We were volunteering for The Molly & Paul Childcare Foundation, which offers homes and education for some of Uganda’s 3 million orphaned children (There are 15 million children in Uganda – 50% of the population).
The puppets were instrumental to most of our work, and were initially used as play tools to deliver health education workshops in some of the charity’s primary schools – e.g. exploring preventative measures against malaria and the importance of drinking safe, clean water and general personal hygiene.
The idea behind this was twofold:
firstly, to offer the children and teachers a way of learning, through imaginative play, that was different from their usual experience of 'chalk and talk' and rote learning;
secondly, to begin the process of enabling the children to express feelings and thoughts through the puppets that they may not do as easily, or they may do differently, with adults.
What amazed us was that the children had no concept of what a puppet was. So we spent a lot of time playing with them and showing them how to puppeteer and how to make puppets out of anything starting with their own hands.
What distressed us was that we saw one toy in the whole of our time there. What inspired us was the amount of joy that the children showed during this play. So we made some puppets out of local materials to leave there as well as the ones we had brought.
We also left an African boy puppet in the clinic there and taught the doctor to use him, so that poorly children could have a friend to chat to and to reassure them. The doctor can also use him to demonstrate things like injections to show how they don't hurt too much.
We delivered several performances of our show Pinocchio, for the children and also for the wider community. This had to be done minimally with no set or other props, and with occasional Lugandan translation, and so we found new ways of telling the story. We were capable of doing this, and it was also liberating in many ways, given that we had by that date, performed the show over 75 times in the UK. This has of course impacted on the show as it continues to tour – the main effect being to allow us to vary the rhythms and emphasis of the story and characters with a much closer ear to each particular audience.
We also worked with a secondary school to create a piece of theatre that was performed by the students, using the Greek myth of Prometheus as a starting point.
It was performed beautifully by 60 students, representing every year group in the school. We had expected for this physical style of storytelling to be quite familiar to the culture, given that much of their 'drama' as it was explained to us was mainly singing and dancing.
However, again our assumptions were challenged, finding that the main and minimal use of drama is in educational role play. They expressed a great deal of appreciation in again learning in a different way. The energy and skill with which they performed belied the three hours of rehearsal and their unfamiliarity with the style!
As we were only there for two weeks we had little time to go any deeper but we are continuing to develop the link with the Children's Village and the foundation.
We are developing a piece of immersive participatory theatre – working title Uganda 1.1 - using footage of the place and the children and interviews with the key adults in the community – to tour around UK schools. This will give students here a sense of the place and the people and will demand of them consideration of how best we can help communities like this. It will also enable further fundraising for both basic amenities and arts activity.
In a sense an anxiety we had and a question we have been asked on our return is “how useful or necessary is doing drama in a place that doesn't even have running clean water, electricity or basic teaching resources like exercise books?”
Our response, confirmed by our experiences and our discussions, is that it's not just about them staying alive. It's about them living, about a quality of life. It's about this community having the right, the resources, the skills and the capabilities to explore life through art just as we do. And if that helps pay for and build a new ground pump, so much the better. The trip was enabled in part by donations from our audience members and fan base, with the remainder being subsidised by the company. Puppets and equipment were also donated by individuals and also Mallets Home Hardware store, which were gifted to the charity when we left.
We can’t thank our generous audience members and sponsors enough. The work we did out there, enabled by those donations, has been far-reaching and more fulfilling than we could have hoped, on both sides. The whole team has been alternately inspired, humbled, delighted and moved by our all-too-brief visit, and by the community who so warmly welcomed us.