African Worry Dolls re-dress the lives of Cape Town homeless
Precious powerful African women dolls – each the size of the palm of a hand – are being designed by the once homeless and jobless.
Each one of the thirty dolls at the centre of the table is unique and handmade from recycled materials. Collectively they are the day’s target for a dozen men and women who belong to the Souper Squad, an empowerment programme run by Souper Troopers, the Cape Town homeless advocacy and service non-profit organisation.
Their creativity is next level: one doll wrapped in a cape imprinted with a smiling Madiba, another crowned with purple and black braids, one in a fuchsia shweshwe dress with a gold medallion at her neck. Ready to be shipped to new homes, they will be tucked under pillows to take the worries away from anxious sleepers.
The African Worry Doll project
The African Worry Doll project began as a workshop in July 2022 and has since blossomed into an income generating stream for Souper Troopers and employment for the Souper Squad, a select group of 25 unhoused people who are participants in a job creation and psychosocial support programme. Their progress since the Squad’s inception 10 months ago is extraordinary.
Of the 25 Squad members, 22 are clean and no longer using the substances they were addicted to, 20 no longer live on the streets, 25 have bank accounts and ID documents, eight have managed to save for their future, 25 send money home to their families every month and 25 have achieved the goals they set for themselves.
Great things come in small packages
The African Worry Dolls are loosely based on the handmade miniature dolls to which Guatemalan children whisper their worries before placing them under their pillows at night; to be gifted in the morning with the wisdom and courage they need. Applying this concept, the team of Cape Town makers have used their imagination and camaraderie to create distinctively African dolls out of unwanted fabric scraps, stockings, paper clips, pompoms, tassels, beads and pretty much any small object of adornment.
This is more than an exercise in upcycling. Not only do these discarded odds and ends become characterful dolls, the dolls themselves are injected with the love and sense of community that is pivotal to this programme. “It’s almost like they develop their own personalities; it’s like they speak to you,” says Hans Moolman, who is dressing a doll in brown shweshwe.
The dolls’ personalities are important, explains Odette Oliver, who supervises the production team and, since joining the Squad, has lived in a shelter for abused women. “We want them to look friendly and welcoming; very content, fulfilled and happy, but not so happy that they are self-absorbed and cannot be there to provide comfort.”
While the Squad works, disco and ’80s tracks pump energy and comfort through the workshop in this restored old Woodstock building, the new home of Souper Troopers. The work is divided between two long tables – one for making bodies; one for dressing and hair. Phillip Slabbert, who has purchased his own small sewing machine to finish garment edges, has his own space in a quiet corner, and happily works with headphones on.
At the first table, Werner Goerke – aka “The Arms Dealer” – unfolds paper clips into straight arms, paints them with brown acrylic paint and secures them between layers of cardboard. He passes them to Nuraan Julius, who cuts and hand stitches heads out of squares of stockings that are turned inside out and stuffed with the filling of old pillows.
Eyes are windows to the soul
From there they go to Tania Dilgee, the face specialist. There’s more to this than putting heads on bodies and stitching a mouth and two eyes. There are pupils, irises and eyebrows, and a slight deviation of a mouth or a raised eyebrow could make a doll look mean, rather than comforting. “I try to keep the eyes equal, and the heads the same size,” she says as she criss-crosses blue cotton across a doll’s torso, securing a head topped with a coil of black braids to a body.
“If you only knew the emotion that goes into these dolls, and what they represent,” says Kerry Hoffman, founder of Souper Troopers. “There’s something transformative about them: the comfort they provide as well as the therapeutic benefits to our makers, many of whom have mental and physical challenges.
“The creative process is healing; it’s as if these tiny dolls are a manifestation of all the goodness and hope that comes from treating homeless people with dignity, love and respect.”
Oliver deftly wraps a circle of shweshwe around a body, folding it into swirls of red and black as she talks about the project. “Personally, I can say that the dolls have completely changed my life. I think my progress in the last three months is much more than in the last five years.” She takes great pride in her work, with her designs growing from the exclusively pencil skirts of her first dolls to flouncy frocks.
Bejewelled and empowered
Maryna Hohls, noted in the group for her artistry, does the final touches: jewellery (sequins and beads), the tying up of hair (made from tassels, pompoms and basically any fibrous material), and catches any mistakes. “It’s nice to be creative; there’s no wrong,” she says, in a soft voice.
When the demands are great, everyone steps up, literally. Swedish singer Lykke Li’s I Follow Rivers the Squad’s anthem – sees everyone on their feet, singing and dancing. “We thrive on each other’s energies and it’s always a collective effort,” says Moolman. In production, in banter and in life.
“I always achieve my goals here in quality and quantity,” says Dilgee, while across the table from her, a Basotho blanket-wrapped mini diva gets a beaded collar. “I take this home with me and I find that my life starts to work better. We are an amazing team, and we all pull together.”
Tiny dolls they may be, but the power they have is gigantic. DM/ ML
African Worry Dolls can be ordered online for R90 each from the Souper Market on Souper Troopers’ website. Souper Troopers also welcomes donations of all materials that can be used in the production of African Worry Dolls.
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