Dolls with heart

2012-09-13 00:00

DOLLS made for children orphaned by the HIV/Aids epidemic have again come to the rescue — this time giving relief indirectly to grandmothers and other caregivers who have been left caring for these children.

Around the country, hundreds if not thousands of elderly women have been thrust back into the role of primary caregivers at a time of life when their health is declining and they are financially stricken.

Dlalanathi (come play with us), a Maritzburg-based NGO that teaches children how to cope with death and bereavement, has for several years used specially made dolls in their programme (see box) and one of the project’s organisers, Robyn Hemmer, explained how this new development had come about.

“We realised that it was not only the children who needed a chance to lighten up — the caregivers also suffer from burnout and fatigue from the stress of having to take on extra responsibility on limited resources.

“We decided that we would teach the caregivers how to make dolls and also facilitate a support network for them as they interacted with others in the same situation.” Hemmer said it was fascinating to watch how the elderly caregivers made their dolls so that they had a likeness to them. “They chose to give their dolls greying hair and dressed them in clothes that were like theirs.

“They project their own personality onto the doll without consciously realising it, and we also teach them how important it is to listen to the children.

“We tell them that they can use the doll to tell stories to the children about their own lives and also to incorporate playing as part of family time.”

Hemmer said that for some of the caregivers caring for the orphans had become a grinding task and fun was not something they thought of.

The grandmothers and caregivers have also never had a doll before, and for them making them has become a therapeutic experience.

“They are really in a difficult situation as they are looking after young grandchildren at a time when they should be retired and resting. They are also in mourning for their children and they feel hopeless.

“Physically they are not strong and they also have the constant worry about finances and so they forget that children need to laugh and play. In fact, they become emotionally numb.”

The doll-making workshops give caregivers the opportunity to chat and share their experiences, such as those of a 68-year-old grandmother who came along with one-year-old twins she was looking after.

“Another gogo came with her four-year-old granddaughter and told the others how she was worried about finding a crèche for her. She managed to enrol her grand-daughter into a crèche before the end of the workshop, but her granddaughter was not happy. She asked her gogo to take the doll along to the workshop every day to see what she was missing.

“One of our caregivers said she noticed that her niece was shouting at the doll. When she asked who was shouting, the niece said “The teacher.”

Investigations showed that the girl was doing badly at school because she had missed a lot of the previous year’s work because her father had been sick and then he died.

They arranged for her to go back to the previous grade to catch up on the work she had missed. Venting her emotions on the doll allowed the situation to be resolved.

On Saturday a book titled 100 Dolls Countless Hearts will be launched at the Tatham Art Gallery. The book tells the stories of the Uthando dollmakers and how these toys have had an impact on lives. The Tatham Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition of some of the most unusual dolls that have been donated to the project which will be on display on the second floor from September 15. The book will also be sold to raise funds.

Dlalanathi was started in 2000 in rememberance of Boston farmer Rob Smetherham, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and social worker Liesl Jewitt, who looked after an orphan who died of Aids.

The organisation uses Uthando dolls in their bereavement work with orphan children. These dolls, which are hand-made by women from all over the world, are donated for the purposes of giving comfort to a child who is suffering from the loss of a parent.

Rachel Rozentals-Thresher, CEO of Dlalanathi, said that they had initially been reluctant to use the dolls as their role was not to hand out toys for charity, but they realised that they were much more than just playthings and could be a very useful therapeutic tool.

She said the dolls are received enthusiastically by children they work with, many of whom had never seen a black doll. The dolls are loved by boys and girls alike, and they are used by the children to work through their emotions of loss, pain and anger.

Rozentals-Thresher said a study has shown that children who are exposed to primary nurturing objects are more likely to develop healthy emotional processes later in life.


Another gogo came with her four-year-old granddaughter and told the others how she was worried about finding a crèche for her. She managed to enroll her granddaughter into a crèche before the end of the workshop, but her granddaughter was not happy. She asked her gogo to take the doll along to the workshop every day to see what she was missing.

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