BY LANJI OUKO
Growing up, owning a Barbie Doll was very prestigious. I remember going for camps with each and every Barbie Doll I ever owned. I took pride in each one, ensured they showered, styled their hair and whenever their braids seemed untidy, we would head back to my aunty to redo their hair. Silky, blonde ‘mzungu hair’ tied in three African ‘matutas’. Never did it occur to me my daughters were all Caucasian. The same was experienced by a number of children my age, who genuinely loved the mzungu hair, and even bought hair dye to ensure they had a variety of looks.
As we grew up, a number of realities were brought to our attention. To begin with, race is something you are automatically made aware of quite early in life. The more you read, the more aware you become of race. It gets worse the minute you are capable of comprehending what is on the news. At that moment, it is inevitable to look back and realize none of your dolls were black.
While racism and tribalism are two major ‘isms’ highlighted quite often in the media, be it about Kenya or purely as a global phenomenon, there is another ‘ism’ that is looming at the back of the closet. Not yet a skeleton in the closet but as it gradually hovers over our heads, it is rapidly turning into a factor creating an issue among the youth. Colourism.
Simply defined, colourism is a dorm of prejudice or discrimination based on shades of skin tone. A number of documentaries have been used to open up the conversation on colourism, class and skin bleaching.
A popular local video vixen caused a stir after openly admitting to lightening her skin. Her very candid confession about skin bleaching gradually created a platform to discuss the team dark skin and team light skin phenomena. More examples have been used in the media, which enable people to continue the discussion. However, what is being done about it and if anything, is it enough? Are girls being reminded they are good enough whether in dark skin or light skin? Is the media at fault or justified for their portrayal of people of different shades. Sadly, influential personalities and celebrities seem to endorse the statement, “the fairer the skin, the more advantageous”.
Cameroonian singer Denica, officially known as Reprudencia Sonkey is the inventor of a skin lightening cream called “whitenicious”. The product’s net worth is estimated to be worth $30 million. Within 24 hours after the launch in January 2014, the skin care line is said to have sold out. Internationally, bestselling rapper, Lil Kim, an African American, re-introduced herself, looking extremely different and from what was once a dark skinned lady, she know seems to look like a Caucasian lady.
“All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough – even the men I was dating…it’s always been men putting me down just like my dad. To this day when someone says I’m cute, I can’t see it. I don’t see it no matter what anybody says. I have low self-esteem. Guys have always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know longhair type, which left me thinking, ‘how can I compete with that.’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t enough for me”. said rapper Lil.
Locally you hear words such as “Rangi ya thao” describing light skin ladies. The struggle is always highlighted on the struggles of the dark skin girls. However, colourism also affects light skinned girls. As a young 20 something year old lady explained, men objectify the light skin girls more and treat them often as women after money and good time. Which brings me back to wonder, did playing with these mzungu dolls make us feel inferior? Or prefer fairer skin?
A wonderful lady Olivia Mengich went further to create an African, dol. the Swahili Princess.
Olivia has the belief the white Barbie doll is not an issue at all, however the exposure to only white Barbie (and other white dolls) is an issue due to the fact that other children are not exposed to members of various races and cultures. Globally, young girls use dolls to depict what is going on in their lives; girls in Kenya cannot accurately do so as they either largely own or only own white dolls. When a black child grows up and is constantly exposed to images and characters that depict people that don’t look like them, the black-inferiority complex is born.
In Nairobi and other East African cities there is a growing demand for black dolls. When Swahili Princess was introduced on Facebook, orders began streaming in from the first post. Women from Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia have sent messages hailing the product, order requests and appeals. The largest appeal category was of an Afro doll, which was to be introduced in mid-August, 2016. The doll now has three hair types; Afro, Braid and Straight.
Ms Mengich says that the reason why she named the product Swahili Princess was firstly because, the Swahili language and culture is rich and enticing. It is a language that members of the East African community are proud off. Fictitious princesses are perennial favorites amongst young girls. Despite demand, the East African market was not supplied with African-beauty dolls. African beauty-dolls are supplied in West Africa by the ‘Queens of Africa’ Brand and in Southern Africa by various brands such as ‘Momppy Mpoppy’. The name is therefore specific to the target market, Eastern Africa.
The Players in the toy industry are retail toy stores, retail stores and distributors of imported toys and to a small extent designers and producers of toys such as Polyplay Ltd. It is worth noting that there are small and micro organizations and sole proprietors that create ‘hand-made’ toys. For example, Lilian Achieng of ‘Handmade African Dolls’ Facebook page and Jacaranda Creations. Both create African Rag dolls.
Olivia started out Sh450, 000 and had them manufactured in the world’s manufacturing hub (China) due to expertise. It is worth noting that China manufactures 80% of the world’s toys. In fact, Mattel Group, the manufacturer of Barbie, manufactures 74% of its products in China
Swahili Princess was inspired by a desire to provide young African girls with a doll that reflects their beautiful physical attributes and culture through fashion.
“In today’s borderless world, we are exposed to ideas and notions of beauty that are shaped by the far-away gatekeepers of beauty” says the Academy Award winner Lupita Nyongo adding that the “gatekeepers tell us through media that beauty is a pale skinned, blue-eyed blonde female. This same idea is instilled in the young African girl through the cartoons, fairy tales and dolls they are exposed to.
Dolls serve as symbols of beauty, racial stereotypes and racism; Without dolls that accurately represent their own image, African children end up looking up to white dolls, and seeing the white image as powerful and a symbol of beauty. This results in negative views about their dark skin tone and is detrimental to many aspects of their development, including self-concept. Swahili Princess aims to serve as a reflection of beauty and a symbol of confidence by promoting African beauty, culture, and fashion.