Dolls with a difference

Your little one’s sixth birthday is fast approaching and you’ve racked your brain trying to find the perfect present for your princess. She desperately wants a doll but you’re worried the unrealistically skinny and busty variety available at most toy stores may give her the wrong message about what it means to be beautiful. A doll is usually a child’s first friend and plays an essential role in shaping their identity. Playing with dolls not only helps develop a child’s social and fine-motor skills but also shapes their identity and self-esteem. Luckily you no longer need to worry about your child being brainwashed by Barbie – there’s a whole range of racially diverse dolls on the market now to make your precious poppet feel special.

African Doll

Khulile Vilakazi-Ofosu and Caroline Hlahla initially came together to build a hair company that specialises in 100% natural hair extensions to suit African women’s hair. But when Khulile’s daughter started wanting blonde, flowing locks a new business was born.

She wanted to give her child something that resembled her – a doll she could be proud to own instead of something impossible to aspire to. The South African entrepreneur and her British business partner created the Sibahle Collection, a range of dolls representing children from African and Caribbean heritage. Sibahle means “We are beautiful” in isiZulu.

“Our doll isn’t just another Barbie that’s painted black. We decided to make a doll that has a flat nose and a large forehead, with the features and hair of a typical black girl,” Khulile says.

“We hope the doll’s hair will teach our children how to take care of their own natural hair from a young age and to love the skin they’re in.” According to their website, bebouncehair.com, Caroline and Khulile initially battled to get their idea off the ground. They faced constant rejection from manufacturers who told them “black dolls don’t sell”.

Yet the dynamic duo has sold out twice since their March 2017 launch. “The majority of our clientele are black middle-class parents in SA, Zimbabwe, Caribbean heritage. Sibahle means “We are beautiful” in isiZulu. “Our doll isn’t just another Barbie that’s painted black. We decided to make a doll that has a flat nose and a large forehead, with the features and hair of a typical black girl,” Khulile says.

“We hope the doll’s hair will teach our children how to take care of their own natural hair from a young age and to love the skin they’re in.” According to their website, bebouncehair.com, Caroline and Khulile initially battled to get their idea off the ground. They faced constant rejection from manufacturers who told them “black dolls don’t sell”. Yet the dynamic duo has sold out twice since their March 2017 launch. “The majority of our clientele are black middle-class parents in SA, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Europe and the USA. About 15% of our sales are made to white parents.”

The Nobuhle doll is one of their bestsellers and retails online for about R650. The duo have paired up with two local designers – one operates from her garage and the other is a stay-at-home mom who sews from her dining room table – to grow their business.

Khulile and Caroline have also included a doll with albinism named Zuri in their collection because “we’re passionate about speaking out for those that have been previously ignored by the beauty world.”

 IsiZulu-speaking Doll

This newcomer was recently launched by toy giant Prima Toys and has become talk of the town. Baby Thando is a softbodied doll with a carefully selected skin tone and can utter 25 phrases.

“We tried to ensure we created the right skin tone for Baby Thando, a tone that most South African children can identify with,” says Sphe Zikode , brand manager of Prima Toys.

Baby Thando first says a phrase in English, then follows it up with the isiZulu translation, Sphe says. “The fact that she also has an educational aspect is a huge plus for both parents and children.

“She’s the perfect companion for children who want to learn English, a language which is not their mother tongue. She also provides the opportunity for children to start speaking isiZulu or add to their vocabulary.”

Baby Thando’s phrases include “I love you/Ngiyakuthanda”, “I’m hungry/ Ngilambile”, Please tell me a story/ Ngicela ungixoxele inganekwane” and “Mommy, please pick me up/Mama ngicela ungiphakamise”.

She speaks with the push of a button on her belly.

“Playing is a child’s primary and most important job as it is both essential to development – cognitive and motor – and hugely beneficial,” says Sphe.

Baby Thando forms part of Prima’s The Baby Love Range. It includes Afrikaan s - speaking Baba Tasha and Baby Bella that says 50 English phrases – and the toy company isn’t stopping there.

“We are exploring producing the doll in other African languages to extend our offering of the Baby Love speaking-doll range,” Sphe says. Each doll costs around R699 and comes with a plate, spoon, fork, bottle and dummy.

Doll with albinism

Mala Bryan wept when she read stories of albino children who had been murdered and mutilated for their body parts.

“They will always be targets just because of their skin condition and the belief they have healing powers. People with albinism are being butchered because some people think if you get their bone or finger you’ll be rich,” she says.

The West Indiesborn former supermodel, who launched her Malaville Dolls collection to celebrate black beauty back in 2016, created a doll to celebrate albinism, Alexa.

“Alexa is very important because all children need dolls they can relate to. But she’s very important to me because I believe she can help create awareness for people with albinism,” Mala says.

On the Cape Town-based entrepreneur’s website, malavilletoys.com, Alexa is described as “that friend who will always be there for you”. Alexa costs about R400 online.

Vitiligo Doll

She was mercilessly mocked for her skin condition and bullied for years in a world that shuns imperfection. But Winnie Harlow is proud of the skin that sets her apart from the rest. At the age of four the Canadian beauty was diagnosed with vitiligo – the same pigmentation condition Imbewu: The Seed actress Leleti Khumalo has. Winnie battled childhood bullies to become one of the biggest names in the modelling industry.

“The only reason I didn’t like my skin was because I was told it wasn’t what’s right. Or I was told it wasn’t normal. But who’s to say that? Eventually I learnt my opinion of myself matters so much more than anyone else’s and I wish I’d known it earlier.” Her self-acceptance hasn’t only empowered girls to love themselves – it’s inspired a young woman to create a doll to reflect girls and women who have the condition. American artist Kay Black creates handmade porcelain dolls with a wide range of skin tones. Inspired by Winnie, Kay accepts orders from women who have the skin condition and customises them to look like the owner.

The vitiligo dolls are sold online from $127 (R1 550) and have caught the attention of celebrities such as actress Tia Mowry and stand-up comedian Mike Epps, who says Kay is “breaking barriers” with her dolls. Kay is delighted to make her customers happy. “People are literally in tears when they get their dolls,” she tells US People magazine. “I want to create dolls everyone can relate to.