Turkana Child Figure, Kenya. Doum Palm Seed, Beads, Leather, Animal Hoofs. 22 cm. Private Collection

African Child Figures Are (Usually) Not Dolls

May 22, 2020 By: Herbert M. Cole

Perhaps the most important female function in the eyes of most Africans is childbearing.

—C. Bledsoe 1980: 59

Akan, Ghana

Asante Akua'ba Child Figure, Ghana
Wood, Beads || 23.4 cm
Herbert M. and Shelley Cole Collection

The legend of a barren Asante woman named Akua (born on Wednesday) commissioning a child figure, ba, from a carver is well known. Akua dressed the figure, attached earrings and waist beads, then wore it in her wrapper at her back as live children are carried. Akua’s peers laughed and mocked her, saying, “look at Akua’s child, Akua-ba.” Yet she later conceived and gave birth to a handsome girl child, initiating the legend and countless thousands of akua-ma (ma=plural of ‘child’) in the many years since the first akua-ba was created. Variations of this legend have the barren Akua consulting a diviner, then ordering a child figure that she must take to a shrine to be empowered. After giving birth successfully, the woman should return the child image to the shrine in thanks.

An akua-ba encodes ideas that include but transcend fertility and many were never played with as dolls. The flat, disc-heads of Asante versions have high foreheads, an aesthetic preference. The long ringed neck is another aesthetic choice appreciated as beautiful, as is a glistening surface, echoing the shea butter applied by young women to make their skin shine. The small breasts indicate the preference for a female as the first child—the Asante are matrilineal—and they suggest, too, that the figure is pubescent.

Bono & Fante, Ghana

Bono/Brong Akua'ma Child Figures, Ghana
Wood || 24 cm
UCLA Fowler Museum, x87.1682, 1681
Fante Akua'ba, Ghana
Wood, Animal Fur || 30.4
Derby Collection

Style differences in akua-ma accord well with linguistic and socio-political identities. Coastal Fante examples normally have tall, flat or slightly inclined rectangular (or trapezoidal) heads, while those from Bono areas North of the Asante are more three-dimensional, with conical bodies, volumetric heads and a flat, curving plane as the face. The wooden bodies of both Fante and Bono children are armless and frequently left natural.

Tsonga, South Africa

Tsonga N’wana Child Figure, South Africa/Zimbabwe
Beads, Fibre || 25 cm
Collection of W. and U. Horstmann

A second story—about Tsonga girls’ learning processes, rituals, and ideas—provides details about initiates in southern Africa.1 This account, recorded before 1933 and much abbreviated here, features a sculptured ‘play child’. The girl is Nsatimuni, whose name translates as ‘What kind of a woman is she?’—a question asked of marriageable Tsonga women leaving their initiatory seclusion. The magical Tsonga tale relates that the novice Nsatimuni makes a beautiful child figure, passes tests of her knowledge and skills, undergoes symbolic death and rebirth, learns etiquette, and is shown sacred objects and mythical beings by her preceptors. She enters the ‘house of mystery’, a sacred place of wonders, where, after more ordeals successfully endured and laws learned, her inanimate beaded child sculpture, n’wana, is transformed into a living child. Her sister, in the same process, makes mistakes, fails tests, drops her child figure into the water, and is then eaten by rats. The story’s moral is that a girl who takes initiation seriously, like Nsatimuni, will be rewarded with a child in marriage, whereas those who abuse the experience will die. It is a truism that for most African women, having a child, or several, represents fulfilment, and the sculpture in this tale, transformed into a real child, answers that need. The story also conflates ideas of ‘play children’ or dolls, with ritual objects, surrogates embodying power, a recurring leitmotif in many traditions examined here.

Ntwane Girls with Gimwane Child Figures. Photograph by Barbara Tyrrell, 1950
Asante Tano Shrine Near Kumasi, Ghana, 1976
Photograph by Herbert M. Cole
Left Image: An Akua'Ba Tucked into the Wrapper of an Asante Woman, Ghana, 1972. Photograph by Herbert M. Cole
Right Image: Dowayo Woman Carrying Child Figure in Back Pouch. Photograph by Alfred Weidholz, before 1941

