Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Akuaba Dolls: West African Fertility Dolls | How you can make a felt doll or paper collage

Akuaba dolls are traditional wooden fertility dolls from Ghana and surrounding areas. These dolls were used in the hopes of conceiving a child.

Traditionally, when a woman could not conceive, she would consult a priest or herbalist who would supply her with an akua'ba doll. She was to use this doll as a surrogate child - carrying it on her back tied with cloth in the position a real child is carried, adorning it with jewelry, bathing it and putting it to bed - until she became pregnant.

Giving birth in the Ashanti culture is an important rite of passage. In fact, the inability to conceive was cause for suspicion of poor health or even witchcraft. Legend has it that a young Ashanti woman named Akua was barren but desperately wanted to have a child. She consulted a priest who instructed her to have a carving made to look like a baby and to treat is as a surrogate child. She was laughed at and teased by her fellow villagers, who began to call the doll Akuaba, which means "Akua's child". However, when she did conceive and give birth to a beautiful baby girl, the practice became adopted by others.

The dolls are generally female because the Ashanti culture is matrilineal, with the family name, line and inheritance being passed down from mothers to daughters. Daughters were also hoped for because they would be helpful with household chores and caring for younger children in the family. They have flat oval or disc shaped heads to represent the ideal of beauty from the traditional Ashanti royalty who used to flatten the heads of royal infants. The rings around the neck represent the creased flesh of a healthy, chubby baby. In fact, because the doll represented the ideal of beauty, even women who conceived could be seen carrying the doll to ensure their child would be attractive. 

This photo was taken in 1972 of a woman carrying an akuaba doll on her back, the same way children are carried.

Once the mother gives birth, she might save the doll to give to her daughter to learn to care for babies or even influence childbearing in her adult life. They could also have been given as an offering to shrines for the spirits that helped influence fertility. 

These days, traditional use may continue in some areas, but akuaba dolls are mostly seen as mass produced souvenirs and good luck trinkets.

You can see various akuaba dolls here.

The best known akuaba dolls are those of the Ashanti people, with large, disc-like heads. The first three photos from the left are Ashanti akuaba dolls (third photo is of the back). Other tribes in the region have their own distinctive style of akuaba, such as the one on the far right, that was used by the Fante people.
Photos Sourced from Brooklyn Museum, adapted into collage

Extension Activities

Make your own Akuaba doll - whether as a paper collage or a cute felt doll. Here's a printable template of an akuaba doll - one blank and another with features - that can be used for either project: 

Make a collage of an akuaba doll. Using the round head doll of the Ashanti, this collage is on paper stamped with adinkra prints. Adinkra cloth is a traditional Ashanti cloth with symbolic stamps. You can read more about adinkra here.

Start off by stamping adinkra prints on a piece of yellow cardstock. Traditionally black is used for stamping adinkra, but I thought the akuaba doll would stand out more if the stamps were a lighter shade. Then gather scraps of paper with various shades of brown (Scrapbooking paper came in handy). Using the template above, cut out the body and arms, gluing the arms under the body. Then use your imagination, or the template, to cut out facial features and decorative items.

Make a felt akuaba doll. Felt is a great medium to use for kids because it's so easy to work with should they be inclined to sew. The doll is sewn with a basic over hand stitch. The features can be glued on or sewn on (but if a young child might play with it, they should be sewn on to ensure they don't fall off).

1. Print off the template (above) and use to cut out two bodies, four arms and one bottom piece.

2. Sew the arms: I didn't stuff the arms, but to make them sturdy, each arm is two pieces sewn together. Put them aside.

3. Add the features to the doll before sewing it together. Using different colors of felt, I added a brow, eyes, mouth and decorative elements to the body. You can use the features in the template as a guide or create your own. (It could be useful to start by drawing features on the blank doll template to see if you are happy with your design and that it fits.)

4. Assemble the doll. Pin both pieces of the dolls body together. Start by sewing the head. I stuffed the head before sewing the rest.

5. I would sew the bottom before doing the rest (that's not what I actually did, but wished I had). Based on images above, start by sewing the long ends of the bottom to the end of the body (should end up looking like top right picture). Fold the bottom into the body in order to sew along the side of the doll. 

6. I left the opening of one arm space to stuff the rest of the doll. Fill with stuffing, add in the arm, and sew doll shut. 

Isn't she cute?

Title image Akuaba doll photo credited to Jean-Louis Piraux (CC) adapted into collage

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  1. This is such an interesting and informative post Marie. I love both your collage and your felt doll. You're so clever!

    1. Thanks Claire, it was a pretty interesting custom, wasn't it?

  2. I agree both of the dolls look like fun to me. They're certainly interesting customs/

    1. I had a lot of fun making the felt doll - it had been a while since I had a little sewing project, I guess I was due!


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