Can dolls tell life stories? Apparently, some can. South Africa’s Shwe Shwe Poppis dolls have for years carried life tales from the “rainbow nation” to far-flung places around the world. Their stories continue to connect with new generations of young owners, to this day.
When fashion designer Wandile Solombela moved to the city of Johannesburg from Butterworth, a rural town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, he wanted to get involved with his new community. He wasn’t sure how that would work. One day, while visiting a local NGO he had been asked to advise, it hit him... he spotted a way to help out and simultaneously ensure that those he helped, developed agency.
“l was inspired by children’s drawings at a feeding scheme. When l arrived in Johannesburg l didn’t know what to do, but with a background in fashion, one lady from Norway decided that l teach ladies at this feeding scheme how to sew. One day l saw children drawing and l was inspired. Thus how Shwe Shwe Poppis was born,” he explained, while cutting cloth at the house in Soweto that doubles as his factory - with a staff of 15 - for Shwe Shwe Poppis.
The drawings that caught Solombela’s eye that day were the simple children’s drawings of then-five years old Nelisiwe, Buyisile and Philisiwe who were being encouraged to draw their real-life stories. Solombela realised he could use the pictures as a source design for fabric dolls, cut from fabric with patterns that best matched the drawings. He settled on shweshwe, a distinctively patterned cloth unique to southern Africa.
“The material is very important in South Africa because it’s usually used for weddings. For me to choose this material l wanted something that will show our diverse culture and how we value what we have,” explained Solombela.
The story of each child, Solombela decided, would accompany a doll based on their drawings and part of the proceeds would support that child. In a way, their “story” was what would be selling each doll, a system that in a way meant the child had “agency”... in that they would be helping to determine their own future.
When the Shwe Shwe project began operations in 2006, the Shwe Shwe Poppis Trust Fund was established with the sole purpose of ensuring profits from the project remained within the community and the children, with a percentage going to their education.
Since then, the story of Shwe Shwe Poppis (“poppie” means doll in township slang) has helped sell the fabric dolls across South Africa and all over the world.
“Our dolls are quite unique because are named after the girls who did the drawings... thus why we have characters like Hope, Faith and Nelisiwe,” explained Solombela.
Kjersti Lie Holtar is a wholesaler and distributor from Norway who has been importing arts and crafts from Southern Africa since 1999.
“People here in Norway of course love the dolls but even more, they loved the story behind the dolls. Since 2006, the market for children’s soft toys have become quite big and advanced, so it is not easy to compete in that market... but still people are so intrigued by the original story of the children in the Zola Crêche who back in 2006 made some drawings - and what then followed…” she said.
“In a way, young children are our toughest clients - and it is true inspiration when you see a child looking and studying close when they see a Shwe Shwe Poppis,” added Holter.
The NGO that Solombela was visiting when he spotted the drawings was the African Children’s Feeding Scheme in Zola, Soweto. The feeding scheme was started in 1945 by the famously anti-apartheid activist Father (later Bishop) Trevor Huddleston. Today, the scheme has 13 centres, feeding more than 32 000 children in Johannesburg daily.
Solombela’s company makes about 50-60 of the dolls every day and each sells for R190 to R200 ($12.90 -$13.60), wholesale.
Loved by children of all ages, the dolls have proven a hit in South African and in countries like Germany, Norway and France.
Today, Shwe Shwe Poppis is a fully-fledged business employing up to 15 women from the community. In addition to the trust fund, the business also gives back to the community by providing a meal per day for less privileged children.
The girls who started it all with their drawing and whose stories continue to feature in the dolls, are now 19.
“l remember that day very well, though l was very young and not knowing what was happening, l remember myself just drawing something randomly, it meant nothing then but as l grew up l realised that art is an expression of one’s feelings,” said Nelisiwe.
They have every reason to be proud of being the inspiration behind the business.
“For me, the memories of that day are still blurry, but seeing that my drawings inspired someone is really a great achievement for me,” said Hope.