“The A-Girls are exceptional, black vinyl dolls that appreciate the African girl of today, with all her versatility and diversity”.
Dolls are part of a girl’s introduction to what is considered ‘beautiful’. According to Bakani, creating the brand was essential in order to excavate and resuscitate what African beauty is.
Until August 2016, Bakani July Johnson was a Lecturer at the University of Botswana (UB) in the Social Work Department. She holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work and has worked intensively in the psychosocial field since 2004, gaining experience with Botswana Baylor Children’s Clinic as a social welfare case manager.
Prior to that, she worked with the Government of Botswana as a Social Welfare officer. After years of ideating, planning and testing, Bakani left the UB and started her doll-making business.
Bakani is a social entrepreneur and is constantly looking for ways to enhance the lives of others.
She is also a founding trustee of Musani Family Care Foundation, an organization that focusses on the restoration of Botswana’s family unit, and offers accommodation to families in transition, mostly caregivers of hospitalized patients who come from far off villages.
Musani Family Care Foundation seeks to bridge the gap by providing temporary housing and support for these families who need it most, at no cost.
Connect with Bakani and her business on social media.
Why it is important for me to make the dolls…
I have always loved children. I am forever looking for ways to enhance their wellbeing and this led to the realization that there were no black dolls to use during clinical sessions with my little patients.
As a social worker, dolls are some of the symbolic tools used for communication during sessions. However, more often than not, the dolls that were donated looked nothing like the children I worked with.
This became a query, to manufactures and it was not a pretty feeling as it was seen from the point of exclusion.
I realized that I could continue with the feeling of being ‘left out’ as a black African girl, or I could do something about it. The research allowed me to see that I, and others like me, were never a concern for doll-makers; they had their own market and concerns.
Whatever I could find was by sheer luck. I refused to use divisive story-telling or to accept that it was ‘someone else’s fault’ that as Batswana – and Africans – we don’t have black dolls.
The more I searched, the more I was challenged to create the doll I was looking for. I worked from thought to product, beginning in 2007.
The effect representation has on young Batswana /African girls…
We have for the longest time been portrayed as ugly, and not a representation of beauty.
If you research dolls throughout history, you will not like what you see. We have been ‘caricatured’ through the years and our features ridiculed. Our natural hair is still a full-on debate today.
With the dolls, I am simply excavating and resuscitating a black girl’s beauty.
The idea of the dolls was to trigger an emotional response and to ensure that we put African girls faces on beauty, with a clear understanding that it is our responsibility to raise a new, confident African girl.
The development of The African Girls Dolls is a winning communication tool targeting children.
These are one-of-a-kind vinyl dolls that appreciate the diversity of African girls and were created with the realization of a lack of representation both commercially and in messaging for African children.
Most props and toys used are of girls and boys are not of African descent. Through the African girls’ collection, I am constantly helping organizations to create a unique language of truths, trust, and symbols as part of visual storytelling and visual messaging.
I understand that symbolically, images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words and dolls have throughout history been symbols to communicate, appreciate and represent.
Dolls are part of a girl’s introduction to what is considered ‘beautiful’, and speaking to that aspect we want to be able to say ‘she is so pretty, just like a doll’ – and actually talk about a doll that looks like her.
Children are visual beings. They connect to things visually and will remember things seen more than things said. They connect with objects or pictures from memory.
Africa and Botswana are about symbolism, or what things represent and communicate.
If you listen in on doll play, your child communicates with what she sees. If her dolly is wearing beads she will have a conversation about that. The idea was to have dolls that are relevant to the children, thus when one looks at the dolls, they will realize that some have tutu skirts and modern symbols which represents a ‘modern girl’ whereas others are dressed in traditional Tswana regalia.
Great dolls bring the thought of history, self, and admiration. Children from different ethnicities benefit from playing with dolls that are a different skin tone, make and versatility.
Though dolls are not photocopies of the individual, we believe that to a small child the most important thing is that her little dolly is beautiful just like her, validating who she is and how she relates to herself.
The role I see my dolls playing in a Motswana girl’s life
This product, created by an African woman for African children is girl-centered for now and is self-esteem/self-efficacy based.
More than play, the dolls are seen as communication tools that instill gender and ethnic pride as a foundation for social skills. What you see and is preached becomes a norm. If everyone talks about ‘light-skinned’ being better, children will want that.
I want parents to hand the dolls to the children without influencing the children’s taste about them.
I have involved a few people in the crafting of the dolls from those that design the clothes to those that do the hair and packaging.
I am very committed from an economic point of view to create an ecosystem that will hire many people because the project has a lot of potential for growth.
I want a situation where the dolls will have ambassadors so that the young ones can appreciate the mortal presentations of the dolls, just the way they experience the princesses that they see at places like Disneyland.
I will build the momentum and I am open to ideas to help develop the brand even further. I am sending out a call to all African and Botswana girls to join the brand as re-sellers and distributors for their countries.
How I manufacture my dolls…
I have involved a few people in the crafting of the dolls, from those who design the clothes to those who do the hair and packaging.
Unfortunately, in Africa we don’t have companies that work with vinyl for doll making, so we have been forced to outsource.
However, we do have tailors and designers, crochet ladies and shoemakers working on other aspects of the dolls locally.
How the dolls have been recieved by people so far
The success of the dolls has transcended borders and continents, and they have reached international markets.
Botswana has been amazing! The relevance is clearly understood, the need is very apparent and we can only express gratitude for all the support.
Media has been keen at each stage of their development, and young, hopeful Batswana are eagerly working to join the brand and with open arms, we are welcoming ideas and collaborations.
The dolls are currently available across Botswana, as well as re-sellers in Johannesburg, the Netherlands and the United States of America.
We have worked with brands like the Netball World Youth Cup, International Women in Sport, Botswana Tourism Organization and we are currently working on a project with Botswana Netball.
The growth of the business will definitely be stimulated by partnerships. Partnering at different levels with others is beneficial.
I am working with so many individuals who want to run with certain aspects of the product and I have never been as relieved as the agreements come to fruition. I know now I cannot do it alone!
Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a vibrant, developed, middle-income African state.