Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger

by Mary Jo Arnoldi
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Sine, the Gazelle. Segou Region, Mali, 1979. Photo by Mary Jo Arnoldi.

 

Youth associations in farming and fishing communities throughout the Segou region in Mali celebrate the change of seasons with elaborate puppet masquerade festivals.  One festival takes place just prior to the rainy season in June, which signals the start of the agricultural and fishing seasons. Another smaller festival takes place at the beginning of the dry season in October, which heralds the coming grain harvests. Known by various names (sogobò, dobò, or céko) this masquerade has a long history dating from at least the mid 19th century. It originated with fishermen sometime prior to the mid nineteenth century, but by the late nineteenth century farmers began embracing the theater. Today, the masquerades are performed by four different ethnic groups: the Boso and Sòmòno, who are fishermen and the Bamana and Maraka, who are farmers.