Puppets To Africa

THIS PAGE IS OLD For further updates on this project in 2013 check out projecthandup.org
Go to our facebook page to follow our adventures overseas.

Here is the story, from start to finish of PHASE I, and the beginning stages of how I came to start projecthandup.org

22 May 2012 –


Hello, friends.

June 19th – July 6th Dec 1 2012 I will be teaching puppetry in Nairobi, Kenya.

I’ve now entered phase 2 This will be phase 1 of a 3 phase project to create live puppet shows performed by Kenyans that teach about HIV Prevention and AIDS Awareness.

For more info and a VIDEO about this venture, click here. (june 21st)

For an UPDATED VIDEO see here (Aug 21st)

The Story:

In the summer of 2010 I was asked by a comedian friend from Zambia to help him learn to do puppetry.  He wanted to use puppets and comedy as a means to breach the social taboo of openly talking about sexually transmitted disease in his country.  I gave him some puppets and training materials and taught him what I could.  I went off travelling again, and though we keep in touch, we mostly went our separate ways.

However, what he told me that day, at our first meeting, stuck with me.  It was difficult, even in America, for him to sit in a public place and talk about sex, condoms, HIV and coping with disease.  He seemed uncomfortable at times and expressed to me that this was the problem with educating his people.  It simply wasn’t appropriate to speak in public about these vital, life saving topics.  It is embarrassing, and generally keeps people from openly discussing it.  However, he noted, puppets seem to be able to say anything, anywhere and because they are “not real” they can say what they please.  But because they are life-like, funny, and interesting looking, they hold the attention of people in every age group.  Perfect.

I wanted to help.  I had an idea to sort of re-create an educational program that I helped develop in Cambodia many years before.  In Cambodia I helped write a series of lessons that were performed with puppets, magic, and storytelling for the purpose of educating people about water borne illness and basic germ theory.  We developed several programs and they continue to be performed in schools across the country today.  One of my plays was even translated, filmed and broadcast on Government television in Myanmar.  The team of puppeteers that I taught went on to produce educational videos on bird flu, elementary education, arsenic poisoning and even HIV prevention.

But, when it came to teaching about AIDS in Africa, I didn’t know where or when I would have the chance to do it.  I wrote it down on my facebook profile as a reminder and sort of a “wish list” of projects I wanted to do one day.

Flash forward, a year later.  In 2011 I got a wild hare and decided to radically alter my life. I rented out my house, put all my things in storage and decided to exclusively travel, perform and pursue hobbies that interest me.

In addition to helping build domes, I also had a chance to perform a couple of school assembly programs in Belize. Here, in Corozal, children line up to “hug the puppet” after a show.

One of those “hobbies” was learning about alternative housing that could be used for developing world families that would be low cost, easy to build, and promote a sustainable lifestyle.  In fact, I performed a live audition and won the opportunity to speak at a local Dallas TEDx event on the topic of housing for displaced people groups.  (I know, weird hobby, but I’ve never been accused of being normal.)  If you do not know what TED is, click that, and click here to learn about TEDxSMU in Dallas.

I took a class on building monolithic concrete domes.  I got a book on building houses out of trash called “earthships”.  And by November 2011 I found myself in Central America building domes in a small rural town in Belize.

Then things got dicey at “home.”  As a first time landlord, I made some poor choices and my house in Texas had already ended up empty.  I was losing money fast, and at a point of desperation I put an advertisement on Craigslist.

Weeks later I was in Guatemala building an Earthship with a crew of 50 people.  I received an email and sight unseen, took a payment via Paypal for first and last month’s rent from a total stranger who needed a place to live in Waxahachie, TX.

When I returned in December to pick up the next rent check, I met my renters for the first time.  We exchanged pleasantries and I was introduced to the family.  They were from Kenya.   I thought nothing of it, and promptly left town to Washington state for the holidays.

