Show and Tell > Kunama and Tigrinya Tribal Dolls

In August 2009, my wife and daughter and I moved from our short-lived home of Idaho to a city called Asmara, in Africa. Thus far, the experience has provided me with an incredibly valuable lesson in perspective, not least because our first few weeks here were a struggle to adjust to a lifestyle that seemed filled with hardships by our spoiled Western standards, despite the fact that we were living like royalty by local standards. For example, my daughter, who was five when we arrived in Asmara, found it difficult to be comfortable in our new house, because she found it “old and dirty” (privately, I had similar feelings); to most of the local citizens, our house is a mansion.

Happily, we pretty quickly learned to love the pace of life here in Asmara; I’ve read nearly fifty books in the eight months we’ve been living here, and my wife and I have slept better here than we ever did in the States; “stress” has mostly become a distant memory. Further, whenever we start to grow disillusioned with our teaching jobs or the lack of availability of such necessities as Oreos and Cheez-Whiz, we remind ourselves how lucky we are to be in a position where we are paying off our debts and saving money for the future; during arguably the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we got to spend a three-week winter holiday in London!

Indeed, we are so content in Asmara that at some point in recent months, our plan to spend this summer in the US changed from “going home for the summer” to “visiting the United States for the summer.”

Still, I have endured hardships here that no cancer survivor or natural disaster victim could ever imagine. Namely: there are no toy stores in Asmara.

Actually, that’s not true. There are a handful of stores here that sell toys, but the toys in question are shoddy, plus they’re imported, which means they’re comically expensive; if you’re not thrilled to spend the equivalent of forty dollars on crappy bootleg Hot Wheels cars, the options are less than thrilling. Most of the local toy stores don’t offer anything but stickers, clothes and Barbie knock-offs and the like.

Fortunately, I have a number of friends back in the States who haven’t yet figured out that this epic adventure has been a lifestyle choice on my part; they seem to see me as a victim of circumstances, and as such they have spoiled me in an effort to compensate for my difficult lot in life; my friend Kit from California sent me a staggeringly large box of G.I. Joe toys for Christmas (the shipping alone cost him something like seventy dollars), and my buddy Bill in Idaho has procured for me not only some G.I. Joe goodness and a set of DC Infinite Heroes, but also a Masters of the Universe Classics Battle Cat. (I’ll never understand how he managed to purchase three Battle Cats when he has the slowest internet access in Idaho.)

And my wife bought some toys, too! However, she purchased them for my daughter(!)–divorce proceedings are in progress. Still, I may as well photograph the toys and share them with my fellow geeks in the West.

The toys in question are from a series of locally-produced cloth dolls, each representing a different African tribe. There are nine figures in the series, and my wife plans to eventually buy them all to serve as keepsakes for our daughter.

The dolls featured in this installment of Show and Tell represent the Kunama and Tigrinya tribes. You can add them to your collection for the low, low price of 180 nakfa each. (One US dollar is equivalent to fifteen nakfa.) Just drop by Jolly Shop next time you’re in Asmara.

First up, let us discuss the Kunama doll, clad in orange. My wife recently purchased a second Kunama doll to keep in its package, so that my daughter can feel free to lose the accessories and otherwise ruin the toy as kids inevitably do, secure in the knowledge that a sealed version in good condition awaits her when she’s old enough to respect it as a keepsake. In other words, I open every toy I buy, but my wife, who couldn’t care less about toys, has a doll still sealed in its package… such as it is. (You’ll notice that the two Kumana dolls have different beads and dresses; I leave it to the experts here at Poe Ghostal’s Points of Articulation to determine whether this constitutes a variant or a variation or a version or an alternate or a guise or a running change or a chase figure or…)

I joked on our travel blog last December that I found the tribal dolls “lacking in accessories and articulation,” but the Kunama figure comes with some nifty items. She can carry her baby in a bag on a stick, like a runaway in a 1930s cartoon. In another bag-on-a-stick, she can carry… well… more sticks, it seems. (In the package, the two bags are actually balanced on one stick.) Most locals brush their teeth with a stick, but I don’t believe the toothbrush-sticks are longer than one’s arm, as is the case with the doll’s sticks; presumably, they’re firewood.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of the Kunama figure’s garb, though I do find her orange clothes rather striking. Our gardener Isais told us that the Kunama tribal society is matriarchal in at least some of its features; supposedly, a man has to appeal to a woman for marriage, and if she agrees, then he must build a house for her. Isais also insists that if a Kunama man visits his friend, said friend must offer his wife to the visitor for the night. (I have suggested to my wife that we should visit this noble tribe, that I might break bread with its hospitable menfolk. She remains stubbornly unmoved by my pleas.) Like the Tigrinya doll, the Kunama doll features no points of articulation, though you can move the arms about, presumably to ward off the unwelcome advances of the yet-to-be-produced Visiting Man doll.

