Dolls for KZN’s children

2008-11-03 00:00

If you passed through the grounds of the Anglican Cathedral in Church Street last week you would have seen a group of people clustered around tables surrounded by bags of fabric and keenly engaged in craft work. If you’d stopped to look more closely you’d have seen that they were making dolls. If you’d listened closely you’d have heard some “Aussie” accents amid the Zulu. You’d have witnessed a remarkable project in action.

Back in 2004, Dr Julie Stone, an Australian child psychiatrist, visited Hlabisa Hospital and experienced first-hand the poverty and deprivation that are common in this province. She returned home determined to find people to make dolls for the children of Hlabisa. Since then, the Uthando Doll Project in Australia alone has supplied 18 000 hand-made dolls to children in KwaZulu-Natal.

Through the Internet and media coverage, people in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom have been inspired to make dolls for the children of KwaZulu-Natal, so hundreds more have come from other countries. They were made by a variety of people, including craft groups, church and community groups, service organisations, residents of retirement villages and school children. The dolls are distributed by Tree (Training and Resources in Early Education), based in Durban.

Uthando is a “grass-roots movement that has no office or administrative costs, just a website and lots of volunteers”, said Georgia Efford, Uthando co-ordinator, who manages the organisation’s global network from her home in Perth, Western Australia. She and eight other women recently spent two weeks in KwaZulu-Natal running doll-making workshops in Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Centacow. It was the project’s third trip to the province and each member paid all the costs of the trip herself. Working under the auspices of Cindi (Children in Distress Network) and in partnership with the Rob Smetherham Bereavement Service for Children (RobS) and Tree, the women trained nearly 150 people from a range of community organisations and NGOs to sew or knit dolls.

This undertaking involved some impressive logistics: “We provided all the materials required, which meant we sent 75 bags of dolls, fabric, stuffing and finishing materials on ahead of us and brought another 27 with us. We gave each participant a work bag containing mini sewing kits to make five dolls. The idea is that they learn to make one themselves and then teach four more people to make them too. That way, doll-making skills spread into communities where the children need dolls. We want to equip caregivers, whoever they are, to make dolls for the children they care for,” Efford said.

She explained that Uthando makes brown-skinned male and female dolls for children of all ages, from babies upwards. “It takes about a day-and-a-half to make one and we encourage doll makers to put clothes or a swaddling blanket on their dolls so that children can engage with them and play with them. Our dolls have found their way into crèches, schools, orphanages and organisations such as LifeLine and Rape Crisis, as well as private homes.

“The project also benefits the doll makers. It allows them to do something for others and builds their awareness of the daily lives of children in KwaZulu-Natal and the burdens that many bear. This includes loss and grief, largely caused by the Aids pandemic.

“Play is central to the concept of Uthando. Through play children express their feelings, which assists their emotional development, the base for their mental, spiritual and physical development. For instance, a happy child often has stronger immune and digestive systems.

“Uthando has an important relationship with RobS, which uses play to strengthen the care relationships that support children and families affected by loss. RobS teaches caregivers to make dolls for their children and encourages them to play in order to listen to them express their hopes, worries and dreams, and help them cope under very difficult circumstances,” she said.

Efford’s group included a film maker who is making films about the project, one to show doll makers and another for wider distribution. “Doll makers frequently ask what life is like for children in KwaZulu-Natal and want to know if the dolls they produce make a difference to the children. The film will allow us to show them.”

INspired to make a doll?

To find out more about the project or how to make a doll for a deserving child, visit www.uthandoproject.org

The site offers patterns and detailed instructions on how to knit, sew or crochet a doll. There is also a doll makers’ workbook with guidelines, instructions and patterns for schools to download.

To find out more about how you can get involved locally, contact the Rob Smetherham Bereavement Service for

Children (RobS) at 033 345 3729.

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