NAIROBI, KENYA — Under the dappled shade of a thorn tree, in a park just a short stroll from the office towers of downtown Nairobi, more than 100 adults are engrossed in a puppet show.
These are no Punch and Judy comedies or children's fairy tales, but stories rooted in the reality of Kenyan life. The first play depicts a rich man swindling poor villagers into paying for water they once collected free of charge, the second, a father trying to marry off his 14-year-old daughter.
In each 20-minute play, puppet characters work together to resist the bad guys. "I believe the message is passed on," says Crispin Mwakideu, who wrote the first puppet play, called "River of Life."
Puppet shows with an educational purpose are being performed all across Africa to teach both adults and children about social issues whether government corruption, gender equality, or environmental conservation. The medium is gaining popularity here among organizations with an educational mandate because of its relatively low cost, its ability to be locally adapted, and its entertainment value in a land of few televisions.
"Puppets can deal with sensitive issues in a way that no actor can," says Eric Krystall, coordinator of Kenya's Community Health and Awareness Puppeteers (CHAPS). "With AIDS, for instance, people are really wary about discussing it, but when the puppets do it, it brings it out in the open. It raises awareness, it allows people to work out whatever their problem is and makes people say, 'We can do something about it.' "
CHAPS is among the biggest puppetry groups in Africa, with more than 400 puppeteers performing in 40 troupes scattered around Kenya. Each troupe constructs its shows around issues of local concern and performs in local languages.
Mr. Krystall and CHAPS recently organized Edupuppets, an international festival held in Nairobi. Puppetry professionals from Europe, the United States, and South Africa gave performances and led workshops for puppeteers and teachers on such topics as scriptwriting and puppetmaking.
Two German puppeteers, Dorte Kiehn and Gregor Schwank, ran an intensive two-week workshop in which Kenyans created an entire performance including puppets, set, and script from scratch, and then performed it at the workshop's culmination.
"In Europe we are doing puppetry mainly for entertainment," says Mr. Schwank, who has helped groups in Madagascar, Uganda, and the Central African Republic to create shows about health issues. "Here you can use puppets for all kinds of educational programs."
While taking a break from showing participants how to make puppets from cheap materials plastic water bottles, broom handles, chicken wire Schwank says there's no question about whether puppet theater has an impact on African audiences. "Come to a marketplace and see how the audience reacts and shouts and applauds."
Puppets have been used in education more widely in South Africa than anywhere else on the continent. Much of the credit for that goes to Gary Friedman, who came to prominence there with his 1980s touring satire show, Puppets Against Apartheid. His puppets have since taken on the issue of AIDS, made appearances in prisons, and even interviewed South African politicians campaigning for election.
The main limit on educational puppetry in sub-Saharan Africa is funding: Programs have flourished where donors have supported them, but rarely elsewhere. "Puppeteers here can only work if they get contracts from nongovernmental organizations," Schwank says.
Increasingly, donor agencies are moving beyond the standard development tools of digging wells, training teachers, and building clinics. Innovative programs use a variety of media with the aim of changing attitudes and behaviors. Radio soap operas, comic strips, and newspaper articles are widely supported.
Puppetry is uniquely suited to education in rural parts of Africa, says Tom Hart, spokesman for the US Embassy in Nairobi, which provided funding for the Edupuppets festival. "Puppetry may sound frivolous, but in Africa, which has a lot of illiterate people and regions with no access to radio or [TV], this is a way of building on African performance traditions to get the message across on various health issues, in particular HIV-AIDS," Mr. Hart says.
The Edupuppets workshops equipped people to teach the craft of puppetry. "[It has] given us a whole set of new trainers, and we'll just keep building on it," Krystall says.
But one aspect of the festival that disappointed him was the lack of participation from teachers in Kenya's government schools, where much learning is by rote. Krystall hopes the private school teachers who attended will help convince their public school counterparts that puppetry is a useful tool.