Supernatural help in conception and the birth of a healthy child has been sought for millennia across the world. Hopeful mothers in Africa have done so by embracing thousands of small sculptures called ‘children’ in local languages. These often simple, semi-abstract humanoid forms, 15 to 25 cm tall, contrast markedly with larger and more anatomically detailed maternities.2 Surrogate ‘children’ belonged to married women trying to conceive, those already pregnant, or those seeking more children. In the literature, the images are usually called ‘dolls’ or ‘fertility dolls’, but these are both incomplete labels that have become stereotypes.3 First, while fertility is central, child figures involve much more than fertility. Second, no equivalent to the word ‘doll’ occurs in any African language I know of and the figures do not conform to common Western definitions and uses of dolls—small, secular human figures or babies created for children to play with. Most African child figures are consecrated with spiritual energy for a specific purpose—the successful birth of a healthy child. That said, some child figures do in fact become ‘play children’—the Tsonga phrase for ‘dolls’—given to the young people they symbolise. Both dolls in the West and African ‘child figures’, feature prominently in the socialisation of females and these images have often been heirlooms passed down through generations.

Many ‘children’ are carved from wood by men, while women dress them and fabricate others from varied natural materials. More important culturally, hopeful mothers care for, dress and carry, feed and interact with these talismanic figures. By modelling familiar, intimate mother-child relations, young women prepare for their own motherhood. The tangible presence of these images among scores of peoples provides reassurance and hope, while their materials, manufacture, rituals and symbolism differ markedly.4

Seven Asante Akua'ma Child Figures, Ghana
Wood, Beads, String || 17.1 cm (tallest)
New Orleans Museum of Art, Promised gift of Barbara and Wayne Amadee, 2001.353.1-8

Child Figures as Sculptured Prayers

The Tsonga Nsatimuni story, like the Asante legend about Akua’s child, clearly shows that such ‘children’ have everything to do with motherhood and are overwhelmingly the province of women in materials, construction and personal interactions. The images help to create the mothers who attend them. Aesthetic preferences expressed in child figures are also primarily women’s choices. The ideologies and activities surrounding these sculptures, such as childbirth, lie exclusively within the female realm, a private territory deliberately outside male experience and control. Investigating these sculptures is essential too because African cultures are strongly patriarchal and because men make most maternity statuary.5 The identities and uses of mother-and-child imagery, mainly shrines or political sites of public access, are largely managed by and for men. These are not the contexts for child figures.

Many African women cherish and address their surrogate children as if they were alive—bathing and feeding them (symbolically), fashioning clothing and jewellery, talking, sleeping with, and lavishing attention on them. Many local traditions invoke spiritual and medicinal help to empower images, to make them effective. Such sculptures, therefore, may be called ‘tangible prayers’. They have local agency—they are handled lovingly and carried in mother’s wrapper. They are instruments of desire, hope or perhaps fear in the withering face of infant death. Women know well that these ‘children’ are not alive, but they insist on treating them as living beings. As Freedberg indicates, consecration “transforms the manmade image to a sacred one, and invites the divinity to reside in it.” Consecration gives the image life, makes it serve its purpose. Women with these images ask for much—a good marriage, conception, a trouble-free pregnancy and birth, a healthy, handsome child, or several children. Child figures, often clothed with costly beads, suggest too that mothers are pleading for material prosperity. The facts that many represent both married women and children, that they can be power objects and playthings, and that their creation and use are governed by strict rules all prove their importance.

Mossi, Burkina Faso

Mossi Biiga Child Figure, Burkina Faso
Wood || 28.2 cm
Collection of Thomas G. B. Wheelock

The Mossi6 have several regional styles of child figures that have long been carved by blacksmiths and sold in markets. Called ‘infant’ (biiga), by the Mossi, most were children’s playthings, socialising devices akin to secular dolls in Western culture. Some, though, were used in girls’ excision and marriage rituals to ensure a bride’s fertility. Failing to conceive, a woman acquires a child figure that she treats as a living baby. She carries it in her wrapper, rubs it with shea butter, clothes and gives it jewellery—if she conceives and bears a child, she cares for the wooden version as she does the child itself, washing and otherwise attending it. “The doll [sic] receives the first drops of milk from the mother, and before the new baby is placed on the back of the mother for the first time, the wood figure is tied there for the last time.”(Roy and Wheelock: 2007: 78) Some treasured images were passed down for generations, as evidenced by their deep patina from handling over long periods of time.

Mossi figures, whether surrogate children or dolls (it is hard to discern which), are modest in size and shape, an often-thin head rounded in profile, on a cylindrical body without limbs, some with breasts and navel, and some without, yet always the human anatomy is abbreviated. All are female, most have the breasts of at least a young woman. Some ‘children’ with distended breasts represent women who are already mothers—nursing women’s breasts are sometimes stretched to induce lactation (see Roy 2015: 59). Child figures, shown as mature women, are an ironic contradiction also found in other regions, as we shall see below.

