African Toys for Free
By Awake! correspondent in Sierra Leone
Clad only in faded khaki shorts, a little boy strolls along, pulling his toy truck—a rusty sardine can. Heaped inside is his cargo—a bundle of small stones.
Up the road a little, a group of barefoot boys are playing a game of soccer. Their football, though, is a tightly bound ball of rags. Their goalposts are stones.
Over there, a three-year-old girl cuddles her doll—a brown stick wrapped in soft, red cloth.
These are common sights in African lands. Yet, they may seem strange to readers who live in industrialized nations. Perhaps you believe (as the advertising industry has encouraged you to believe) that toys are things to be bought. However, long before the age of factory-produced playthings, children fashioned their own toys. And in Africa the creative tradition is very much alive.
From ancient times boys have been fascinated by vehicles. Greek and Roman boys played with miniature carts. And not surprisingly, mechanized transport still fascinates and stirs the creativity of young boys.
Abraham, a Ghanian schoolboy, hacks branches from a coconut palm with a long knife. From them he constructs a pickup truck. The wheels are disks cut from discarded plastic.
In Lesotho a lad named Chepa fashions a Land-Rover from beer cans and wire. Splitting the cans open, he flattens them, cuts them to size, and bends them over a wire framework to form the car body. Halves of beer cans make the wheels for this vehicle.
Yes, from cans, cane, cardboard, wire, and bamboo, African boys construct planes, buses, bikes, trucks, tractors, cars, and canoes. And no two are identical!
Making a Wirework Car
Perhaps this ingenuity is best expressed in what are called wirework cars. These are vehicles wrought from scrap wire and tin cans.
First, though, the wirework car maker must find the materials. Tamba, for example, leaves home early in the day to begin his search. A neighbor gives him some old coat hangers—ideal for the chassis and the body framework. A dump yields some electrical wire. Three-inch [8 cm] tin lids will serve for wheels. And on the way home, Tamba gets permission to take a four-foot [1.2 m] length of thick wire from a broken-down fence.
Now comes the design phase. After sketching a rough blueprint on a card, Tamba is ready to begin actual construction. Using Dad’s pliers, he cuts, bends, and ties the coat hangers according to design. The framework completed, he adds axles and tin-lid wheels. Then the detail—doors, floor, seats, window frames, grill, bumpers, and lights. Of course, Tamba’s car will also have a few accessories, such as a small piece of mirror and some carpeting for the floor. Clear candy wrappers serve as “glass” for windows.
Now it’s time to attach the steering shaft, which extends through the roof and back beyond the car itself till it is waist high. Tamba fashions this end into a steering wheel, which will enable him to “drive” his car by pushing it along. Time spent in construction? Two days. But now comes the real fun—driving it! His hand on the steering wheel, Tamba pushes his car and deftly maneuvers it around obstacles. And for night driving, some boys install battery-powered headlights, that is, flashlight bulbs.
Dolls have been called “the oldest playthings of mankind.” However, African dolls are quite different from the store-bought variety.* Imagine, for example, a banana doll! These are popular among West African girls. After drawing a pair of eyes, a mouth, and a nose on the fruit, they dress the doll appropriately. Some youngsters even tote their play children on their backs—just like Mom!
South African girls similarly know how to make “babies” out of ears of corn. Sticks are added for arms and legs. A few bits of cloth become clothing. And the husk hair is ideal for braiding.
Cynthia, a girl from Sierra Leone, goes from tailor to tailor collecting scraps of material for yet another kind of doll. This is the pieces baby, or rag doll. Borrowing scissors, needle, and thread from her mother, she cuts her fabric and sews her doll together. Small bits of fabric serve as the stuffing or are sewn on as facial features.
In recent years, though, Africa has seen a huge influx of inexpensive, manufactured toys from the Far East. In West Africa, for example, plastic dolls can be bought for as little as 40 cents. Because they are durable and more closely resemble real babies, girls often prefer them to corncobs or rag dolls.
A teenage girl named Saffie sells stylized pieces babies at a roadside stall in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s busy capital. They go for a modest $2.50 (U.S.). Her clientele? Admits Saffie: “It’s mostly the American and European tourists who want pieces babies now. The African children prefer plastic babies.”
But do boys really prefer the shop-sold toys? Thirteen-year-old Raymond had just spent a full week in constructing an elaborate wirework truck. “If somebody offered you a manufactured toy truck in exchange for your truck,” we asked, “would you take it?” His reply was immediate: “Of course! It looks more like a real one.”
Yes, homemade vehicles are losing popularity as factory-made toy cars become plentiful. States Patricia Davison in African Arts magazine: “It seems that poor socio-economic conditions common to the communities producing these toys have stimulated this form of creative expression and, conversely, that it may be inhibited by material abundance.”
Will manufactured toys thus eventually replace handmade ones in Africa? Time will tell. Interestingly, a number of organizations throughout Africa are attempting to keep the homemade toy tradition alive by sponsoring toy-making competitions. Also, some museums are collecting examples of this craft for their displays. Nevertheless, given a choice, children almost always prefer factory-made toys for their realism.
Perhaps this is a pity. For unlike the store-bought kind, homemade toys stimulate creativity, originality, resourcefulness, artistry, and imagination. Making them is fun and results in a sense of accomplishment. And the cost in money could hardly be less.
African statues carved from wood, which in the past were often connected with religion and spiritism, are rarely used as playthings by African children. Mr. H. U. Cole, director of the Sierra Leone Museum in Freetown, further told Awake! that because of Western influence, such images are increasingly being used for decorative purposes.
[Blurb on page 19]
Long before the age of factory-produced playthings, children fashioned their own toys