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Puppetry no kids’ stuff

Contrary to popular belief, a Kenyan puppet maker and puppeteer can be busy.

Fedelis Kyalo is a living example. Apart from being a puppeteer with the political satirical show, XYZ, he writes for his own show Tears by the Rivers and for another The Last Man Standing, both of which have been doing well in local and global theatres.

“It is an all inclusive kind of art. The same person makes the puppet, comes up with the skit and then I perform it. Sometimes we include music in our theatre and community performances,” said Kyalo, who has been in the entertainment scene for 18 years.

It all began in 1995 while he was still working as an ambulance attendant at Barakani Hospital, Mombasa.

The Family Programme Promotion Services (FPPS) wanted to run a schedule on family planning and planned to use puppetry to spread the message. Using their network with hospitals in the country, FPPS contacted the matron at Barakani Hospital.

“I was the first person she talked to. She wanted to know if I was interested in puppetry training because she knew I liked art,” he said.

It was an opportunity he could not let go. They were taken to Bamburi for a two-week beginners’ course.

“We then began doing community performances,” he says.

Although it was a part time thing, he had fallen in love with it. He later went for advanced training at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi.

“I got exposed to puppeteers from Germany. It is after this that I started doing puppetry for theatre. There is no way I could continue holding on to my ambulance job so I quit,” he said.

It was a decision his family did not fully understand. His passion for puppetry was great and he also had to travel to Belgium for more training.  “It was not an easy decision but fortunately, I was not yet married,” he added.

While still in Mombasa, he founded a four-person group called Krystal Puppeteers.

The number later grew to seven though it dwindled to only two; himself and Chrispin Mwakideu who is based in Germany.

Not taken serious

Kyalo said the biggest challenge he faced was convincing people that puppetry was not only just for children but also a full time job.

He is rarely taken seriously, making it difficult to get contracts or negotiate deals.

He added that many young Kenyans were not interested making a career out of puppetry. He can only think of 10 good puppeteers yet over the years, more than 400 people have been trained.

“You train a young person who is out of school but if they go to college or university and get a job, the puppetry story is over,” said Kyalo.

The turning point in his career was when he performed his show ‘Tears By The River’ in a Belgian puppetry festival.

Since then, the show has been to Spain, Poland, Ecuador and Argentina.