Namchi, Cameroon

Dowayo (Namchi) Child Figure, Cameroon
Wood, Beads, Coins || 30 cm
Private Collection

Namchi (or Dowayo) and Fali have surrogate children similar to those of the Akan. A Namchi woman hoping to become pregnant adorns a wood figure from a blacksmith, with beads, cowries, bells and even coins, mimicking the decorations of a young initiate returning to her village after seclusion. Sometimes a husband carves a figure for his wife. The figures are cherished as if alive. A woman having difficulty conceiving invokes supernatural help with her ‘child’ to become pregnant. A hopeful mother feeds her adorned child, carrying it in a pouch on her back.

Kirdi, Cameroon

Kirdi Child Figure, Cameroon
Wood, Beads, Leather, Fibre || 13 cm
Collection of Jeffrey Clifton

Namchi ‘children’ are among the more complete human beings in these traditions, with simple arms, legs and faces. They are slender, attenuated, with tube-like, stylised body parts, and no attempt at naturalism. Namchi, Fali and Kirdi figures are normally adorned with layers of costly multicoloured beads, bells, coins, cowries, shells, amulets and other talismans over a simple stick armature, attesting to the desire for both children and prosperity. These symbols of wealth and status foretell the full beading of many ‘children’ in East and South Africa, again among poor peoples.

Zaramo, Tanzania

Zaramo Mwana Hiti Child Figure, Tanzania
Wood || 17.7 cm
Collection of W. and U. Horstmann

Several peoples of Tanzania (Kwere, Zaramo, Luguru and Gogo), have initiations that involve a child image. A wooden female, ‘child of wood’ (mwana hiti), is given to an initiate by a maternal uncle. These have become female clan heirlooms, passed down through the generations. They serve multiple practical and symbolic roles—representing the initiate herself and her child, and as companions for both. They also recall revered female ancestors and protect the initiate against malevolent spirits. Most figures have female parts—small breasts, a vagina-shaped coiffure—an overall cylindrical phallic form (as explained by locals), appropriate for instruction. In earlier times, images were fitted with the girl’s hair. “The initiate was expected to lavish great care and attention upon the figure to ensure her own fertility and to protect her reproductive powers,” explains Thompson. Foremost, her initiatory education was meant to instil “ideal qualities of womanhood, which included hard work, generosity, discretion, and a strong caring and nurturing consciousness” Thompson concludes. Toward the end of her seclusion, the girl was instructed in sexual matters, how to please her husband, and relate to her future kinfolk.

Ndebele, South Africa

Ndebele Child Figure, North Nguni, South Africa
24 cm
Image courtesy Sotheby's Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie Paris Auction, 14 December 2016

A thorough 1998 study of child figures in southern Africa brought a new level of scholarly research to this subject. See Dell et al 1998.7 This book examines the construction, forms, materials, uses, histories, handling of child figures among about fifteen ethnic groups, many related to one another historically and linguistically. Some authors found images with uncertain identities, making a positive ethnic origin difficult to determine. Field research also revealed relationships between women and their ‘children’ to be deeply personal and thus often inaccessible. One author stated that, “for the sake of privacy, the details of the how and the why [of her informant’s interactions with her ‘child’] will not be divulged here.” (Gwintsa 1998: 31) Mothers and their ‘children’, both sculptural and flesh and blood, thus retain many secrets.

In southern Africa, pubescent girls, brides, or mothers-to-be, make most child figures, although in some areas men carve wooden armatures for women to dress and adorn. And while virtually all are named and considered children, many from different groups are clothed as if they were post-pubescent women. As Becker says of Tsonga figures, “All are dressed in adult women’s clothes which makes the notion of a doll or even child (nwana) inaccurate and inappropriate.” The Tsonga ‘children’, like many, simultaneously represent young mothers. These are flat or dome-topped cylinders covered with colourful beadwork in geometric patterns, without explicit heads or faces; yet some have a few beaded hair ornaments and sumptuous beaded skirts.

