Blue Eyed Dolls in Africa

Blue Eyed Dolls in Africa


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




As a child I remember her carrying a pathos even more magnified by what

she called herself, “Omkhana we Chimbwa”, Daughter of Dogs.  A person

without people allowed, imbibing the merest sliver of life. 




Blue Eyed Dolls in Africa

By Betty Wamalwa Muragori


There are dolls in my past, two of them.  I found them lurking menacingly in my subconscious.  Those dolls had made their journey to Africa to unsettle an unsuspecting black-eyed little girl. They remind me of those Hollywood movies in which children’s beloved toys turn into monsters and pursue their child owners in the darkness of night.   Both the dolls were blond and blue-eyed.  

“Kinky haired babe, think again.”

That’s what they said to me in their silence.  It was these dolls that revealed the texture of my hair. I was kinky haired.  My hair grows in tight little corkscrews.  It certainly was not blond.  One time I got to experience what it was like to have a mane of hanging, swinging blond hair.  It was quite by accident.  I was helping my mother husk green maize cobs.  I looked at the silky blond tussles and gathered a handful and put them on my head.  My mother laughed with me as I swung golden locks out of my eyes like a white girl.

But let’s tell the stories of those dolls.

The first doll surfaced in my first week of primary school.  I was six years old.  The second one featured at my first birthday party.   It wasn’t my own party.  It was my friend Diana’s birthday party.  The very first one that I had ever been to.  It all happened in the same year.  The year I like to call “The Year of the Dolls”. 

So back to the second doll story.  The first week of primary school.  It was only 3 years after independence and the mzungus who had not fled were still making plans to flee the country. African children of the soon-to-be bourgeois were taking over their places in schools.  Whilst their parents took over their jobs, homes, businesses and farms.  There wasn’t going to be a Zimbabwe situation. Where a President looking for a reason to reinvent the heady freedom fight days casually threw out the white farming community and brought the country to its knees. 

The fleeing mzungu’s in my country made it unnecessary for Africans to get nasty en-mass by forcibly taking back their land like they are doing in Zimbabwe today.  Still there were a few incidents that I overheard the grown ups talk about.  A muzugu or muindi had had their land or home taken away by so and so, a minister in the new government who could not be refused.  There was always a sense of victory and sometimes a mumbled “serves them right”. We don’t talk about that in public.  In that uniquely Kenyan way we swept that uncomfortable thing under the carpet.  Too late we have found that it is your secrets that will kill you.

Story One: The First Doll

I would like to say that I decided to write my memoirs because I have lived a memorable life full of lessons for the young, but that would be a lie.  I haven’t reached a place to know what happens. The truth is that my memoirs decided that I should write them.  They decided that it was time.  All of you who know about giving birth know that when the time comes for the baby to be born, the baby must be born.  No amount of gritting of teeth and holding on will make much difference.  Besides I have had a title for the book for years.  As usual I had announced the title to everyone ages ago.  Unabashedly I created expectation which I ignored until now.  The title? “Blue Eyed Dolls in Africa, My Memoirs”.  The picture on the cover was already fully formed. (I hope it is the one I have in the end.)  A broken toy doll with blond hair, blinking blue eyes.  A fat baby doll, beheaded.  Its body and head separated. Grotesque but beckoning the browser to buy.  So intriguing for those with a taste for the macabre!

The memoir style suits me.  I can go on diverting here to tell one story, leaving it to tell another, doing whatever I want to do with my story really.  I haven’t decided whether the memoirs will be a true story or just a story which could be true.  Let’s not venture into philosophical conundrums by asking “what is truth anyway?” 

But how rude of me?  You don’t know whom you are talking to?  My name is Sitawa.  I like to think of myself as Sitawa the Third.  I was named after my father’s mother and my mother’s grandmother, who both had the same name.  As you figured I am a self made woman.  I crafted my own title from those two fore-mothers who only relate with each other upwards through me, when their blood finally mingled.  They are my kin who doubled up us my guardian angels when I was a young child in trouble.  I don’t know much about Sitawa my great-grandmother except that she was my mother’s grandmother.  I know lots about Sitawa my grandmother, my father’s mother. From knowing her until she died when I was 9 years old and from the stories about her from my father, a natural story teller. 

