“Bringing Puppetry to Uganda” — Carol Sterling

“Bringing Puppetry to Uganda” — Carol Sterling

This is the first of two articles shared by alumna Carol Sterling about her Fulbright experiences teaching puppetry in Uganda and India. The articles are published, with permission of the author, as they were printed in The Puppetry Journal. To read the second article, please click hereCarol Sterling is a former President of the UNIMA-USA and a former education consultant of Puppeteers for America. She is the recipient of the Puppeteers of America’s Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin Award for Contribution to the Field of Education.


Bringing Puppetry to Uganda

by Carol Sterling

What’s a Puppet?

It is hard today to find a young person or a parent of one, or a teacher who doesn’t know that puppets are part of childhood. But not in Uganda. The students I worked with as a United States Fulbright Specialist in the Fall of 2012 had never seen these familiar whimsical characters created from recycled materials that amuse grown-ups as well as kids.

My task, for six weeks at the School of Education at Makerere University in Kampala, was to introduce undergraduate and graduate students and pre and in-service teachers to the world of puppetry. And I was starting from scratch. In Buganda, the primary language of Uganda, there is no word for puppet! And most of the students have limited contact with television. So you can imagine their surprised and bemused expressions at the first class, when I danced around the room to African music performing with a puppet.

Bringing the curriculum alive!

Their initial bemusement turned to contagious enthusiasm and spirited participation in no time. In five different puppetry courses, I introduced hundreds of Education Majors to innovative teaching techniques and activities using simple hand, rod and giant puppets. At the request of the Department of Education, I focused on strategies to motivate and reinforce English Language Arts and Literacy with an emphasis on reading and speaking. English is their language of instruction and the second language spoken in Uganda. I introduced techniques for making puppets from inexpensive materials combined with activities to stimulate imagination. I also showed students how to develop skits that would strengthen critical thinking and problem solving. My essential concern was to share strategies for developing characters with whom my students could personally identify along with realistic situation to be enacted. I wanted them to see how real world issues could be inserted into the make-believe façade of puppetry.

Importance of oral communication and inter-action

Starting with hands-on experiential learning, we brainstormed how to use puppetry to stimulate and engage students while encouraging them to work both independently and cooperatively. At the beginning of each class, I divided students into groups of two or three to assure that they would participate actively. In Ugandan schools, I knew, the emphasis is on the Instructor (called the Lecturer) who dominates the class with a lecture. There is little, if any, oral interaction with the students. Ordinarily the emphasis is on memorization of content with little time devoted to analysis or original thinking.

I advised my students that the puppetry class would be “different” from their usual courses. They had to interact with me and one other with the goal of validating and critiquing each other’s ideas. I stressed the importance of each student’s oral participation and underscored how valuable it is for each to share his/her creative notions as well as to support each other in the group.

Given the economic constraints of working in a desperately poor country like Uganda, I only used materials we could obtain for free: e.g recycled plastic bottles, toilet paper rolls, washed plastic plates and spoons, and discarded clothing and fabric. Although I had brought felt and other tempting materials with me, I decided not to use them because I wanted my students to learn that their resources were adequate. Engaging and exciting puppets can be made from found objects and leftover parts.

My students created whimsical characters and improvised original skits using “puppet voices” that would be appropriate to the age and curriculum of their students. While they developed simple stories, they also learned how to evaluate and critique each other’s work with respectful and constructive comments. Students in each of the five courses received handouts from me that provided a review of the puppetry activities they had explored along with additional ideas for future reference.

Puppets offer solutions

The major thrust of the curriculum was to encourage the use of spoken English. However, short puppet skits also highlighted universal personality traits (and the familiar problems they generate) as well as important issues about health, disease, safety and conflict. In this fashion, puppets function as effective teachers. It was no accident that a paper plate puppet made by a student from war-torn Liberia country talked about why he wanted to learn skills of conflict resolution.

I will never forget the response of this Liberian student, who had seen so much death and destruction, after he did a skit stressing the importance of peace education. He said, with tears in his eyes, “I have never been able to share the depth of my experience before. Using the puppets gave me permission to share my passion for developing peace curriculum.”

Students in the audience, watching the slaughter of family members from their own experiences, understood and related to the plastic plate puppet’s dilemma. They also saw the puppet’s willingness to do something about the situation, by offering solutions to problems, such as the need for teaching about peace in the K-12 schools.

Importance of Reading the Local Newspapers

A special word about the Giant Puppet class. Upon my arrival in Kampala, I learned about Ugandans and their rich culture from reading the local newspapers. I followed local and national events and became more knowledgeable about economic, social and political challenges citizens encountered. And I discovered that during my stay the country would be celebrating its 50th Anniversary of Independence.

I asked colleagues in the School of Education whether they would like me to do a special class focused on creating giant puppets for the celebration. When someone inquired, “What is a Giant Puppet,” I exclaimed, “Well, one that reached at least 15’,” and I pointed to the ceiling of the Dean’s office.

And so, a special class was organized to identify and build two giant puppets representing leaders in the Independence Movement. As subjects, students selected the First President of Uganda, Sir Edward Mutesa II and the First Prime Minister, Dr. Milton Obote. To keep the costs down, the 3’ head was a large plastic bag filled with balls of newspaper and covered with flesh colored fabric; the costume was made of fabric, and the puppet was held up with two PVC pipes tied together with strips of rubber tires. Hands were made of cardboard. Students were amazed by the scale of our creations and delighted, too.

A special ceremony was held at the School of Education as student Ruth Adomo, with her eyes sparkling, told the audience of hundreds of University administrators, professors, students, guests and the media about the design, construction, and implementation of each of the puppets. She emphasized the students’ research and writing of reports as essential to creating these historical characters. The program ended in high gear with a parade through campus accompanied by drummers and dances in native clothing.

Impact of the program

The puppetry program, in its brief moment, altered the environment of the School of Education at Makerere University. The processes of making puppets and performing with them brought unexpected amusement, delight— and even joy— to students and staff. “I never used to speak in class,” many students told me, “but puppetry opened me up.” Students reported being more articulate, feeling more creative, discovering new talents, and bringing more of their real selves to the classroom.

I will never forget these students. I will never forget their enthusiasm. I will never forget their cooperation, concentration, discipline, determination to solve problems, and their excitement in making puppets from discarded and recycled materials. I will never forget their unaccustomed openness. I wish them Godspeed!

Epilogue: Staying in Touch

Robina Nazziwa is a spirited and warm woman who emails me often. “It’s really a thrilling experience with the puppets in the classroom. Early this week I led a group through the activity. They were really excited and guess what? They had very many creative ideas both in the making and using of the puppets in the classroom. I had never met such a brilliant class before, Really your help is very much welcome especially in setting more catchy activities that I can use to make other demonstrations for the classes I have not handled as yet.”

And there is Robert Ondongo, a serious and conscientious student teacher, who emails me regularly. Robert reports that creating puppets opened the windows of his world, allowing him to realize what joy he could get as a teacher. He explained, “I am teaching Geography and Christian religious education, My supervisor visited me last week and she was so excited when I used puppets as my learning aids, in fact it was her first time to see a student using puppets in a lesson. I felt great because I had broken a historical record.”

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