In late January of this year I stopped by to pick up another check from my renter in Texas. Immediately he and his wife started asking me about puppets.  Apparently in my email signature they noticed that I worked for a puppet manufacturing company.  I told them what I did for a living, and immediately they expressed that not only did they think puppets would be great for teaching about AIDS in their country, but that they also had the contacts necessary to find me groups of willing people to learn to perform as well.  How amazing is that?

Great!  A real invitation!  After two years, suddenly my pet project idea had some legs.  And from such an unlikely series of events.

Two weeks later I received a message from one of the attendees of the TEDx event that I spoke at during the previous fall.  I was asked to perform a magic act and give a message that would sort of “Wrap up” an official TEDx event held in Dallas.  The topic was “Radical changes in education.”  A lot of interesting and educated and well connected people in Dallas were running the show and in attendance.  I performed a short vignette (by juggling hatchets) about education reform (you had to be there) and also an escape act that encouraged and motivated the attendees as a grand finale.  But, just before that grand finale I thought to myself “This is your chance.  Grab a puppet.  Tell people what you want to do.”  And for 90 seconds I told the audience about my idea to use puppets as a teaching tool in Kenya.

I was immediately approached by a gentlemen who offered to take me to HIV/AIDS classes at Parkland Hospital.  We set up meetings with the program director for AIDS education for the CDC.  We visited the AIDS resource center.  I got books.  I started reading online about AIDS.  I got my blood drawn and tested and had lunch with other AIDS victims at the outreach center.  I was interviewed for D Magazine.  I’ve also been discussing magic effects with local magicians to get a feel for what visual illustrations I can use to strengthen the presentations.  I’ve been a busy little beaver trying to learn what I can to be an informed writer for educational shows.

The Current Sitch:

So now it is May 2012, and Benjamin (my renter) and I will travel to Kenya in a few weeks to begin Phase 1 of the project.

The first trip will be largely a fact finding mission.  I will teach as many puppeteers as possible.  I will meet with current HIV/AIDS Education and medical groups serving in Nairobi.  I’ll try to get a feel for what the culture finds funny, what puppets are most attention getting, what accents the puppets will need to have, which languages I may need translated, and all kinds of minutia that will help with putting together a solid program.

Right now I need financial gifts to start this first phase.  I only need a little over $3000 to make this three week trip work.
These funds will go toward airfare, car service in Kenya, food, and lodging.  For now, this project is funded by personal donations.

Phase 2 will include working with a local 501 C 3 Non-Profit in order to receive funds with oversight and accountability.

Phase 3, ideally will be run by the Non-Profit until the whole program can be turned over to native Kenyans.  Of all the charities, churches, and non profits and NGO’s I have worked with over the years in over 15 countries I have learned one valuable lesson.  (Well, a LOT more than one) That lesson is that I exist to help equip others to meet one another’s needs.  I can’t come in with a plan and try to force it to work.  I need to be asked to help, provide the help, and equip the locals to do the work themselves.  Change always comes from within.  Whether personal or national.  Charitable imperialism is as yucky as regular old imperialism, and neither makes the world a better place.

I am SO PRIVILEGED to be asked to help.  I feel a greater privilege that I actually CAN help.  But right now I have no idea what the end result will be.  Because of that, I would prefer to self finance Phase 1.  But I simply can’t.  I don’t want to ask a charity, because I can’t guarantee results and I don’t want to abuse the non-profit system.  I’ve seen FAR too much waste in my travels across the world so far.  Far too much abuse of funds.   So, since I don’t really know what to expect when I land in Nairobi, I want to start frugal, small, and without too much expectation.  Of course there are meetings set up.  There are people to see.  Puppeteers to train, but NOTHING goes as planned when an American do-gooder goes to the “developing world”.  I’ve been on way too many trips to depend on a schedule, expect specific results, or anticipate anything going as planned.  But that’s OK!  At the very, very least I will turn a whole bunch of people in Africa onto the idea of using puppets for education.  At the most?  Lives will be saved because a puppet taught them about HIV transmission.  Here’s hoping!

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