Dolls in Africa

A foundational chapter in Sitawa Namwalie’s memoir in progress focuses on the doll. Set in the late 1960s in independent Kenya, the chapter captures the experience of race in a still-integrating Kenya (for the most part, the process of racial integration failed in independent Kenya):

Susan’s doll looked just like her. Blond hair covered her head in soft ringlets. She stared out of big pale blue eyes the same shade as the sky on a bright sunny day. Her plumped white skin was soft, inviting. I wanted to stroke it, gently.

Written from a child’s point of view, this passage conflates little white girl and little white doll: both stare “out of big pale blue eyes” and both have “plumped white skin.” Sitawa is fascinated, but not, it’s important to add, in a recreation of the Clark doll experiments. This is not a narrative about self-hatred; instead, it is about encountering oneself as other. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Sitawa envisions herself to be much like the doll: subject to the whims of structures that she cannot yet understand as a black child growing up in a newly independent Kenya, living in a world that was not created for her, but that she must seize upon as part of the new Kenyan middle class.

Discretion forbids me to say much more. I note only that I am looking forward to seeing this memoir in print.

Dolls are on my mind in response to the remarkable collaborations produced between the Koroga artists. Photographer Jim Chuchu has what appears to be an intriguing series of photographs on reconstructed dolls to which Stephen Partington, Tony Mochama, Marziya Mohammedali, Phyllis Muthoni, and Wambui Kamiru have written poetic responses (Sitawa has also written one that is not, at this moment, available).

In my memory, dolls were baby-like; it was only much later that I discovered the anorexic-sexpot world of Barbie and her friends, a doll that was supposed to be “grown up.” The dolls I grew up with were too soft, too small, too tender, too baby-like, designed to teach young girls to desire motherhood. Or, more benignly, designed to allow young girls the fantasy of being their mothers. We played “Mother, Mother,” a game in which dolls and humans were interchangeable, where age and gender had nothing to do with the position of “mother,” understood at that time as the position of one who created and enforced schedules. Mother said when to eat and when to sleep and when to play. I liked being mother and also liked being the doll-like child imagined within the world of the game.

One could write about the range of racial fantasies that circulated in these games—none of our dolls looked like us. Though, I note, my favorite fetish object when I attended St. Andrews for what we then called nursery school was a black doll. I could not get over its presence in the world. I remember (dimly) sitting in corners with her. Simply holding her.

It was only years later that the fact of playing with overly-pink-fleshed dolls whose flesh we termed “white” would begin to register, but not, I hasten to add, as self hatred. (I protest too much because I do not like the rhetoric of “self hatred,” not least because of the binary it ostensibly supports. To be overly simplistic: we have complex relations with ourselves, our bodies, our histories, our memories, our cultures. I worry that a self love/hatred paradigm obscures that complexity, even as I understand some of the work that a discourse of self hatred can accomplish.)

Chuchu’s dolls more closely resemble fetish objects than the baby dolls I remember. The “plastic trybe” he assembles, to use Stephen’s apt term, is a hybrid between Barbie’s vacuity and a fetish doll’s malevolence. Thickly applied makeup (paint?) transforms plastic pink flesh into red, green, and pale gray masks: dolls as art objects, ritual objects, horror objects, love objects. I’m tempted to say the dolls are unmasked, revealed for the nightmares they might later inspire. But this strikes me as not quite right. Instead, their histories of making are made visible: in the pale gray, we see rubber being extracted from trees; in the green and red, we see the labors of rubber-making, the green of trees and money, the red of workers’ blood, the dyes in factories that transform rubber beyond its traumatic origins into newly traumatizing forces. Partington captures the trauma of origins in writing, “This myth was Made in China from synthetic raw materials.”

There is too much to be said about this particular group of Korogas: let me note two or three things that stand out.

