Yacouba Magassouba, 37, created his company, Nama, in 2010 to promote puppetry and to train young people to keep the tradition. Puppetry is such an ancient practice in Mali that few know the exact origins. Bozo fishermen along the Niger River are known to be the first to use puppets as venerated objects in animist rituals and religious ceremonies, for example, praying for abundant rain and good harvests. For centuries, different ethnic groups and local cultures create various kinds of puppets for entertainment in important social and political occasions. They are also important means of education on myths and tradition, married life, social and health issues, the environment, and conflicts.
All of a sudden, the crowd cheers and chuckles. Swinging her exaggerated hips in precise dance steps, Yayoroba, a classic character of plump or ideal woman joins the festival. Traditionally, while women villagers make financial contributions for puppet shows, they are barred from puppet making or mastery. Although modern companies have abolished this discriminatory practice, women puppet artists still struggle to get recognition. Aoua Koné became the first woman puppeteer of Mali. A woman graduate of Yacouba’s training course had to stop performing because her husband disapproved of her career in puppetry. Gender equality in the traditional art of puppetry still has a long way to go in Mali.
Then the great organizer, Chimpanzee, skips around before Rabbit makes a joyful appearance. When the contortionist comes on stage, everyone gasps. Finally, the storyteller reappears in a galloping horse, leading a royal procession headed by the King, represented by an enormous wearable Antelope puppet held by six people!
There is no doubt about the magical power of puppets in Mali. “So why has it mostly disappeared?” I ask Yacouba.
“It’s not easy. Puppetry is collective work, between puppeteers, writers, musicians, and dancers… From conception to writing, puppet-making, and staging, a project can take up to two years. We always look for funding. Few Malians consider this art as work,” he explains.
In a country threatened by religious extremism, puppetry can be frowned upon for its association with animism.
“Have you encountered any opposition by Islamists?” I ask him.
“Yes, my former landlord kicked me out, because he thought my work was haram/forbidden,” he replies.
That did not prevent him from continuing his educational work. In February, the troupe went to Central Mali where the Jihadists were active to perform Le Chat Pelerin/The Cat Pilgrim, in which the cat and the mouse made peace. “Thankfully, nothing happened. I would not say who is the cat and who is the mouse!” he smiles.
Today, Nama has twelve members (puppeteers, musicians, singers, and dancers) and interns. It organizes about twenty to thirty performances within Mali annually and also tour in Europe and North America. Every November, it stages RDV Chez Nous a Bamako, a three-day event with close to 40 puppet companies from all over Africa and France.
Yacouba’s dream is to create a school to continue puppet training and keep this dying art going. Puppet preservation and ownership also worry him. Most puppets are made of melina wood that does not resist humidity well. At the moment, the company does not have the means to put its vast collection in proper storage. Many Malian puppets are in the hands of Western private collectors, as villages and companies continue the traditional practice of selling their puppets after each performance to finance the next production. How to safeguard this traditional practice recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage is an urgent agenda. For now, given the recent political events in Mali – two coup d’état within less than a year – Yacouba is busy making his latest puppet of the new president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, before the next coup arrives!
THE DYING ART OF PUPPETRY IN MALI
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.