As told in the Nsatimuni story, a Tsonga beaded figure represents the hope for a child and promotes conception in its owner. Marriageable women receive a ‘child’ after initiation, and compete with one another, showing the images off in public dances—no one may touch the ‘child’ without paying a fee. In other cases, when a married woman is ready to go to her husband’s room, she first receives her ‘child’, to signal her maternal preparedness, and her husband first sees the image in exchange for a gift. The beaded child usually stays with the newlyweds until a real child is born, although practices vary. They name the image and play with it—caring for it helps relieve the young mother from homesickness. Some earlier researchers saw Tsonga child images as merging an explicit upright cylindrical phallic form with a woman’s skirt below, thus combining the sexes, as the Tsonga understand a child’s anatomy—bones are the male contribution, while the flesh comes from the female.8

In several southern African traditions, child figures are (or were) made for girls’ initiations, where they are carried in dances, and in a few, the ‘child’ is given by a woman to the man she hopes to marry. When used initiation, images are instructional aids for learning domestic and sexual roles that novices will shortly assume.9 Some South Sotho and Tsonga figures are owned and used exactly as cited above for Akan akua’ma. After the child’s birth, the beaded image is offered to the shrine of the spirit that activated it before its owner became pregnant.

To bear children is wealth.

—Tsonga saying (Becker 1998: 119)

'Child' Figures, Tsonga, Sotho and Ndebele Peoples, Lesotho and South Africa. Image courtesy Bernard De Grunne

Child (or nubile female) images, like those of maternities, are markers of transformation in the lives of women and their families. The months of pregnancy are liminal, anxiety-filled rites of passage. These periods call for tangible symbols to aid women coping with loneliness and uncertainty as they await anticipated outcomes—a healthy child—in an unpredictable world, where maternal and child mortality was (and often still is) common. These figures help absorb the attention of aspiring mothers, channelling their apprehensions as they adorn and care for them.

Many African child images are believed to have magical potency to promote conception, as we have seen, empowered by deities or ancestors to promote a mother’s ritual and biological needs. Materials used to make figures can be both symbolic and potent. Red ochre on many from southern Africa, for example, relates to menstrual blood, which of course signals a female’s ability to conceive, or to blood common during childbirth.10 Reeds containing water in origin myths are metaphors for the penis and semen. A round calabash or hollow orange, seed containers, represent the womb. Nel and Liebhammer (1998) offer a compelling argument that construction processes using these materials are sexual metaphors; “The structural union of reed and calabash evokes the notion that the child figure represents the procreative act, an act that would give rise to the child.”

Tswana, Botswana

Tswana Child Figure, South Africa/Botswana
Gourd, String, Beads, Fibre || 17.8 cm
Derby Collection

Some figures are made of straight cylindrical bundles of reeds inserted into openings in small round calabashes (gourds) or wild orange shells. Analogous evocations are present in the sheathing of a figure’s conical or cylindrical form, with beads. Similar sheathings of Ndebele ‘children’ are beaded rings in graduated sizes fitted on a conical torso, miniatures of rings worn by living females. No firm documentation attests that Ndebele ‘children’ were used to induce conception, although they probably were. Thousands of these charming beaded sculptures have been made in the last few generations, primarily for sale.

The concurrent belief that many a ‘child’ is both alive with potency and will help bring the wanted baby must add greatly to a hopeful mother’s relationship with it. Yet intimate physical, emotional and psychological aspects of these relationships are rarely recorded—after all, they are private, evanescent, multiple, and often not especially memorable.

Still, a mother’s ministrations underscore ideas of process, agency, volition and transformation, all deeply significant in the liminal, in-between states of pregnancy and giving birth. Child figures are far from passive or inert on-lookers, and many survive from long, deep traditions. Acting on behalf of ancestors or other spirits, many surrogate children can be called ‘power figures’ invoked to obtain lasting, living results for their ‘mothers’.

One need not invoke Freud to see phallic shapes in a number of examples. Turkana child figures from Kenya, made from three-lobed doum palm seeds, echo the shapes of male genitals, a resemblance surely not lost on the Turkana—the seed is overlain by beaded clothing mirroring that of young women: imported beads and some made from ostrich eggshells, themselves symbols of fertility and wealth.

Sotho, South Africa

South Sotho Kgöngwana-Tshingwana/Ngwana SehôChild Figure, South Africa
Wood, Glass Beads, Cloth, Thread, Copper Alloy || 25.4 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2010.208

In conclusion, the evidence assembled here, while brief, proves that African processes of conception and birth are complex, deeply cultural phenomena, not simply the biological meeting of live sperm and live egg followed by gestation and birth. African cultures have long sought to influence science, to the extent that we can refer to maternity as a bio-cultural process, an amalgam that invokes a wide spectrum of thought and activity embracing physiology, aesthetics, psychology, education, medicine, mythology and story-telling, as well as spiritual belief and practice, to achieve the desired results: healthy babies who will live from infancy to childhood and beyond. Sculptures called children, and treated as such, are frequently crucial elements in this process. Local belief in their power and efficacy is undeniable. It is true that some of these images are played with as dolls, but to label them all dolls is a simplistic and ultimately racist usage, as it fails to acknowledge the sophistication of African thought and action—to aiding mothers to give birth to healthy, handsome children.

