Student Interpretation → Kaitlyn Snead

  • Lidded Vessel
  • Lidded Vessel
  • Lidded Vessel

Southern African Dolls

The Tsonga peoples of southern Africa traditionally give girls beaded dolls, called mwana or nwana, which represent an initiated woman wearing traditional dress. The female form is simplified to become a bead-covered cylinder with a ruffled cloth to serve as the traditional skirt worn by Tsonga women and a face made out of beads and buttons. These dolls are used to teach girls during the initiation process and afterwards may be used in courtship. They are believed to increase the fertility of the newly-initiated women. The women carry them until their first child is born and the beads on the doll are used to make adornments for the child. The mwana in the exhibit was also used by a healer, with the red, white, and blue beads symbolizing Nguni healing techniques, Ndau healing techniques, and the knowledge of kings.

Like the Tsonga, the Ndebele peoples use beaded dolls to increase fertility. These dolls, called umndwana, are also used in girls' initiation. Afterwards, the women carry the dolls in different ways until they have their first child, which is usually named after the doll. They can be carried openly to enhance the woman's fertility or worn around her neck under her clothes to ensure she finds a good husband.

Ndebele dolls are traditionally made out of beaded rings that are miniature versions of those worn by women around their arms and legs. These dolls are conical as a way of simplifying the shape of a woman wearing large leg rings and blankets, and arms are indicated by beaded strands with even smaller beaded rings on them. More recently, however, Ndebele dolls have become more literal in their depiction of women, human forms covered in beads and fabric that represent the women's dress. The Ndebele doll dated to c.a.1970 is an example of this trend.

Ndebele Doll

Doll (umndwana)

Ndebele People
South Africa
Doll (umndwana)
20th Century
Glass beads, plastic beads, glass bottle, goatskin, cloth
Gift of Caroline Popper

The function of Ndebele dolls has been variously interpreted in historical and personal narratives. By some accounts, such dolls are said to have assisted in courtship rituals and to promote a woman’s ability to conceive. This doll’s entire body is comprised of beaded rings, and it appears to wear miniature versions of the beaded aprons, isiphephetu, neckrings and bracelets, izigolwane, worn by young Ndebele women before marriage.

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