The doll is a proxy for a range of gendered positions and several poets address this facet. Marziya Mohammedali engages the rituals and rites of gendering that leave women “forever trapped, souls in lifeless bodies.” If these sentiments feel a little too familiar—this is a much-used trope in feminist writing—they are given new life by the processes Marziya identifies, “craft and trickery, magyk, sorcery.” These elements are part of what Adrienne Rich identified as “the forces arrayed against us,” and their slipperiness makes them difficult to combat. Over the last few months, I have been thinking how important it is to mark patriarchy as a vital force that is always consolidating its power—if we miss its vitality, its capacity to transform and adapt, we cannot encounter it in any successful way.

Yet, the reading of the poem I have given is challenged by the first line of the poem: “we grew full of avarice, vice and greed.” While I have suggested that the poem offers a masculine “they” and a feminine “we,” these are gendered positions alluded to obliquely by the presence of the doll to the side of the poem. The “we” in the poem is mythic—gods overcoming gods, empires overthrowing empires, kingdoms capturing other kingdoms. But the doll’s image anchors something, offers a point of departure worth taking.

The gendered implications of these doll images are taken up more explicitly by Phyllis Muthoni and Wambui Kamiru. Phyllis writes of gendered expectations attached to young girls, noting the “gendering of pastimes.” “Pastimes” refers to play, of course, but also invokes past times, that is, history. It’s worth remembering the visual and aural link between the two: play has a historical memory and is history laboring on the present. We notice its historical subject-making labor when it is transgressed. The rules of play are gendered, that is, are historical protocols acting on us, challenging the notions of choice and preference we attach to play. When we ask children, “do you want to play?” the demand is more normative than it might appear. What seems to be a question of choice and agency is about structuring time and space and gender. And these gendered protocols work in interesting ways to reinforce gendered binaries. So, while as Phyllis writes, “[She] would rather kick a football / than play with a doll,” I wonder about the form of the world “she” inhabits that has these two as seemingly the only possible options. Are we still a world that too-easily distinguishes between dolls and football? And might it be possible to think of other ways of structuring time and play that embrace children’s polymorphous sense of play and possibility?

The consequences of gendered play as destiny structure Wambui Kamiru’s “Me vs. Barbara (Head of the Plastic Trybe),” in which a seeming adult woman confronts the ghosts and presents of doll trajectories. I adore the last three lines of the poem:

You tilt your head.
I tilt mine.

Yours. Pops. Off.

The decapitation fantasy that ends the poem following a staring contest illustrates the ideological war the poem addresses: “Plastic tribe speaking against my own tribe.” Here, the “trybe” in the title of the poem has shifted into “tribe,” understood as an antagonistic force within colonial modernities (modernity against the tribe, tribe against colonizers, tribe against tribe). I am struck by the agency ascribed to the doll: the actions that, for the most part, happen due to human manipulation (we tilt dolls’ heads for them) erase their human agents and dolls become agential. Another way to say this is that dolls act and enact the histories that make them available to us in Africa.

Chuchu’s images defamiliarize dolls: playthings transformed into art, vacuous prettiness changed into macabre beauty, racial fantasies imagined as irrevocably alien. These transmutations anchor a set of reflections on the pull that dolls continue to have on the African imagination—as rival and proxy, plaything and destiny. And, in the hands of the Koroga poets, occasions to imagine and re-imagine our doll-saturated pasts and presents.

2 thoughts on “Dolls in Africa

  1. I never thought about the limits of the discourse of self hate (you know, how it becomes a binary, or how even love itself isn’t unproblematic but full of antagonisms).

    Further, my brain benefited from reading your thoughts on the genderedness of play — how “do you want to play?” isn’t as innocent as it seems. Hmm.

    The bit I really like (sound like an undergrad much? You know how undergrads critique things according to whether they like it or not) is the one you pen about patriarchy “as a vital force that is always consolidating its power”. I’m always telling friends that there is a deep dark basement somewhere, a never center, where patriarchy is theorized and dissipated. This, of course, is meant as a joke, but one to remind us that patriarchy is not always reactionary. In fact, it hardly ever is. It is uber proactive — very on the onslaught/offense.

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