Moving on to the white-clad companion, the Tigrinya doll does not include any accessories. Like the Kunama doll, she features a somewhat firm base that doesn’t often succeed in keeping her upright; the rest of the doll is soft cloth. I can say that her clothes are accurate; we see dozens of women wearing such coverings everyday. (My wife will wear such coverings this weekend, when she attends a wedding.) The native tongue in Asmara is in fact Tigrinya, though pretty much everyone you meet can also speak English, and most can speak Italian, as well; all the local architecture features Italian designs. ( has a DVD called City of Dreams that explores Asmara’s architecture and gives one a fantastic sense of the city. It retails for twenty-five dollars, but you’ll certainly learn more through a viewing of City of Dreams than from reading my comments about a doll.)

The Tigrinya doll also lacks the beaded bracelet and necklace of the Kunama doll; whether this was a cost-cutting measure or simply a triumph of accuracy, I cannot say. Happily, both dolls feature braided hair that looks very nice, though it’s somewhat unsettling to see rows of exposed scalp between the braids.

To be perfectly honest, I rarely even notice these dolls on my daughter’s shelf; I brought a number of G.I. Joe figures with me from Idaho (Rise of Cobra and Anniversary figures, alas; we didn’t have space in our luggage for my beloved Sigmas), and they’re the toys I prefer to photograph, though unfortunately I’m mostly stuck with my garden as my only setting; there are beautiful mountains surrounding Asmara, but we have been advised that they are riddled with landmines. I can no longer load my photos at Geek Creek or even JoeDios, because of the poor internet speed. Luckily (and somewhat inexplicably), I am able to upload my photos to Flickr; my Africa toy photo archive is available here for anyone who’d like to peruse it.

Still, while these tribal dolls are not my kind of toy, when the time comes for us to leave Asmara (our teaching contract expires June 2011, but we may renew it for a year or three; we hope to make South America our next home), these simple, unique dolls should make for interesting souvenirs.


Pic of the Day


Pic of the Day


  1. 'Dehnado/Kmy ka?

    Kamy Wlika ?'

    Amlak ymesgen- for people like us, was in Sa'fey – Eritrea and Kenya Nairobi-

  2. Tara

    Unless you plan to go back in time and get that house built (and re-win my affection for that matter) no visiting your Kunama friends for you, Culture Thief! 😉

    This made me laugh more times than I could count. In fact, scratch the need to re-win my affection. Mission accomplished.


    Your Fun-Spoiling Wife

  3. Cade

    Thank you sharing Monte. It's wonderful to see something like this.

  4. dwaltrip

    Yeah, that was a great read Monte. Thanks.

  5. nerdbot

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting and touching story, as well as a glimpse of the perspective that you have gained. It is good to remember what toys are supposed to be about.

  6. Prowl-Ar

    Damn, I bet this is one line that'll be giving the overly obsessive variation collectors absolute nightmares.

    I see Megatron still has no shame what-so-ever. I thought I had him fixed, ah well, I'll just have to dig out my tools again when you come back for a visit. 😉

  7. Don't let Monte fool you. He's pretending like these are cool African dolls, but if he loved them so much why did he return them in those DCUC packages?! HUH?! HUH!?! I saw what should have been a DCUC Joker, but instead it was Kunama doll and the sticks were missing. How dare you just take the good parts of the figure!

    Just kidding. Great, creative and informative piece, as always Monte.

  8. Thanks for sharing that Monte! I miss your stunning photography, but this is just as great! Sounds like you're having a life-changing experience, I'm actually kind of envious! I love that last picture with TFA Megatron! 😉

  9. Fengschwing

    What an excellent show and tell!

    Well done Monte for reminding us how good we have it in the first world and for showing us what kids play with in other parts of the world.

    I did some work in the slums of New Delhi with kids who don't have clothes, let alone toys, it really puts things in perspective when you're unable to buy that latest figure.

    Thanks for sharing and thanks to Poe for showing us something a little different, I applaud you both!

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