This past March, Snuff Puppets worked in Africa for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kinshasa in the suburb of Masina, living and working at a cultural centre, Espace Masolo. The centre runs art and education programs for street children, orphans, ex-child soldiers and adults. The space houses a sewing and tailoring school and is the home to Fanfare Masolo, an exceptional brass band made up of young adult musicians who have grown up at the space over the last twelve years learning music and other skills.
We arrived expecting just to meet our fellow artists and performers, and maybe make one or two puppets with a very small presentation at the end. Instead, overwhelmed by enthusiasm to participate and learn, we ended up making six giant puppets that paraded on the main street with more than thirty participants, occupied neighbours front yards and danced all the while to a twenty-piece brass band. Initially, the aforementioned performance had to be postponed because exactly as we were to begin, the clouds opened and a downpour turned our stage into a muddy river. Plans changed to use the small courtyard of Espace Masolo as our stage but in true Congolese spirit, the finale happened back out on the road now made of vast pools of water, mud and rocks. Despite the conditions a beautiful dancing carnival erupted on Espace Masolo’s street and everyone was truly surprised and enchanted.
Leading up to this presentation, over eight days we built puppets with locally sourced materials and for the first time ever ran a workshop without electricity, barring the last night when we had a generator to heat up the glue guns and power the light. The puppets were all hand stitched together; the sewing machines were hand powered.
The learning curve was great and wild for both the participants and us. For Stéphane and me, we felt happily challenged to work in this way, without electricity and sometimes without water, on a fraction of a usual budget. For the participants, the collaborative workshop and giant puppet construction was a whole new learning experience. Despite challenges, we were grateful to meet so many amazing and talented people working together to perform a beautifully pure, raw and energetic performance of an act that we’d just made the day before and never fully rehearsed.
In our time at Espace Masolo we built Mamiwata, Satonge, Mengumengu, Kimakaka and Nguvbu (respectively a mermaid, a half man, a human/cat transformation, a person with their head on their stomach, a ‘something’, the white one with three eyes and a Hippopotamus). The puppets are drying out for now but will soon be traveling to Germany appearing with Fanfare Masolo and our Human Body Parts at festivals in Berlin and Moers.
This project would not have been possible without the invitation and support of Stefanie Oberhoff and Freundeskreis. Steffi saw the first brass instruments donated to Espace Masolo and has been deeply involved there with many projects over the years. She has watched and worked to make happen huge growth, great international exchange and the power of culture and art to transform lives. There is now a whole new generation of survivor children learning brass music, theatre, art, metal work, tailoring, school subjects and life skills.
I knew nothing of the DRC before I travelled there. I only knew of the Australian Government travel warnings of a ‘do not travel’ country and the monstrous history of the Belgian colonial empire, King Leopold the 2nd of Belgium and the ensuing genocide. Before arriving, I discovered that the DRC is one of the most, if not the most devastated country in the world as a result of colonialism. After the Belgian horror show, the slave trade, then independence and 30 years of dictators corrupting an already brutalised people, it is no wonder the country faces so many challenges.
Experiencing first hand what it means to live in the capital city of the second biggest country in Africa meant understanding the stark contradictions inherent in a country with the richest of natural resources on the planet and the lowest average income in the world according to the World Bank, with most people living on just 1 dollar a day: where there’s no government services and still wealthy countries and businesses regularly steal precious minerals for electronics like our iPhones. The country’s past can help understand why the nation suffers such devastation to this day. A terrible history that has resulted with a population traumatised from generations of European brutality with no reparations and no real global understanding or response to a horrendous human disaster.
Our journey has just begun in the DRC and our hopes and aspirations are high. Invigorated and inspired we’re planning to return to Espace Masolo to continue running workshops and create more giant puppets, music and art in collaboration with the kids, people and energy of Kinshasa, Congo.
Just two last thoughts to finish. First, the local slang for ‘cool’ is ‘normal’ so when everything is ok, good or fine, it’s ‘normal’, quite a departure from our version of mundane normalcy!
Finally, while visiting the orphanage that sends some of the kids off each day to Espace Masolo, we were struck by the words of Papa Api Kapinga, the old man who ran the home. He said, ’Politics pulls everyone apart, culture brings everyone together.’ For this elderly gentleman, who has given his life to saving others, to be so right in his description of humanity filled me with renewed faith in the fact that culture can truly save the world.
View photos from the performance on our facebook page.