Bertha Munthali: Inventor of an African doll based on a folk tale

Growing up in a typical village, Bertha Mkandawire-Munthali knew from an early age that her only chance of escaping the jaws of poverty was to work hard in school.

Her early years were influenced by life in Khwawa Village, along the lakeshore in Traditional Authority (T/A) Wasambo, Karonga.

As a child dreaming big and dodging poverty, she recalls her father often referring to education as the key.  `

Bertha was raised just like any village girl, surrounded by many setbacks which compelled her to beat them.

“It did not matter where I was going, but anywhere was more attractive than my village. Early marriages, poverty, limited access to quality education were all forces that knocked at my destiny’s door and I refused to be buried in such forces, but to work hard.

“When I finished my primary education and went to Ekwendeni Girls Secondary School, it was my ray of hope for a better future. I proceeded to Chancellor College and, thereafter, started working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which opened doors for me,” she narrates.

Bertha later pursued her master’s degree and continued to work and this is her 13th year working in the field of nutrition. Bertha learnt to fight for everything she wanted in life and is still fighting.

“I knew there was no way I could leave my village and live like people in magazines if I did not work hard. We never had role models to inspire us, so, our inspiration was the idea of living in the city,” she recalls.

The mother of three has worked for different national and international organisations in Malawi and Zambia. She now holds a full time job as a nutrition advisor with Fanrpan, a regional organisation in Pretoria and is pursuing a PhD in Human Nutrition at University of Pretoria.

She is also the founder of Yellow Kingdom Network (YKN), an African themed children edutainment network aimed at educating and entertaining the African child.

“Our main aim is to contribute to the socialisation of the African child, the African way. So YKN exists to tell the Malawian child the stories we heard as children, in form of toys and dolls; story books, children products and reality shows. Our dream is to be the Disney of Malawi, just that our stories will add value to our children’s education,” she says.

It all started one night as she tucked her children into bed. As usual, they asked for a bedtime story from their library book on Disney princesses. Bertha had read to them many times before and although she obliged, she was troubled because they always requested stories with characters from beyond their world.

“This gave me an idea to bring out Malawian stories in whatever way I could for the Malawian child. So, I told them the story of Kamdothi, but instead of having a sad ending of Kamdothi dissolving, I made her a clay princess instead.

“I presented her as a princess who conquered her dissolving limitation and became a princess. With the clay princess in the story, I decided to make Kamdothi the character of high importance in the life of the Malawian child and it became my obsession,” the inventor explains.

From that story, she created a doll and called it Chichi (her firstborn daughter’s nickname). Bertha believed that making Kamdothi into a life-like resemblance and as something they could play with would seduce them to falling in love with Malawian fire place stories.

Five more dolls with similar faces to Chichi’s were made, only with varying hair and skin shades, to represent the physical diversities of Africans.

The doll is now gaining global recognition with people as far as Australia buying and showing interest in being distributors. It is also selling in South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and other parts of the world.

“Retailing on a larger scale is a challenge as it requires well organised outlets. So, most of the selling is done through our website and in Malawi, my relations help with the selling,” says the 39-year-old.

Launching YKN is a symbol of her passion to tell Malawian children the stories her generation used to hear when they were younger. She started by writing and adapting existing Malawian stories so that they keep going even for generations to come.

“I package these stories in many forms. When I adapted Kamdothi, I realised she would not stand and be liked akin to the likes of Cinderella and Frozen (the endless winter) because our children are used to famous characters they see on television.

“Adventure series’ such as Sofia, Doc Mcstuffins, Sabrina the good witch and other Hollywood stories finely packaged in animations, books and toys are more attractive and enjoyed by our children,” she said.

When Bertha wrote her first story, Yapataula the princess of the Maravi Kingdom, she knew it would struggle to be accepted by the children because it was not packaged as the other stories were.

Her next story was an adaptation of Kamdothi thawa Mvula which many people enjoyed in their youthful days, but were not able to properly tell to their children.

“I adapted the story and made Kamdothi a princess who ascends to the throne as the next queen of her kingdom. I then realised that Kamdothi had to be repackaged in a way that a modern child could accept and enjoy,” she explains.

However, Bertha says that YKN is struggling to penetrate the market amid the existing system of networks including Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Ceebeebees and others that have been around for long and have better studios to produce world class entertainment for children. YKN is underfunded and must subcontract most of its work.

The network has started with story books, dolls and other products to raise revenue and start producing animations to operate just like any other children’s entertainment entity.

Bertha, the fourth born in a family of seven children, was born at St Anne’s Hospital in Chilumba on July 16 1978. She is married to Owen Munthali and together they have three children.

She confesses that balancing work and family is hard. “I am a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a business woman, a part time PhD student and an employee. I don’t take each role for granted and I try to be who I am in each, but that is not always the case. Certain parts suffer.

“My current work entails travelling frequently across Africa and beyond and that takes a lot of my time away from my family. It’s not healthy at all, but then I must work. Right now, I would not be close to saying I balance it all; family time suffers. However, the little time I am available, I maximise it with my family,” she declares.

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