Thursday, December 20, 2012

All Good Things Must End

With our shadow puppetry projects wrapped up in Bakpe and Bamefedo, we had a little more puppet love to spread around before leaving Ghana. We traveled to the town of Kpando; our friend Peta Hall had provided us with an introduction to Mama Essi who runs the Ryvanz-Mia Orphanage, and we spent a joy-filled afternoon with the 17 kids living there.

Susanne sits amongst the Kings and Queens of Kpando
As we’d done at the schools, we gave each kid a pencil kit of their own art supplies as well as a notebook. We spent some time drawing, and we all made crowns to wear; it felt like a party! We busted out our puppet supplies and set about that familiar routine of sewing on button eyes, making hair, and designing fabulous outfits for the kids’ hand puppets.


We stayed over at the orphanage that night. Before the kids went to bed, we presented Mama Essi and the children with a whole suitcase of art supplies and books. I wish we could have stayed for longer, I loved spending time with these sweet kids.


We returned to Ho to pack up and bid farewell to our friends at DIVOG and our hosts, who had been so kind to us. It was hard to say goodbye, but we were all so happy with how this pilot-puppet-program had turned out that we determined that this was not a “goodbye” but a “see you next time.”

We headed south to the coast see our friend Peta Hall and conduct our final workshop at the Atorkor Vocational Centre, where she works as Director. This gorgeous new facility was funded by people from Prince Edward County, where we live, and was designed by local architect Brian Clark, so we were thrilled to be able to visit it in person. The centre currently offers courses in IT, Dressmaking and Tailoring, and Batik and Fibre Art.

Susanne demonstrates some expert puppet-making techniques
We spent a few hours of our afternoon with a room of mostly female dressmaking students, making hand puppets.


Many of the women are single mothers, and the opportunity to have a fun and creative afternoon AND bring toys home to their children went over very well! There was a lot of laughter and smiles going around that day. 

...And that was it.

Almost a year’s worth of planning and now suddenly, the project was over. I think Susanne and I were both a little stunned as we rode in the taxi to our post-project chill-out spot down the road. It was time to reflect on everything we’d experienced, and dream about how Puppets Without Borders would carry on in the future.
Me and one of the awesome kids of Ryvanz-Mia
Susanne and I are giving a talk and slide show about Puppets Without Borders on January 22, 2013, at the Picton Library at 7 PM. All are welcome!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Telling Tales in Bamefedo


It was a sunny Sunday afternoon the first time we traveled the red dirt road through the bush leading us to Bamefedo. A crowd of children ran out to meet our truck, and we were led on foot into the heart of the village, where the chief and elders were already waiting for us. At first glance, the village seemed to be better resourced than Bakpe, with electricity and more concrete structures versus huts, although there were still a lot of those, too.

Some cows take a walk through Bamefedo
We were welcomed with warmth and curiosity, and seated opposite the elders. Three of them told us stories that afternoon. Here is Erasmus, telling the briefest of the stories, Why the Palm Nut is Red. I love this video for so many reasons; but mostly because it gives you a real sense of the ambiance of village life:

Why the Palm Nut is Red - an Ewe story

At the beginning of the video you can hear the call and response that is typical in the telling of Ewe stories, as the storyteller lists the characters he's about to include in his story. It's also interesting to note the crowd's fascination with the tablet computer on the table in front of Erasmus which was being used as one of our recording devices. We blew more than one Ghanaian mind with our iPads - the Star Walk app especially so!

We thanked the storytellers and returned to the town of Ho, where we were staying, to start preparing for the week ahead. Susanne, Makosa and I discussed at length what worked and what didn't work in the first week of our program in Bakpe, and made some adjustments to the second week's work plan. We agreed that the project needed more time, so we structured our second week to maximize our time in the classroom... which, as we would learn, was often a collection of tables and chairs under a tree.

Outdoor classroom - spot the chicken!
We also brought in some extra help for our second week - Makosa and his colleague Livingstone helped us for much of the week, translating and providing narration for the story The Devil Marriage, which would be performed in Ewe. 

