Community Upliftment and Giant Puppets in the DRC
Winding through the labyrinthine streets of Masina in Kinshasa, kicking-up dust as we pick our way through the markets stalls lining the streets, we’re looking for the new location for Espace Masolo, a local community-based collective that helps lift street kids out of poverty by teaching them to be musicians, dancers, performers, and artists. Fellow IWMF reporter, Sella Oneko, is letting me tag along on her story about the group and I’ve been enticed by the promise of potential puppets that the artists sometimes use during the pantomime-style performances.
I was not disappointed – as one of the performers guides us through some wrought-iron gates into the open courtyard that the group uses for rehearsing, I see them, lined up against the far wall. Espace Masolo artists, most former street kids themselves, make the giant marionettes by hand; each enormous puppet figure represents a spirit or caricature from the modern world. They wear the puppets as giant costumes and perform complex dances simulating battles and victories – a way of both telling stories of persevering through hardships and processing their own feelings and trauma about growing up on the streets. When they’re not in use they lie in a heap among the rock and debris against a wall in the courtyard – a sort of macabre and colorful giant-puppet graveyard.
After Sella completes her interview with the founder of Espace Masolo he offers to show her the puppets and some of the performers, sitting around the courtyard, jump up and don the costumes to put on a short but dramatic battle-performance for us. They’re in such a good mood they hardly seem to mind when I ask to try on one of the costumes after they’re done – though my performance probably lacked the same nuance and drama.
Later, the performers grab some instruments on-hand to give us an impromptu concert. So much unexpected fun, joy, and music after a very difficult week of reporting in one of the most challenging places on the continent.
The stories I came to the Congo to cover involved reporting on some incredibly difficult and emotionally trying subjects – this unexpected generosity from a fellow reporter to let me accompany her on her story and share in this gleeful celebration is something I won’t soon forget, and it’s just one of the many things that have made this one of the most rewarding reporting assignments I’ve been on in a very long time.
─ Serusha Govender, 2018 DRC Reporting Fellow