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Puppets get people past the taboos

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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.

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