First Queens of Africa and now Momppy Mpoppy dolls are replacing Barbie as a sassy alternative for young African girls and boosting their self-esteem at the same time.
Seshweshwe Fabulous Momppy Mpoppy is enviably stylish. Sporting a trendy two-piece pants and top combo in a bright pink shweshwe design the doll virtually personifies those fashionable young women you’d spy street-side in Soweto, Johannesburg. In fact, that’s just the kasi style Momppy Mpoppy’s creator Maite Makgoba was going for when she began knocking together the outfits in her small two-studio in downtown Johannesburg a couple of years ago.
They could hardly relate to South Africa’s black dolls; they were a less-exciting Barbie decked out in a traditional outfit.
Mpoppy’s origin story is relatable enough: on the hunt for a birthday gift – something with African flair, but which also purveyed strong values – for her young niece, all Makgoba could find on offer were those of the stock-standard variety that would do nothing to teach her niece a sense of personal pride.
The sad reality, too, is that even though there are plenty of black dolls available, kids just didn’t want them. ‘They were frumpy and unattractive,’ says Maite. She’s right too; South Africa’s black dolls were unappealing to young girls who wanted something fun and aspirational – not a less-exciting Barbie decked out in a traditional outfit to which they could hardly relate. So the 26-year-old got to work and started creating dolls with outfits that would bridge that gap.
Makgoba’s Mpoppy dolls – along with Seshweshwe Fabulous you’ve got Rockstar Tutu, Mohawk Fro, and Denim Dungaree Delicious – are edgy and fashionable, like a South African version of the infamous Bratz dolls except less kitsch and garish. What’s more, girls of varying ages are crazy about her – the dolls have been selling online and from select outlets like wildfire.
Makgoba isn’t alone in the South African doll market though; back in 2005 Molemo Kgomo created Ntom’bentle Dolls. Facing the same concerns as Makgoba, Kgomo wanted her daughter to have dolls that represented the diverse cultural melting pot of South Africa and her own heritage as an African girl. Though unlike Mpoppy, this Toys with Roots range is less street-smart and trendy and little more traditional… so traditional, in fact, that there are eight dolls representing each of South Africa’s indigenous cultures: Zulu, Sotho, Pedi, Swazi, Ndebele, Venda, Tsonga, and Xhosa.
The story sounds familiar because it’s this same exasperation over the plethora of Barbies that led to the creation of the phenomenal Queens of Africa dolls in Nigeria.
It has taken ten years for popular demand to catch-up with Kgomo’s vision, but today her dolls are more popular than ever with mothers of every race keen to teach their daughters about South Africa’s different cultures in a fun, accessible way. Moreover, with modern western alternatives becoming more and more disparate from Africa’s youth, both Kgomo and Makgoba’s creations are poised to really clean up.
The story sounds familiar because it’s this same exasperation over the plethora of Barbies that led to the creation of the phenomenal Queens of Africa dolls in Nigeria. Created by entrepreneur Taofick Okoya because he too couldn’t find a decent doll for his young niece to identify with, the Queens dolls are based on three of Nigeria’s biggest tribes and integrated with a full entertainment line of books and clothes with the goal of promoting strong feminine ideals.
Even more importantly, the range aims to give young girls a sense of pride in who they are and boost their sense of self-worth. In just a few short years Queens of Africa has become so universally popular that it’s crushed the Barbie market in the region.
They’re definitely onto something beyond the genius of cornering the market early in this African doll movement – the reasoning behind using the dolls to promote self-worth and confidence in young girls is solid. The importance of seeing positive representations of dolls in their own image is critically important while kids are developing a consciousness of their place in the world.
Boys’ toys tends to encourage action, creativity, and independent thinking while girls’ toys, generally, have encouraged cuteness and/or mundane vanity.
While Barbie and Bratz might subconsciously nudge girls into that grey area where they feel value is aligned with how western and trendy you are – and how many accessories you can squeeze into you Barbie Dreamhouse – it also plants a seed in their minds that individuality and worth is created by a system outside of them. By exposing girls to attractive alternatives early on you can, at the very least, help them to start questioning these systems and challenge the truth and fairness in them.
It’s not just about race though – long has the debate raged over the message girls’ toys send out to our youth. Boys’ toys tends to encourage action, creativity, and independent thinking while girls’ toys, generally, have encouraged cuteness and/or mundane vanity. What this new range of dolls cleverly does is also to echo real-life role models that young girls can look up to.
The Mpoppy dolls, for example, emulate young trendy female entrepreneurs like Makgoba herself, and their style harkens back to the vibrant cultural undercurrent of the Soweto township where she was born. They embody that sense of culture, heritage, and place. The Queens dolls meanwhile remind young Nigerians of their rich heritage and culture.
All this social change isn’t limited to just the dolls; like the Queens of Africa, Momppy Mpoppy dolls also have a clothing range attached and a cartoon series in the works, all adding up to a movement that will shake up the assortment of archetypes girls were used to seeing in popular culture in the past.
And when we say these dolls are boosting the esteem of young girls, it’s done a bit cheekily too – the truth is that young boys will also see these dolls. While many may not choose to play with them their constant presence in the public sphere, the growing popularity of the dolls, and the intense conversations they provoke will likely register in their young minds on a subliminal level. It might even influence their worldview on the standards of African beauty and what they perceive as strong, successful women when they are older.
We can always hope.