Puppets for Adults: Discussing Taboo Topics in Uganda
Picture four Muppet-style male figures discussing the best way to stay in touch with their women as they tote AK-47s through a war zone in Somalia.
“I can send her an emojicon. I can send her, like, a smiley, and that is it,” one tells his friends.
Things were never like this for Kermit and company in their day.
But then, “you’ve never seen a reality show like this,” says the female puppet who anchors Chicken and Chips. The new program on air in Uganda is putting topics “from gender issues to bedroom antics” and others not talked about publicly in the conservative country into the mouths of puppets.
“Imagine a puppet complaining about her husband’s drinking or spending her money on Waragi [a Ugandan gin] instead of school fees,” says the host.
That’s not even the half of it.
In the 30-minute weekly “edutainment” show, named after a popular meal in the East African country, male puppets debate polygamy while on a desert island.
Then, both sexes discuss their HIV status during a picnic. Contraception, which women usually cannot approach their partners about, and menstruation, which is often taboo in Uganda, also come up on the weekend program, albeit while the male and female characters are on a spaceship.
In a segment of the show titled “African wife,” a female puppet complains to another that women are supposed to take care of the family and work as a male snores loudly.
“The husband can wash the clothes because they have the hands, and it’s these hands that wash,” her friend insists.
As the host describes, Chicken and Chips is “bold, funny, sometimes a bit shocking, but sometimes just like real life.”
The conversations are based on actual recordings of unscripted discussions, selected for use during focus-group-style talks. The show also includes quick interviews with people on the streets of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, answering such questions as “Who last bought the condoms?”
But it’s Uganda’s version of the Muppets that attract the most attention on the show.
“Puppetry was a completely new thing in Uganda, and most people thought it was only for kids,” says Nkumi Mtingwa, who directed the puppet segments.
“When Chicken and Chips aired it was a new experience for most people, and they loved it, actually.”
The show is filmed and edited in Kampala and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with the bits featuring the host shot in New York.
Ronald Binion, who worked on Muppets Tonight in the 1990s designing and building puppets, also designed and built the Chicken and Chips stars. He conducted a workshop in Tanzania on TV puppetry in February, training new performers in preparation for the show.
“The whole idea of using puppets is simply to have characters that can talk about and deal with issues in a manner that is entertaining and fun but still raises important issues,” he explains.
“What was so enjoyable for me was seeing a whole variety of characters and dramas unfold that were unique to the area but at the same time universally appealing and understandable.”
Binion says one of the scenes he found the funniest was “the depiction of a little girl performed by a large man in his 30s.”
“One of the beautiful things about puppetry is that it can liberate a person from their own role in society,” says Binion, who was nominated for an Emmy award for his work on the Disney Channel’s The Book of Pooh and has also trained aid workers in Haiti, Indonesia, and other countries in puppetry.
Binion conducted the workshop with Lisa Buckley, who has more than 25 years of experience as a puppeteer, has worked on Alf and Sesame Street, and has trained extensively in movement and yoga.
“Puppetry can be strenuous physical work as well as a creative challenge,” says Binion. “It is a strange and wonderful combination of using one’s body to bring life to these little tiny creatures that are projecting all sorts of different characters.”
Mtingwa said the show has led to a “new media genre” in Uganda, and some of the artists who were originally part of Chicken and Chips are now venturing into creating other puppet shows.