Dolls have, for the most part, represented a single race, culture and identity.
The sound of “doll” automatically carries the image of a skinny vinyl white image with fancy azure eyes. Children the world over have had this image since time immemorial. It has been the image for adoration and aspiration of our children through their socialization. I have wondered what owning a Barbie means for an African child in their socialization, and what the ideal world they will come to comprehend in the confines of their cognizance of it. For many of our children, this has led them to conceive lighter skin, as a measure to their own appeal to the world, of their doll as being the denominator for ultimate beauty. Ultimate success. Barbie’s petite figure has drawn the standard for dignified or sexy appearances.
A slight historical perspective might help here. The African society is still living the ravages of olden and modern forms of slavery, colonization, plus self-inflicted ills – all too numerous. This has routinely compromised a clear definition of the legacy we would establish for posterior generations, and we have increasingly resorted to others’, including in the adoption of cultures, entertainment and folktales. In doing so, we continuously risk throwing out our own identity, an important factor to building a thriving and productive society. I am convinced that allowing our children to play with an Afro-themed doll is key to restoring this identity.
Not that there have not been notable attempts. Black Barbie was introduced in the 1980s, although the brown-skinned doll has anecdotally failed to catch up with the trend in Africa, in comparison with her lighter sister. Mowgli, a fictional Indian character in Disney’s Jungle Book has not made it to commercial merchandise in any appreciable ways. And youngsters today would consider him rather old. The 2016 Moana has probably been the most compelling brown-skinned cartoon character that seems to directly convey heroism through the prisms of both skin colour, grit and gender. There are advances, but they are slow and likely to penetrate the African entertainment market slowly or will still have to contend with their pinker counterparts.
So the black doll transcends the visual for play and harnesses a powerful weapon to orienting children towards understanding of racial diversity, culture, and identity. Living in a global village, it is important to understand oneself and feel comfortable in one’s skin. Its implications on national development are significant. Orienting children towards the images that reflect their culture and roots is as good as investing in their education for the health of a nation. Well then, the African girl doll range cannot be just another black doll on the shelf, but something the African girl can relate to, and a restoration of identity in a world influenced by popular culture. It creates the pathways for grounding our children in education, socialisation, passion and entertainment through the many products the doll offers.
African parents comprehend that Afro-themed entertainment for our children is very limited. Partly due to the fast-paced assimilation of Western culture the information age is delivering to children. We know we have limited control over what content contributes to the socialisation, education and entertainment of our children. While it is encourageable that children learn and appreciate other cultures, when that content replaces and undermines your own world, it should cause alarm bells. This is because the world does not thrive on homogeneity but much on heterogeneity. I would rather live in the diversity the world offers and the dynamism that ensues from the pluralism of the values passed on from one generation to the next.
The immortalization of our identities will need to find a place in the commercialized world we live in. Malawian fairy tales like Kamdothi, Majoti and others cannot survive modern competition where folktale characters have made it to the marketplace. Presenting them through merchandise as superheroes, modern and featuring ‘cool’ action figure looks ensures that the essence behind their creation can survive. In the last two decades and beyond, Malawians enjoyed our African stories mainly as a result of limited TV and information technology. And, where these existed, the content for kids was negligible. We read more, we listened to oral stories. That sufficed. Children today would not outpace our reading abilities, but they interact more and closer through visual aesthetics. For Malawi’s Kamdothi folktale to survive, then, it has to be re-told in new paradigms to communicate to the now generation.
Another factor that is important hinges on the heavy counsel embedded in our folktale cultures. Many stories were scary and contained very little happily-ever-after. They were not well-concluded. Those genres have little room in the now generation. And so, Majoti re-told would perhaps be our version of Shrek, if only creatively performed with a touch of action, mystery, thriller and comedy. Imagine Majoti presented as a magical persona with superpowers packaged in an animated series! He would be totally ‘cool’. Even adults would love Majoti, just as they love the scary but gentle Shrek. The game changer is being able to understand the current trends in children’s entertainment and fit the Malawian/African folktales in modernized frames.
Likewise, repackaging Kamdothi as the “clay princess” will improve her appeal by her determination to overcome hardship – my current undertaking. I wrote the story (unpublished) and fabricated a doll that kids could cuddle as they read or listen to the story. I have created more characters with careers. Take Chichi, for example. She is a fashion designer and fashion blogger. Tumbika is a chef and lifestyle girl; Rutendo is a model; Akech is a story teller and reporter; Almaz is a song writer and musician; and Savanna is an entrepreneur. Each doll orients kids in their field of expertise.
The only way to bring the African experience to kids and keep them interested rests in packaging the content in the diverse ways they learn. Today, I cannot measure to Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, because they have established themselves with gigantic investments, for so long. But my point is they offer nothing much to the African child to build the African society. Our children sing about snow and eternal winter due to Disney’s Frozen although many will never experience snow. Yet we have so much we can sing about, like our rivers, summers, cultures and wildlife. We can have shows to design dresses from African print, mould clay dolls, cook local African cuisine, etc., which the African girl doll collection is slowly representing, and engaging kids more than making them listeners and passive viewers.
Afro-themed entertainment for kids is still in its infancy. Many children will refuse anything outside Disney, Nickelodeon characters and Barbie. Translating our culture into entertainment will require resources and more creativity. Investors or governments are shy from investing because they are not sure about its competitive prowess against established Western giants to realise returns. As an individual, it is almost impossible to scale up, although creating the doll is a breakthrough towards the entertainment world. The good news is we have started.
There is a lot government can do. A main development challenge for us is government is focused on immediate and basic needs of the population. For a long time, we have been stuck in the basic needs provisioning for the State. The arts are perceived luxurious in the face of glaring poverty, and are seldom considered accelerating factors for development. My experience from similar efforts in the past, when I attempted launching countrywide afterschool activities with the Ministry of Education, was that such activities were considered a luxury, and that government has real urgent issues to address than promote fun for kids. Regardless, government can lure private sector to come on board, and create the necessary environment or arbitrage between individuals and corporations.
Someday soon, a black Malawian doll will make it on a store shelf, and the African child will have been ushered into a new paradigm shift. They will understand that it’s perfect to be dark skinned and have curly or kinky hair. Blackness (or brownness, for that matter) will become normal. My Majoti project, to make him an appealing character to the now generation, will add to the gender diversity needed.
Blending culture and business for development will kill two birds with one stone. Culture is evidently central to the development of nations, and transforming it into entertainment can generate significant economic benefits to Malawi. Western countries have succeeded to sell us their cultures, and we have enjoyed them without refraining from dipping into our pockets. It is time we built systems that will support the culture-development nexus through entertainment that has a global appeal.