While such images are not ubiquitous, they have been common for centuries among peoples in varied ecologies and social systems all over Africa from Ambo and Asante to Zaramo and Zulu.11 These ‘children’ speak a language now largely silenced. Yet they still embody poignant, intimate expressions of desire, love, aesthetic preference (and sometimes loss) that we cannot ever truly know or recover, encouraging deep bonds between countless mothers and their children, both surrogate and real.

References & Bibliography

1 Dederen, 2007

2 The two fullest treatments of this subject are Cameron and Dell, each covering many more cultures than are cited here. Images of children and those of mothers and children are not always parallel occurrences; art incorporating our main subject, maternity, for example, is fairly rare in most pre-1950s southern African cultures, whereas surrogate children are common in that region.

3 These stereotypes are akin to the ‘fertility goddess’ label discussed on pp 19-20 in my book of 2017; Maternity: Mother and Children in the arts of Africa. Brussels and New Haven: Mercatorfonds and Yale University Press. The use of the word ‘fertility’ is usually correct even if it tends to limit the perception of these sculptures.

4 The treatment of ‘child’ figures here is selective rather than thorough. Several more cultures are dealt with in Cole 2017.

5 Indeed, men make most sculpture in Africa. See Thompson, 2008: 30. Some terracotta maternities among Akan, Yoruba, Edo (Benin), Igbo and other peoples, however, were made by women, but often using the prevailing male canon. Inland Niger Delta terra cotta makers’ gender is not known.

6 Data on Mossi children derives from the extensive field research of Christopher Roy and Thomas G. B. Wheelock (2007: 76–78, 449–52, 2015: 57–63).

7 Dell et al. 1998. 16 authors wrote 21 essays, with more than 230 illustrations, most of them of ‘children’ in studio shots or in context. Only a handful of those ‘children’ can be included here. See note iv above.

8 Roumeguere and Roumeguere-Eberhardt as cited in Cameron 1996: 95.

9 Van Schailwik 1998: 69; Jolles 1998: 9: Nettleton 1998: 111, see Dell 1998.

10 Dederen 2007: 118; Nettleton 1998: 175; Nel and Liebhammer, 1998: 225, see Dell 1998.

11 I have counted more than 90 cultures that have used child figures to promote conception and safe birth. The earliest known examples, quite similar to subSaharan versions, are the Egyptian paddle figures cited briefly and illustrated in Cole 2017, page 100.

Becker, Rayda
1998 Ku Veleka Vukosi…. Dell 1998, 119-129

Bledsoe, Caroline H.
2002 Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Cameron, Elisabeth
1996 Isn’t S/He a Doll? Play and Ritual in African Sculpture. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Cole, Herbert M.
2017 Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa. Brussel and New Haven: Mercatorfonds and Yale University Press

Dederen, Jean-Marie
2007 Toy or Treasure? Exploring N’wana, the Tsonga ‘Doll’. Liebhammer 2007, 105-119

Dell, Elizabeth et al
1998 Evocations of the Child: Fertility Figures of the Southern African Region. Cape Town: Johannesburg Art Gallery, Human & Rousseau

Freedberg, David
1989 The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gwintsa, Veliswa
1998 Women and Material Markers of Identity. Dell (ed) 1998, 21-27

Liebhammer, Nessa (ed.)
2007 Dungamanzi Stirring Waters: Tsonga and Dhangaaan Art from Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Nel, Karel and Nesa Liebhammer
1998 Evocations of the Child. Dell 1998, 219-231

Thompson, Barbara
2008 Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Herbert M. Cole

Herbert M. Cole, known to many as Skip, taught African art history from 1968-2003 at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He also taught briefly at UCLA and the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Cole is author, co-author, and editor of eleven books on African arts and 60+ essays and articles. His latest book is Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, 2017. Four years of African field research centred on southeastern Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Ivory Coast. He organised 13 exhibitions of African art at UCLA, UCSB, LACMA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Mint Museum. In 2001 Cole received a Leadership Award from the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (the professional body for Africanists), a lifetime achievement honour. Cole continues to publish, and he has been a consultant to museums and private collectors. Cole can be reached at scole@arthistory.ucsb.edu.

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