Rehearsal of The Devil Marriage
It was hard to keep kids out of rehearsal who weren't supposed to be there; they kept sneaking in!
 When we finally got them out of the class, they peeked in the windows.
During our week in Bamefedo we managed to make a bit more time for rehearsals than we had in our first week, and our fledgling puppeteers were well-prepared and confident for their debut on Friday.

Susanne and I with our fledgling puppeteers
Friday evening, the whole town came out to see our puppet shows. Susanne was an incredible stage manager, getting all the kids into place, while Livingstone, Makosa and I performed the bilingual narration.

A glimpse backstage
The performances went extremely well. I managed to sneak out into the audience for part of The Devil Marriage, and was thrilled to witness the audience being swept way by the shadow puppetry show, laughing, cheering, clapping. For me it was a profoundly thrilling moment to see that not just the kids were having a great experience, but that the community as a whole was embracing the performance. I was thankful that our friend Robert Tornu from DIVOG came to see the show that night and experience the community's enthusiasm for our project. Robert believes, as I do, that it is vital for Ghanaians to continue sharing their traditional stories; as they increasingly embrace technology, their oral traditions become at risk of being lost. Using shadow puppetry as a means of bringing these stories to life is just one way to celebrate Ghanaian culture and ensure these stories live on.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

After School Program

One of my favourite parts of our Puppets Without Borders project was our wildly popular after-school program, which we ran for 3 days each in the villages of Bakpe and Bamefedo.

Me in a sea of puppet fans
Most days we split the room in two. Susanne and a group of mostly younger kids would draw and colour.

The light in this girl's eyes is the reason we hauled 200 lbs. of art supplies across the globe
Susanne "taking requests" for cutting out shapes
The kids also reveled in playing with pipe cleaners, glue sticks and sparkles, all of which were new to them, and the sparkles often wound up on their beaming faces. 


Meanwhile, I'd be working with mostly older kids, sewing hand puppets. No electricity meant no short-cuts with glue guns; everything needed to be sewn by hand.


I'd collect all the finished puppets at the end of each day, and on our last day in the village we handed them out to the youngest students.

The United Nations of Puppets
This is what happened when the little ones received their puppets:



I loved the after-school program because of its casual, less structured vibe. I was happy to see lots of boys participating in the sewing, and liked the idea of the older children gifting the younger children. Often members of the community stopped in to see what we were doing, and some even stayed to help with the sewing.


Almost all of the hand puppet materials were donated by our friends and neighbours in Prince Edward County, and all of the thread was collected by Picton Fabric World. This allowed us to distribute a number of sewing kits to kids in both communities. We owe our community a huge thanks for their generosity.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Show time!

When we first landed in Ghana, I was told by a DIVOG staff member that we would be staying with "someone who does what you do." I had no idea what this meant, as I do a wide variety of rather unusual things, so I was delighted when I met Makosa and learned that he was not only a theatre person, but also a puppeteer!

Makosa (left) tells a traditional Ewe story to the students

Makosa (a.k.a. Richmond Edem Kpotosu) is the Director of Chaufra, an organization that uses drama and puppetry for community education. Their current production was a marionette show touring villages on a flatbed truck, and was about the use of civil language on political platforms towards a free, fair and peaceful national election. On our first night staying with Makosa and his family, he took us along to the show in a nearby village.


Conveniently enough, both Bakpe and Bamefedo, the villages that we were working in, were on Chaufra's tour list, so we joined forces for a puppetry double-bill. Who knows, this was possibly a first in Ghana!

The Chaufra folks are smart. They roll into town at dusk, with generator-powered lighting and sound systems, and they start playing some tunes. The party atmosphere is quick to draw a crowd, and the kids are keen to dance. Followed by a puppet show, it makes for a very special night in a rural village, and the whole community comes out.


