Tag Archives: Peace Corps – Gabon

Puppet Power

The purpose of this particular happy-faced hand-puppet-in-progress is to help the niños in a nearby village overcome their fear of the dentist.

I’d volunteered to embark on this project last month when I attended an administrative/brainstorming meeting at Ojala Niños, an afterschool program for the children in the village of San Miguel Viejo. [For more on this program, see my previous WOW posts, “Hope for the Niños” (published March 19), and “Elsmarie Norby: Out of the Ashes” (published April 12).]

I learned at this recent meeting that some young, community-minded Mexican dentists would soon come to this pueblo, check on the children’s teeth, and, with parental permission, provide whatever dental services might be needed, gratis.

Drawing on my own lifelong terror of dentists (to this day I confess to friends that I’d rather stand before a firing squad than sit in a dentist’s chair), and my happy use of handmade hand puppets to teach little ones about health when I served in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa, twenty years ago, I raised my hand at this meeting and made a case for puppet power. I said something along the lines of, “Maybe if the kids saw a puppet in pain with a toothache come out smiling after seeing the visiting dentist, they’ll be less apprehensive…”

Most of these rural Mexican kids, as almost everyone here knows, have never been face to face with a dentist nor encountered a professional dental procedure. Yet their dental needs are great. In poorer campos dental hygiene is often lacking. Children’s diets are not always balanced (sometimes heavy on sugary sweets) or healthy. Drinking water, often drawn from old wells or polluted streams, is dubious. To quench their thirst, many kids drink teeth-rotting Coke.

So I’ve started making a puppet to help the dentists in their admirable effort, and she’s slowly coming to life in my hands. Like the other puppets I made in the Peace Corps, she’s taking on a force, even a personality, all her own. Anyone who’s ever brought a puppet to life will know what I mean.

The how-to of puppet-creation came back to me readily this week. It’s easy (as everything is, once you learn how): First, you take a cardboard toilet-paper tube and form a head shape on the top half of it with a generous amount of aluminum foil; then you cover the aluminum head form with papier-mâché (strips of newspaper dipped in a thick paste made of white flour and water) and let that dry for a day or two. Afterward, you paint a face, glue on some yarn to make a nice head of hair, and proceed with an appropriate body…

First steps in puppet-making process
First steps in puppet-making process

Those who have read my memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), may recall the story of my puppets in Gabon. But for those who have not, I’ll excerpt some of it here:

“Chantal Chanson (chanson means ‘song’ in French) was the star of my handmade hand puppet theatre troupe. There was something about her that the children adored. … Among the little ones of Lastoursville, Chantal was something of a rock star, and her signature song, “Lavez les Mains,” shot to the top of their charts. Sometimes little children would stop to serenade me with this song when they saw me walking in town.”

“Pour avoir la bonne sante” (to have good health), Chantal belted out, head bobbing, purple hair flying, green hands clapping manically, “lavez les mains a l’eau et au savon!” (wash your hands with water and soap). To avoid intestinal worms, her hit tune continued, wash your hands with water and soap. After using the toilet, she rhapsodized, wash your hands with water and soap. Before preparing a meal, she crooned, and the children jumped in to complete the refrain, “lavez les mains a l’eau et au savon!!!” …

 Then, after Chantal took a few bows as the kids applauded wildly, I brought out two more puppets who put on a Punch-and-Judy-style show. There was Yvonne Savon (savon means “soap”), whose head was carved from a big block of blue soap and her dress made from a hand towel, and her archenemy, Mick Robe (the French pronunciation of microbe, or “germ”) who was decidedly ugly. … Mick opened his act with an earnest, Pavarotti-style rendition of his theme song, “Si tu aimes les maladies…” which, translated, was “If you love being sick, you love me – Mick Robe! If you love diarrhea, you love me – Mick Robe!…” Yvonne Savon then appeared on the scene and saved the day, overpowering Mick with the magic of her soapsuds.


New puppet-in-progress
New puppet-in-progress

I don’t know what this new puppet – yet unnamed (any suggestions?) – will say or sing. I’m sure, though, when she’s fully created she’ll make her wishes known. I’m sure, too, that with her big happy smile and her shiny white teeth she’ll have the power to overcome some of the Ojala kids’ fears of seeing the dentist. Maybe she’ll even have the same effect on me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

July 15 update:

Here she is — all finished and named —

Dolores Danza!

Puppet Dolores!