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Mali Celebrates Mask and Puppet Culture

Malians celebrated their cultural heritage at a recent festival showcasing traditional masks and puppets

In the West African country of Mali, masks and puppets play an important role in traditional culture. Despite the influence of the modern world, that importance remains. But now, it is also being shared with the outside world. Malians celebrated their cultural heritage at a recent festival showcasing those traditional masks and puppets.

The purpose of the "Festival des Masques et Marionettes," - "Festival of Masks and Puppets" - in the major city of Segou, is to preserve the culture of Malli's Dogon people. The Dogon are best known for their masked dances, wooden sculptures and architecture. Dances and parades are used to tell the story of the works.

"The masks in their original forms represent all our philosophical, social and cultural thinking," Amadou Fantasa Masa, village elder explained. "Each mask has its significance and its meaning. Each is a symbol of something."

The festival started in 1996 as a way of helping the various village groups by paying for their performances. One attraction this year was a collaboration between Dogon from the near-by village of Markala with those from the more-distant village of Amani.

In the Dogon culture, masks were originally made only by women, but men would take them away to perform their own ceremonies. Ankene Ouologuem, a member of the Markala Dogon, explains, "The men have seen that these masks are very beautiful and they have taken them away from the women to perform their own rites but they pay tribute to the women as inventors of the masks."

Traditionally, masks were only used for community gatherings. But now, the Dogon have become willing to show them to tourists at festivals like this one.

"It's brilliant here, but most notably, it is a Malian festival and lots of them come together and create a very good ambiance. We are accepted amongst them and this is really very good," says Brigitte Joussen who works with German embassy in Mali.

More than 20 groups from all over Mali were invited for this year's festival.

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office.