Things were no different that night in Bakpe. When the marionette show concluded we quickly set up our shadow screen and started the performance of our three shadow plays based on traditional Ewe stories: Ayiyi and the ChiefThe Monkey and the Tortoise, and Ayiyi, the Animals and the Termites



It's hard to fully convey the chaos of 75 excited kids trying to find their mostly-black shadow puppets in the darkness. The shows were rough and wild, but the kids all had a great time. It's process over product, and I think we gave the kids of Bakpe an artistic experience they will not soon forget. At the end of our show the dance tunes came back on and Susanne and I danced under the stars, a maelstrom of joyful children swirling around us.

Eventually we packed up the screen and reunited the kids with their puppets. A crowd of children gathered around Makosa's truck in the darkness. It was time to say goodbye and there was a huge lump in my throat. One of the teenage girls said "Don't forget about us." I promised her we wouldn't. How could we?


Susanne and I are dreaming big for our next Puppets Without Borders project in 2013, and hope to return to Bakpe. We'll be sharing these plans with you here as they develop.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Queens for a Day

We arrived in Bakpe on Friday morning ready for rehearsal, but this was to be no ordinary morning. The children were waiting for us under the mango tree, dressed in their finest traditional clothes.


The drummers amongst them, grouped together, had already begun to play. Susanne and I were led to our seats behind a table beautifully set with Kente cloth, and the children sang and danced for us, bare feet on the red earth.



A short video of the performance

This incredible performance went on for probably close to an hour. Then the grandmothers led us away...

The women led us into the small school office, where we were told to... strip! We did so, and the women proceeded to dress us like queens, wrapping us in their fine cloth and adorning us with beads. We heard singing and drumming right outside the office, and lo and behold, the adults of the village had come for us, and in a singing and dancing procession led us back to the festivities. 

Musical procession
Susanne Larner (left) and Krista Dalby (right) - the newest queens of Bakpe
We were seated in a true position of honour, next to the Chief, who was also dressed for the occasion, and a couple of women were fanning us! Normally I wouldn't accept such subservience, but the women were smiling away and having a great time, so I figured I would just go with the flow...

The Chief is sitting next to me with the black hat with white markings...
but check out the guy in the background with the giant sunglasses!
Good thing too, because the flow went on and on, children and adults singing, drumming, dancing. Then the ceremony began. One of the grandmothers made us a symbolic offering of money, we were presented with sashes of Kente cloth with our names woven into them, and baby powder was sprinkled on our naked shoulders. As if all of this wasn't enough, we had honorary titles bestowed upon us. Susanne was named Queen of Development and I was named Developmental Linguist. We were told that these were our titles for life, that no one else would hold them as long as we were alive. Of course this was followed by more singing, more dancing, and some guy yelled out to us, "I love you, man!"


The whole experience was hours long and was in equal parts beautiful, moving and completely surreal.There was a point during all of this when I started to lose it. I could not believe that all of this was for us! I struggled to accept that I could have possibly done anything to merit this kind of treatment, and really had to choke back the tears because I didn't want the kids to see me crying. I don't know if we deserved such an honour, but I knew that I had the power to continue helping the people of Bakpe, and that with any luck, one day we would prove ourselves worthy of the love we'd been shown.


And then it was over. The crowd dispersed, the grandmothers led us away to help us get undressed, gifting us with beaded bracelets. We emerged from the office in our t-shirts and western clothes... back to reality. But queens or not, we had a show to put on that night, and without a moment to spare, we launched into our final rehearsals.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

You Are Welcome


Susanne and I spent three weeks in Ghana, twenty-one days that overflowed with wonder. Each minute seemed to contain something astonishing: the way people shook our hands with an enthusiastic finger snap, how they greeted us wherever we went with a sincere "You are welcome," the beauty of the jungle landscape, the cacophony of chickens and goats that were seemingly everywhere, the hot hot heat pressing down on us day and night, the way people carried large and unlikely objects on their heads as they traveled on foot, the number of people that would pile in or on any moving vehicle, and the way drivers negotiated the roads peppered with giant craters and roller-coaster bumps. An abundance of amazing sights and sounds.


