Puppet Power

The purpose of this particular happy-faced hand-puppet-in-progress is to help the niños in a nearby village overcome their fear of the dentist.

I’d volunteered to embark on this project last month when I attended an administrative/brainstorming meeting at Ojala Niños, an afterschool program for the children in the village of San Miguel Viejo. [For more on this program, see my previous WOW posts, “Hope for the Niños” (published March 19), and “Elsmarie Norby: Out of the Ashes” (published April 12).]

I learned at this recent meeting that some young, community-minded Mexican dentists would soon come to this pueblo, check on the children’s teeth, and, with parental permission, provide whatever dental services might be needed, gratis.

Drawing on my own lifelong terror of dentists (to this day I confess to friends that I’d rather stand before a firing squad than sit in a dentist’s chair), and my happy use of handmade hand puppets to teach little ones about health when I served in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa, twenty years ago, I raised my hand at this meeting and made a case for puppet power. I said something along the lines of, “Maybe if the kids saw a puppet in pain with a toothache come out smiling after seeing the visiting dentist, they’ll be less apprehensive…”

Most of these rural Mexican kids, as almost everyone here knows, have never been face to face with a dentist nor encountered a professional dental procedure. Yet their dental needs are great. In poorer campos dental hygiene is often lacking. Children’s diets are not always balanced (sometimes heavy on sugary sweets) or healthy. Drinking water, often drawn from old wells or polluted streams, is dubious. To quench their thirst, many kids drink teeth-rotting Coke.

So I’ve started making a puppet to help the dentists in their admirable effort, and she’s slowly coming to life in my hands. Like the other puppets I made in the Peace Corps, she’s taking on a force, even a personality, all her own. Anyone who’s ever brought a puppet to life will know what I mean.

The how-to of puppet-creation came back to me readily this week. It’s easy (as everything is, once you learn how): First, you take a cardboard toilet-paper tube and form a head shape on the top half of it with a generous amount of aluminum foil; then you cover the aluminum head form with papier-mâché (strips of newspaper dipped in a thick paste made of white flour and water) and let that dry for a day or two. Afterward, you paint a face, glue on some yarn to make a nice head of hair, and proceed with an appropriate body…

First steps in puppet-making process
First steps in puppet-making process

Those who have read my memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), may recall the story of my puppets in Gabon. But for those who have not, I’ll excerpt some of it here:

“Chantal Chanson (chanson means ‘song’ in French) was the star of my handmade hand puppet theatre troupe. There was something about her that the children adored. … Among the little ones of Lastoursville, Chantal was something of a rock star, and her signature song, “Lavez les Mains,” shot to the top of their charts. Sometimes little children would stop to serenade me with this song when they saw me walking in town.”

“Pour avoir la bonne sante” (to have good health), Chantal belted out, head bobbing, purple hair flying, green hands clapping manically, “lavez les mains a l’eau et au savon!” (wash your hands with water and soap). To avoid intestinal worms, her hit tune continued, wash your hands with water and soap. After using the toilet, she rhapsodized, wash your hands with water and soap. Before preparing a meal, she crooned, and the children jumped in to complete the refrain, “lavez les mains a l’eau et au savon!!!” …

 Then, after Chantal took a few bows as the kids applauded wildly, I brought out two more puppets who put on a Punch-and-Judy-style show. There was Yvonne Savon (savon means “soap”), whose head was carved from a big block of blue soap and her dress made from a hand towel, and her archenemy, Mick Robe (the French pronunciation of microbe, or “germ”) who was decidedly ugly. … Mick opened his act with an earnest, Pavarotti-style rendition of his theme song, “Si tu aimes les maladies…” which, translated, was “If you love being sick, you love me – Mick Robe! If you love diarrhea, you love me – Mick Robe!…” Yvonne Savon then appeared on the scene and saved the day, overpowering Mick with the magic of her soapsuds.


New puppet-in-progress
New puppet-in-progress

I don’t know what this new puppet – yet unnamed (any suggestions?) – will say or sing. I’m sure, though, when she’s fully created she’ll make her wishes known. I’m sure, too, that with her big happy smile and her shiny white teeth she’ll have the power to overcome some of the Ojala kids’ fears of seeing the dentist. Maybe she’ll even have the same effect on me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

July 15 update:

Here she is — all finished and named —

Dolores Danza!

Puppet Dolores!

14 thoughts on “Puppet Power”

  1. Dolores Tango, because she’s in pain (tengo dolor???) but will leave the dentist doing the tango.

  2. She’s even prettier when she’s animated (as she was on FaceTime the other night). You can take a video with your Canon. When you finish her, maybe you could make a short little video and upload it to your blog!

    1. She appreciates the compliment, Barb! But for me to make a video and “upload it”? Sounds daunting for this non-techie. It’s easier for me to make puppets (the old-fashioned way). 🙂 — xx

  3. It’s just as easy as taking a photo and uploading it. If you want me to go through it with you, we can do it on FT. I have the same camera I’m pretty sure.

  4. Brush and brush every day that’s how you keep me plaque away!! There is a song that the head start kids sing. I will try and remember it or maybe some one else does. So you need a bad guy puppet mr. plaque! Dolores

    1. What a great suggestion, Dolores! Yes, please try to remember the song and send it along. By the way, I think I’ll be naming this pretty puppet after YOU! 🙂

    1. So nice to hear from you, Patrice! Yes, indeed, I do have a photo of the finished puppet (named Dolores Danza for now, at least), and I’ll try to post it both on FB and at the end of my “Puppet Power” blog post. If you’d like, I could even bring her into your shop to show you in person. (I did make her blouse from the fabric I bought there.) When will you be there? — BB

  5. Oh dear Bonnie, you can’t count on me to be there often, especially this week, when I am preparing for a conference but I am so happy to see the puppet in that super fabric, it makes my heart soar!

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