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We’re in South East Madagascar, a part of the world where out in the villages, few latrines or bars of soap exist, but where diarrhoea has a huge impact on the lives of children and how their futures work out.

Soluf gives birth to Mr Poop – then wipes his butt. Hand-washing skit session, NSI workshop, Madagascar October 2017
Soluf gives birth to Mr Poop – then wipes his butt. Hand-washing skit session, NSI workshop, Madagascar October 2017

Soluf, what we call a ‘big mouth puppet’, is wiping his butt – he’s just been behind the bushes and given birth to Mr Poop, a sock puppet with devilish aspirations.
Whether he’s using leaves, or a stone, or just his bare hand; we’re not sure – it doesn’t really matter. What is clear is why when Soluf comes to play with his friend, and his friend goes home for food and nobody washes their hands; that friend is sick the next day.
We’ve come to love Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) at No Strings. With puppets, it’s just a subject that keeps on giving and every project yields fabulous finds.

Speaking frankly, we should have seen this Soluf potential before – this ‘wiping’ visual has always been the one little thing participants have glossed over when acting out disease transmission routes. The ‘birth’ part, never a problem – with puppets. Once people see a fun idea they’re keen to adopt it in their own skits, and Mr Poop’s arrival is a moment our trainee facilitators have celebrated in numerous African countries.

This is not to say that hand contact has not been a central focus in other sessions we run – we’ve had the shadow show story of little Anna in her Kawangware primary school, Nairobi, who ‘drew the map’ (ran her fingers over the latrine walls) for want of what the sector terms, picturesquely, anal cleansing materials. And then didn’t wash her hands, and bought mandazi (delicious local doughnuts) for her friends; with a result you can imagine.

But shadow puppetry is one thing – you get to hide behind a screen. We use it more to reveal the impact of hygiene and sanitation practices, the emotional consequences, to motivate behaviour change by additional routes to disease-transmission understanding. However, there is a role for spelling things out more graphically. Puppetry is a visual language like no other, and somehow inherently charming. It has the wonderful capacity to laugh in the face of subjects that normally make us gulp.

What’s curious, here in our workshop, is that Soluf’s puppeteer is perhaps the shyest person in the whole group. Seeing the wiping behaviour makes everyone explode. The plot is all a little bit predictable but the audience, knowing the performers, is riveted.

The point is that done properly, puppetry elevates embarrassment to humour, to endearment, even. It is able to ‘out’ the unspeakable through playful means, and before we know it, everyone wants a turn. And then we can talk about it normally. Wiping our bums is something most of us in the world, once we’re old enough, do with great regularity – it’s certainly not something we discuss though. Toilet roll adverts have felt obliged to allude to it through puppies, for goodness sake.

Having that toilet roll is a luxury; washing our hands with soap (or if unavailable, rubbing them with the ash from cooking fires) after we poop is not. It’s a critical behaviour that can have a tangible impact on how our lives turn out.

Good old Soluf and his wonderful Malagasy puppeteer have given us a new trick.

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