Everywhere we went, the colour of our skin turned heads, and we'd hear cries of "ye vu!" - meaning 'white one.' At first this was a bit of a shock - back home in Canada you wouldn't dream of calling out to a stranger like that. We could easily hear this fifty times a day, but generally people were simply trying to get our attention to wave and say hello. Ghanaians have a reputation for being friendly, and they did not disappoint. Children, in particular, found it hard to hide their enthusiasm when they saw us.


After a few days of settling in, it was time for our project to get started. On Sunday evening at dusk, we arrived in the village of Bakpe. 


Located a bumpy half-hour drive from the substantial town of Ho, where we were staying, Bakpe is a village of about 400 people and has no electricity or running water. Dozens of children were waiting for us when we drove in, many more came running to catch a glimpse of us. But that evening we were there to meet with the Chief and the village elders, and to collect their stories which we would later turn into shadow puppetry plays with the children. 


We gathered in one of the school rooms, about ten of us in all, dozens of children silently spying through the windows and doors. The sun had set and the darkness was complete, but for the lantern on the table in front of us. We set up our recording devices - technology which seemed so other-worldly in this setting - and without any further ado, the elders took turns telling us traditional stories in their language of Ewe (pronounced 'eh-way').

Ghanaian stories bear many similarities to traditional tales from other world cultures: they typically involve animals, and are used to share morals as well as explaining how things in the world came to be. As I sat there in the near-darkness, all I could do was listen, uncomprehending, to the rich, resonant tones of the story-tellers' voices, and think to myself how incredibly lucky I was to be experiencing this moment. Stories are so precious. To have strangers from another culture tell us their stories with such willingness and trust... what an incredible gift. 

The following morning we returned to Bakpe and were given a tour around the school.


Ewe alphabet
Left: the new school building. Right: the old school building, which has no window shutters or doors. Every classroom in both buildings is needed to accommodate the number of students. Animals tend to sleep in the old school building, so each morning the children have to clean the floors before classes begin.
The Kindergarten class takes place in a hut... not exactly ideal in the rainy season.
Our stories had yet to be translated, so we couldn't get started on the shadow plays. Instead, we sat in the forgiving shade of the large mango tree in the school yard. Children gathered around us, eyes wide with expectation. We read aloud some books we'd brought with us: Alligator Pie, Oh The Places You'll Go, and the landslide hit, The Snowy Day. Snow! I don't think I've talked about snow so much in my life; it was a real fascination for them. We showed the kids how to make paper snowflakes; throughout the course of the week we noticed them making their own snowflakes - one little girl even made two miniature ones which she wore hanging from her earrings! The highlight of our first day in Bakpe was the joyous task of handing out art supplies to 75 kids: pencil cases containing scissors, pencil, eraser, sharpener, a pack of pastels and a small notebook. The kids were ecstatic to receive such a gift, given to them by our many generous donors back home. I had seriously spent months thinking about stuff... it was amazing to see it finally put into these kids' hands.


Tuesday morning we started working on our three shadow puppetry plays. I have run similar programs a dozen times back home, and was anticipating this project would unfold more or less as it usually did. But there's one thing that I hadn't accounted for: the language barrier. I had been told that "everyone in Ghana speaks English." Uh - not true! Certainly many people do, especially in larger centers, but in smaller villages like Bakpe, English was definitely a second language. Comprehension levels were very mixed - so essentially all of my classroom instruction had to be translated, either by a teacher or our host Makosa. 

Despite any language barrier, these kids were incredibly well-behaved, courteous and attentive. It was such a pleasure to be in their midst. 
Students listen to Makosa tell a story in Ewe, The Monkey and the Tortoise
The only problem with this bilingual system was that everything took twice as long... and we didn't have twice as much time. The days flew by... roles were assigned and shadow puppets were first sketched, then built. Our bilingual rehearsals started on Thursday, and were planned to continue all day Friday, in preparation for our community performance Friday night.


Little did we know that the community had other plans for our Friday morning...