Following the tracks of a windy, dusty road amid a randomly cited cluster of corrugated tin shacks in Windhoek’s Katutura, Okuryangava, along Mount Meru Street, you will regularly find a group of friends gathering on their front stoep. Meriam Haingura, Magda Ndimulene and Drotea Hamunyela have been living here for years. Meriam is originally from the vicinity of Nkurenkuru, northwest of Rundu and moved to Windhoek with her husband to ensure a better future for her seven children. Soon, she befriended her neighbours, Magda and Drotea, who are both from Owambo in northern Namibia.
In 2003, a Dutch woman made their acquaintance. Her vibrant personality and positive attitude were a welcome change to their harsh reality, and she spiked their interest with a business proposition. Marjan van Heerdt arrived with her husband who soon started offering fly-in safaris for guests across Namibia.
Marjan had always wanted to invest in empowering women to start sewing rag dolls and make a living from this. She proceeded to create an informal sewing project, together with an initial of eight women. All had met in Mount Meru Street and began working and sewing together.
Immediately the realities of living in this location hit Marjan; how does one sew without having electricity? Her contacts in Europe and around town soon saw her acquire very old but classic Singer sewing machines, that are operated by foot. Now everybody could put their theory into practice and started by mending their children’s clothing!
But, Marjan had brought a concept from Europe which was new to Namibia. She taught the women templates of Waldorf dolls, as described by Rudolf Steiner in his educational publications.
The simple rag dolls were soft and pliable and were made from brown cotton T-shirt material; a first in those days as African children could not find their image in toy stores.
The clothing was made from African traditional material such as wax cloth from West Africa, Damara-Nama printed cloth reflecting their quilting culture, and sometimes even patches of Shweshwe prints, made in South Africa hailing from German missionaries. Currently, the Ondelela fabric representing the traditions from northern Namibia, are the local favourites.
The group of women soon mastered the skills and decided on their project name: Matukondjo Dolls, which is translated as “Life is a struggle, but we soldier on.”
Meriam Haingura, Magda Ndimulene, Drotea Hamunyela, Alina Lupato, Tusnerde Ndemuweda, Josephina Kauluma together with two ladies who have since passed, started producing an impressive collection of rag dolls, for all ages and stages of the child’s development: The Simple Doll for the tiny tots, The Sister with the baby on her back for those that can work with their nimble fingers and dress/undress, and the doll with adults - famous Big Mama, that carries twin babies in her front pockets.
Marjan then packed a bag with dolls in her husband’s plane and told him to find a suitable market. His safari that weekend was set to land at the Fish River Canyon, at Gondwana Collection Namibia’s mother goose, Canyon Lodge. When he landed, he was met by the management team who happened to also hail from The Netherlands. The dolls were scooped up immediately for the curio shop and then bought by the guests from the plane!
A market was born, enticing Marjan to buy more material with the proceeds and teaching the women basic admin skills, allowing them to calculate cost and pay out a production fee. They have since expanded their range with a Denim boy doll, as well as a double sided, Caucasian/African doll allowing the child to have several friends to play with. For Christmas, they also produce Namibian Shweshwe Angels as tree ornaments.
Jochen van Acken has been visiting Namibia for years and has devotedly supported the women and their project. He buys their stock on an annual basis and sells it on their behalf at markets in Germany and Greece. Bringing back the proceeds, he is much loved by the women as they use these funds to finance the education of their children.
They continue to supply selected Gondwana Collection Namibia curio shops, notably Etosha Safari Camp and Namushasha River Lodge with their products.
They also co-own a shop in the centre of Windhoek, known as Out of Katutura inside the Namibia Craft Centre. With the inclusion of their very own Collection on The Narrative, a dream has come true for these women. They now reach a global audience with their handmade, perfectly imperfect, but honest Namibian rag dolls.
They wish to thank Marjan van Heerdt for her foresight and the love of sisterhood, which transcended borders and culture.
The Matukondjo Dolls project, which is largely dependent on international tourism, is affected by the global travel interruption. The women are working from home and continue to try very hard to earn an income to be able to send their children to school. After more than a decade, the women and their project are now facing an uncertain future. Through The Narrative, clients can now directly support the project through the purchase of these unique, handmade dolls.
Support Matukondjo and shop the range here.
Written by: Sonia Noirfalise
It is so good to read about you all, still making “our” dolls, even in difficult times.
I am so proud of you all and greatfull for the fantastic help of Sonia!
I will always support you, and I will try to find a market in France too!
Keep up the good spirit! Lots of love MJ