Puppets for Education

Friday 19 May 2017

Story and Photos: Andy Nilsen

A group of American backpackers walk unsuspectingly into the main hall of Nan Myaing hotel, in the scenic hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin. Each freeze as they realise they have walked into the middle of a scene they clearly weren’t expecting. A grandmother is choking on her own cigarette as she yells out directions to her youngest grandchild. Two characters with watering-can-heads dance around bumping into one another. Finally, four men appear with guitars and burst into a traditional Myanmar folk song. Bewildered by it all, the backpackers fill their drink bottles from a communal dispenser and quickly disappear off the stage.

The travelers have stumbled across an innovative new program being implemented by Save the Children, with support from MFA Finland and the IKEA Foundation. It uses the art of puppetry as an access point to discuss some of Myanmar’s more sensitive issues – particularly inclusive education for children with disabilities.

The room is quite a sight after a fortnight of intensive puppetry training - and I don’t blame the tourists for being a little caught off guard. There are puppets scattered around the room everywhere of all shapes and sizes. Some lay folded up on the table, staring up at me as I walk around the room. Others, like the smoking grandmother puppet, sit on the lap of an amateur puppeteer as he rehearses his ‘choking’ catch phrase.

There are forty participants at the workshop and each has manufactured and decorated their own individual puppet from scratch. Some are simple glove or shadow puppets - and others are more complex rod puppets beautifully draped in traditional Myanmar longyis.

The person behind the training is Save the Children’s Head of Education Programming, Sridevi Srinivasan. She witnessed a performance by India’s Ishara Puppet Theatre Company during a tour that brought them to Yangon. It was then that she realised the potential of puppetry in teaching to break down barriers for both adults and children to discuss traditionally sensitive issues.

“Myanmar people already have a history of string puppets in their culture,” Sridevi said.  “So I thought if we could train a large group of people to make their own puppets and create stories about issues like disability inclusion - or any other sensitive topic for that matter - the puppets would become an effective way to convey those messages through the use of humour and entertainment.”

Through the support of MFA Finland and the IKEA Foundation, the project was realised and the Ishara Puppet Theatre have returned to Myanmar to conduct this two-week intensive workshop. Forty participants from townships across the country have spent days learning how to create puppets, how to use them - and how to develop performances addressing a range of issues, from disability to drugs and alcohol.

“The idea is that the township teams will be able to take these performances back with them to their own communities” Sridevi said. “We’re also training six caregivers from Early Childhood Care & Development centres. They are very active and creative people, so we hope that they will use their new puppet skills in activities with children in their own classrooms – and of course train others in their townships to do the same.”

Disability and inclusive education remains a sensitive, yet important issue in Myanmar. A 2016 situational analysis by UNICEF suggests around 3-4% of children in Myanmar have a disability. However, that number is almost certainly greater when you consider the lack of understanding around intellectual disabilities – or even disabilities related to things like hearing and speech.

When it comes to inclusive education, far more needs to be done to ensure that children with disabilities are not left behind – and this is a process that involves changing public attitudes even within the education sector itself.

“Stigma, bullying and discrimination due to disability are key issues in education, even when it comes to the recruitment of teachers,” Sridevi said. “One case that recently caused a stir on social media was about a person who had two joined fingers who applied to become a teacher and was asked to come back once he had the fingers separated. If it’s a problem for teachers at that level, you can imagine the struggle children with disabilities face.”

Dadi Pudumjee is a puppet master who has performed and taught his craft all over the world. He is even President of the Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA)! He has arrived back in Myanmar with four other trainers - Vivek Kumar, Pawan Waghmare, Mohammed Shameem and Kumari Yadav. Each has a personal story about how puppetry has helped transform their own life.  They were at one time children living on the streets until a Delhi-based NGO called Salaam Balak Trust rescued them and provided an opportunity to learn the skills of puppetry. Each now use these skills to generate an income.

Over two weeks it has been the team’s task to turn forty mild mannered Myanmar nationals with limited or no experience, into performers capable of entertaining an entire community. Dadi is overwhelmed by how far the group have come in such a short period of time.

“What has been special with this group here in Myanmar is that I’ve never seen a group so enthusiastic and hard working. They go back, they practice, they come back and improve,” Dadi said.

“We have managed to work out a system of creating simple puppets for awareness programs and
educational work where the people who are learning aren’t puppeteers - or not even artists. We are developing simple techniques – not with string puppets but with gloves, shadow and rod puppets - and we’re integrating it with the messages that Save the Children want to convey.”

Dadi says that puppetry has been used throughout history to convey sensitive or taboo topics to public. “Puppetry is an objective medium – it’s not subjective like using a live actor. You can say certain things through puppetry, especially when sensitive things are involved, that human actors in some of our countries may not be able to speak about,” Dadi said.

“This is the power of the puppets when we are working with issues like HIV, safe sex or gender issues – there’s just much more that you can get through than if you were using live actors.”

For the participants themselves, most have never considered using puppets in their teaching, even though string puppetry has been used widely throughout Myanmar since the 1700s.

Kyu Kyu Thin, a local ECCD care giver from Pyin Oo Lwin, is looking forward to bringing her new skills back to the classroom. “I think puppetry is going to be very effective for children’s education,” Kyu Kyu Thin said.

“In my classroom I teach children through poetry, physical exercise and storytelling. We usually use drawing methods to tell these stories, but the puppets are going to be such an amazing way to capture the attention of the children.”

Finally, the day has come that our participants have been working towards. Performance day. The teams made some last minute repairs to their puppets, rehearsed their performances one final time - and have now set up stage at a
local monastic school where a group of novice monks eagerly await the performance.

The children laugh, giggle and sing their way through the afternoon – and by the end of the day the group of amateur puppeteers have learnt one final important lesson. A performance is never quite complete without a good audience.