Kids loved Seamus so much that McGlade had an an idea: could puppets and puppetry be used as educational tools for children in developing countries, children who face such evils as landmines, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition and famine?
There was a precedent already for McGlade’s idea. “Sesame Street” in South Africa pioneered a character called Kami, who was suffering from AIDS, and the development has been successful at teaching children about the dangers of infection from HIV.
McGlade, a former worker with Irish humanitarian agencies GOAL and War Child, was in New York this week for the founding of No Strings, a new humanitarian organization that will bring education through puppetry to children in the developing world.
No Strings’ first project will be a puppet show created for children in Afghanistan that will use a local legend to help warn of the dangers of landmines.
McGlade’s idea might have gone nowhere but for a lucky break: his London roommate had an aunt in New York, Kathryn Mullen, who, with her husband, Michael Frith, have worked all their lives with the “Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street” and “Fraggle Rock,” and who were colleagues of the late Jim Hensen.
“Serendipitous,” was how the trio described their meeting, at the end of a week of planning for No Strings.
They plan that the stories told by the puppets will be tailored “for the specific needs of the specific country, using their own folklore, making sure it is culturally sensitive,” as Michael Frith put it.
“We want to make the puppets and their show absolutely indigenous, make it feel like it grew out of that culture and leave it there, leave it behind in the hands of locals.”
“We want to start out in Herat,” said Kathryn Mullen. “Theater groups are starting to open up there again,” she explained, referring to the return of popular culture in Afghanistan after the rout of the Taliban in 2002.
The group sees funding being channeled to local people in, say, Afghanistan, and the puppets and shows will be allowed to develop locally.
“We’ll leave whatever they need to clone it,” said Frith, “for one or two or 20 groups.”
The task is an uphill one, but two things are in No Strings’ favor, they said.
“One of the nice things about New York,” said Frith, “is that you can find any ethnic groups you want.”
That means No Strings has been able to consult already with the Afghan community in Queens and so have created “ChucheQhalin,” a puppet version of a Pinnochio-like children’s legend from Afghanistan. In English it is called “The Adventures of the Little Red Carpet Boy.”
Secondly, McGlade already has seen the reaction children have had around the world to Seamus.
“In South Sudan we were setting up a mobile bakery, but the reaction from the kids to Seamus was amazing,” he said. “I’d hide him under my sweater and say he was asleep and they’d go away. Then when I brought him out again, they’d go crazy.”
Said Frith: “Kathryn and I have spent our adult lives bringing theater to children — “Sesame Street,” the Muppets. After 9/11 we wanted to know what we could do. Many Americans felt that the U.S. had abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out [in 1989].”
No Strings, the couple said, has given them a chance to do something for Afghanistan, where about 360 people per month are injured by landmines, over a third of whom are children. Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries.
“We’re not the first to use puppets to get a message across,” said McGlade. “But if we can get a message across to even one kid, that’s extremely important.”
No Strings will very shortly have a web site. Meanwhile, for further information about No Strings, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.