Nairobi Black

Just over 5 years ago, I needed a black doll for my play that was to show at the Kenya National Theatre. I thought I could walk into any toy store and find one. I was in Africa after all. The Motherland with over 1 billion black humans. Let me tell you!

I walk the whole stretch of Biashara Street, Moi Ave, alleys and malls of Nairobi for 3 days, and all they had were an endless display of white dolls. Pink really. With long breezy eyelashes and blonde pigtails. This was in 21st century Africa. It became fun asking the cashiers and salespeople questions.

I ask one guy in a shop on Biashara St- How come you don’t have black dolls? He says- Nobody would buy them. I say- But almost all your customers are black Africans. He says- They don’t like black dolls. He’s getting fidgety.

The Muhindi boss observing from the corner comes out to hear this questioning. I squeeze out a final question- But don’t you like a doll that looks like you? He says- Sio mimi (It’s not me) and laughs sheepishly. What a strange answer. One day I’ll write a book titled “It’s Not Me”. I leave.

I take a matatu to Westlands and scour the length and breadth of Sarit Center. I ask someone in a high-end store that carried children’s clothing and toys- Do you have black dolls? No, she says. Why, I ask. She opened her mouth and a consonant got stuck in her throat. Silence. I leave.

It must have been the third day when I went to Nakumatt. And there it was! A black doll! I screamed- Whaaaat!!! Everyone stopped and looked at me as I took it down from the shelf. A dented dusty piece of plastic baby shoved into a corner. It was much smaller than what I wanted, but I bought it.

Someone on our production team saw it and said- that’s an ugly doll! I asked why. She said- Ai, si it just looks ugly. Then she giggled from that place of deep shame. She was hoping I didn’t smell the handed-down humiliation that escaped from the space between her eyes. The doll looked very much like an African child, only made with cheap plastic that broke easily. It did not last beyond the first show.

By this time my cast knew I was on a mad hunt for a black doll. The tech director comes in one day and says- I saw a black doll! Go to this shop in Upper Hill you’ll find it. I went there and got lost in the new rising brick-and-mortar that made this part of town look like someone spat out a piece of Manhattan on to Nairobi’s belly.

Shiny offices and ladies in singing high-heels and high-end cafes where I sat and drank British tea with my pinky finger and men in suits and solid silver handshakes I could not afford. I jumped into a matatu and left empty-handed. In the matatu, there was a mother with a baby on her back.

I wanted to ask that mother what kind of a doll she bought her child. But I was afraid of the answer. I already knew the villages are filled with children tagging along white dolls in those houses with white-washed walls where a blue-eyed-blonde Jesus stared them down and burnt a hole of wretchedness through their African skins.

I finally decide to have a black doll made. Our producer hooks me up with this guy who makes phenomenal masks and puppets for the XYZ show. I swallow hard when he tells me the cost. I’m desperate. Make it! He brings it a few days later. Wow! Is all I could say. I spent $200 (no regrets) on a custom-made black doll in an African country. I later found a black doll at a church garage sale in Baltimore, made with similar material. I bought it for 50 cents.

The souls of Africans have suffered much corrosion. So grotesquely disfigured are they when they look in the mirror, they see a monster. I will leave you with hope in your heart. I hear there are more Kenyans making black dolls for the local market now. My people are slowly beginning to like what they look like, enough to make a representation of it for their children.

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