What was she like? Even as a child I couldn’t miss her strangeness.  My grandmother Sitawa did not look like my people.  She looked foreign, exotic even, a real African, the type photographed by westerners in their romance with old vanishing Africa.  She had what I like to call Masaai ears.  The ear lobes had been stretched so that they dangled.    My people’s ears are whole.  She wore beaded ornaments in her ears, around her neck.  Brass and other metal ornaments were worn on her wrists and ankles.  Another thing, she had a hole below her lower lip in which she sometimes wore a small wooden plug.  I found out why she looked this way when as an adult I went to a district called West Pokot in north-west Kenya for the first time.  And there she was walking around in many of the Pokot women. 

Her people must have come from people who neighbored the Pokot.  And in that quintessential old African way, they intermingled with little distinction.  Over the years ethnic groups that neighbored would swap dress, traditions, practices and relations with ease.  My self image was shaken.  Here I was looking at people whom I thought of as unknown strangers.  I had in fact come on a great adventure to discover them, to separate myth from fact.  Were they really warlike people?  Or cattle rustlers who could spear you for your cows.  Now I realized that all the time there was a relationship with me, through my beloved Sitawa. 

But that’s how she looked. What was she really like?  My father told me a story that for me explains her.  He says that even on the eve of independence, Sitawa refused to believe all the talk of freedom.  “Ahh, Ndala, how can Africans talk of getting rid of the British.  Even if they manage are you sure Africans can rule themselves?”  You would name her a skeptic, a cynic perhaps. But she wasn’t.  Many years later I came to learn of the life my grandmother had lived.  Widowed twice, in a community in which being a widow was akin to admitting to being a congenital husband killer, her life had been hard.  It was her fault her two husbands died. 

In punishment she was allotted a diminutive existence that made her fret with anxiety when more living than her measure showed up.  Her happy grandchildren playing and laughing in abandon made her watch and wait for days for the calamity that must surely follow.  In mitigation she offered up her misery like some supplication to ward off the misfortune that was sure to follow.   As a child I remember her carrying a pathos even more magnified by what she called herself, “Omkhana we Chimbwa”, Daughter of Dogs.  A person without people allowed, imbibing the merest sliver of life. 

*   *   *   *   *

So let me begin by telling you the story behind the title, “Blue eyed dolls in Africa”.  There’s more to it besides being a lovely title that promises clinical insight into post-colonial angst in Africa.  And no I don’t collect dolls, but you would expect me to.  This is the story of me and the first doll.

*   *   *   *   *

I was six years old when I first saw a real live doll.  It belonged to the little blond girl whose real name was Susan in my new class in standard one in K primary school.  I wanted that doll.  Its eyes blinked and it cried “Mama, Mama” I had to know why and how.  Where did the sound come from?  So I took it home with me that day.  Technically I stole the doll, I went into Susan’s school bag without permission, I took it without telling her and I took it home.  I didn’t tell my mother that I had it either. 

The next day I returned it and handed it back to Susan with a calm,

“Here is your toll”. 

Heavy mother tongue interference in evidence.  I was an earnest little girl simply returning the accoutrements of a successful scientific experiment to a fellow avid researcher.  Where I come from the “T” sound becomes a “D” and vise versa.  P, and B are also interchanged.  We have real problems with “W” interestingly because when you think about it, it is pronounced with a series of “Ds and Bs”. I was yet to acquire the posh upper class English accent that I have today, that always makes foreigners ask me where I went to school.

Innocent of the consequences of my actions I was surprised when Susan burst into tears clutching her doll and ran away. 

I did not expect what followed.  The abiding image I remember is of me standing with many tall white adults looking down on me with opprobrium. I was in discomfort. I was being accused of being a thief and being lectured at as if I were a half wit.  My mother was there and a weeping golden haired Susan, clutching the hand of her mother.  “Never steal again”, the headmaster Mr. Asher sternly warned me. I couldn’t understand them.  What were they on about?  Couldn’t they understand that I could not be a thief?  I only took the doll to find out how it could cry, how its legs and arms could move like that, whether it was real, how it could exist.  The thoughts stayed in my head, unspoken.  I stood silent looking from face to face overwhelmed. 

Can you imagine my horror when I met Susan in first form in my new secondary school?  The first thing she said to me was,

“I hope you won’t steal anything from me again.” 

No send-up. We were still too young to know irony or sarcasm, described by my secondary school teacher, Mrs. Hopkins as “the lowest form of wit.”

“No I won’t” I assured her. 

I was relieved when she left that school shortly afterwards.  This part of my memoirs is true.

posted 8 June 2007

Betty Wamalwa Muragori is especially interested in how Africans are constructing new identities as they redefine their place in the world.  She believes in the power of words.  She has a BSc degree from the University of Nairobi and MA in Environment from Clark University in Worcester Mass. USA.  Currently Betty works for an international conservation organization in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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update 19 June 2012




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