Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger

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

Bilanjan, the Bush Creature. Kirango, 1979. Photo by Mary Jo Arnoldi.


According to oral traditions, the oldest masquerades are those made entirely of grass skirting over a wooden armature. These masquerades date from the nineteenth century and all of them represent powerful wild animals. Grass masquerades are still made today and are featured prominently in the festival. They remind people of the long and rich history of this masquerade theater. Their performance, often at the beginning of the evening segment, underscores the high value, which people invest in their history and in tradition. People associate these animal characters with elders and with the heroic deeds of past generations of hunters who are praised in these masquerades' songs.