Watching young children play is one of the joys of life, offering a glimpse into a hopeful, happy future. Perhaps more than ever before, parents realise that their children grow up too fast, and very differently, today. Digital media, electronics, and the globalised entertainment industry mean that even when our kids play they occupy a commercialised and culturally constrained space.
A nutritionist and mother of three Bertha Munthali, 39 had an epiphany one night when tucking her children into bed. As usual, they pleaded for a bedtime story. Bertha obliged, but she felt saddened that they always requested stories and characters based on American TV shows.
She was struck by how this differed from her own childhood. Growing up in Malawi, she remembers vivid tales of ancestral lore, fairy- and folk-tales rooted in ancient wisdom and rich culture.
These descriptive legends and histories were woven into intriguing episodes, and passed down from generation to generation. Bertha believes this heritage is too important to be blown away by today’s cultural whirlwind.
How could she rekindle that joy, and share it with even the youngest African children? Beyond the stories, she wanted to allow for interaction, something tactile for children – especially young girls – to bond over. And so was born her idea of creating a range of African dolls.
Her dolls are gorgeously lifelike, and at 45 centimetres tall they provide real experiences to resonate with African children. Currently there are six dolls, with a story and adventure behind each personality. Savanna is the feisty entrepreneur, Akech a teacher and story-teller, Tumbika the chef and lifestyle coach. Then there is Chichi the fashion designer, Almaz the musician who loves to travel, and Rutendois a dynamic model.
She researched the dolls’ names and identities deeply; they are deliberately pan-African, with names and faces designed to appeal not just in South Africa, but to Kenyan, Ethiopian, Malawian, Zimbabwean and Zambian girls too. “My creations represent the beauty and diversity of African women, with varying hues of skin colour and hair textures.”
And there’s something of Bertha is each of her six dolls. Her characters are intended to teach and inspire children, but also to instil values such as caring and respect for others, self-confidence, and determination.
Like many entrepreneurs, she has had to overcome hurdles to get this far. She knows she has entered a hugely competitive industry, both locally and globally. At present, she sells the dolls from her company’s website, and at selected markets in and around large shopping malls in south Africa and she also sells in Malawi, Zambia and across the globe. Manufacturing costs are high because order batches are low – but she foresees this improving when she will be able to increase volumes.
Bertha’s short-term goal is to be stocked on the shelves of major retailers. But she has even bigger ambitions ahead: she wants to extend the range, to add a line of accessories, and roll out competitions and activations. She has written her own fairy-tales as the backstories to the dolls’ characters, and envisages publishing these as books to further enrich children’s appreciation and understanding of their heritage.She is even exploring the idea of a captivating TV series, to bring the dolls’ stories to life in this mass medium.
She relishes these challenges. And she feels this excitement is exactly what her dolls can teach young kids: to reach for the stars, to appreciate the journey of life, and to stay positive. Bertha even named her company The Yellow Kingdom, to signify the glorious, glowing, life-giving colour and optimism of the African sun.
Munthali is committed to providing African parents the option to give their children dolls that not only represent them, but offer edutainment and a story of pride in the past, and aspiration for the future.
She believes her idea is perfectly timed. Black dolls may not be new, but there is a gap in the market for dolls with purpose and meaning, a companionship toy which introduces the complexity of Africa to a multiracial ‘now’ generation. The dolls affirm the concept of the beauty of African children. And parents, worldwide, are actively seeking dolls which reflect today’s diverse reality.
By blending stories from the past into the career-oriented modern world, she hopes to inspire African children not only to embrace their heritage but also to dream big, and be the best they can be. “I want to make children sing about the sun, the rich earth, the animals of the jungle and the savannah, and the warmth of Mother Africa”, she says, passionately. “But I also want them to be empowered, attuned to the present, and proudly aware of their potential.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but a Mama Africa fairy godmother certainly helps too.
Follow the enchanting stories of Bertha’s dolls, and participate in the dreams of young African girls, by visiting www.yellowkingdomnetwork.comand follow her dolls on facebook (The African girl Chichi), on tweeter and instagram (The African girl doll)
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