Unlike ordinary dolls, African dolls are not just plain playthings for younger girls. These objects depict religious beliefs and ritual practices of a community. Commonly, you can tell the region from where certain African dolls originated from the costume that they have been dressed with and their shape. In most tribes, a mother hands down her African doll to her daughter which in turn, would later pass it on to another successor.
The Ndebele in Zimbabwe are among the tribes that make traditional use of African dolls. The tribe, though small, is widely recognized for their artistry and deep love of beauty and color made evident in their extraordinary homes and clothing. The African dolls by the Ndebele are similarly dressed as the women of this tribe who are in colorful outfits, adorned with intricate patterns of bead work.
The Ndebele African dolls are crafted to symbolize the tribe women’s status or certain important events that are happening in their lives. Some of these events that are reflected in the designs of these dolls include the following:
African dolls having colorful apron-like garments wrapped around their waists represent Ndebele girls that have already gone puberty rites and are marriageable. In preparation for marriage, these young women are handed dolls that are to be named and cared for as though they were real children. And by the time, the first born comes; he/she will be named after the doll.
Courtships within the Ndebele tribe are initiated by the suitor who puts a doll outside the hut of the maiden he desires. The doll serves as an icon of the purest intentions of the man to propose marriage.
African dolls that signify women that are engaged to be married are adorned with lovely beaded black hoops enclosing their tiny waists.
Ndebele brides are represented by African dolls that wear a length of finely detailed bead work hanging from their shoulders. A beautiful veil ornamented with multi-hued beads cover their faces. The dowry that the families of the brides receive which are five heads of cattle is represented by the five-paneled skirt worn by Ndebele brides.
On the months of wela or initiation of the Ndebele boys far into the mountains, their mothers wear the linga koba together with their nguba-blanket for married women. The linga koba are long strands of beadwork that stretches into the ground to symbolize tears. These women weeps in sorrow for the loss of the boys they have brought up and joy for gaining a man. These women are represented by Ndebele African dolls wearing the same costume.