How a doll became my biggest teacher

In every story that touches you, you find a reflection of yourself. Often there is a hidden lesson for you to unpack in the story as well. It doesn’t matter whether it is based in religion or if it is a modern myth, local legend, fairytale or even a simple anecdote. This year a story touched me. It took me down to the riverside and reflected to me the colours underneath my skin. Also it taught me a valuable lesson on how to honour childlike wonder in the complex world we live in.

Early this year I learned about the riverdrum. It is a wooden instrument filled with tiny stones. When you turn it around, it makes the sound of a river. It is a gentle sound that in sound healing therapy is used for cleansing energy and bringing more freshness into someones life. Along with the introduction of the instrument came a story about deity Oshun, who rules over the planets’ sweet waters: lakes, rain and rivers. She is part of the Yoruba and Candomblé religion originated in Nigeria and West-Benin. Caused by the Trans-Atlantic trade in which people were enslaved, the religion found its way to Brazil and Cuba, where the religion is still practiced in several forms today. Oshun is the youngest of twenty-two sibling orisha’s (the word for deity in her culture). She is characterised as a beautiful woman dressed in gold and yellow. When she falls in love with someone or something – which happens frequently – she is willing to dive in completely, whatever the consequences. If you are a Beyoncé fan you might have heard the pop queen sing about Oshun several times, through symbols in her visual albums she often refers to the sweet water orisha.

The stories of Oshun were like magnets to me. I felt the immediate pull to find out more about rivers, her stories and origin. I came across different chants and started singing alongside fresh springs and rivers in my current homeland Galicia. This made me connect to water as a friend, a teacher, a healer. Her sound and quality became more alive to me. I find that the power of cultures like Yoruba, Candomblé,as well as Native American cultures lies in the connection with nature and the deep understanding that we are all related. I bow to the mystery and ancient wisdom of these indigenous people. I believe this heart-centered consciousness is what is necessary to restore the natural balance of our planet. It is essential to the survival of our species to come back into our hearts.

My mother in law (who is an anthropologist) turned out to have studied the orisha’s years ago when she lived in Brazil. She told me stories and showed pictures of rituals she attended that were dedicated to Oshun. In the living room there was a carved wooden image of her, I never saw it up till then.

For my birthday I received the greatest gifts since childhood. It were a riverdrum handmade by my boyfriend and bamboo drums made by my father. All of the  instruments hardly fitted into the suitcase I would travel with during the summer to share music workshops with children in festivals. My mother, who is a sculptor, made me a foam doll of a young girl in a yellow dress. Together with the doll I would share stories about rivers and go on musical adventures and discoveries with the children. My mother worked on it for two months and she was nervous to give it to me. It was her first foam doll. For an instance I thought: Wouldn’t it be easier if her skin was yellow? The thought disappeared as quickly as it came. 

The first festival took place in the middle of a forest where I would stay for two days. Most of the workshop leaders were there every year and knew each other well. They all wore casual outfits, suitable for the environment. I wore a yellow dress that fell to the ground. I asked myself: Wouldn’t it be easier to just wear my sport wear, so I won’t draw too much attention on my first day? No, the memory of how costumes could draw me even deeper into a story as a child, made my doubt disappear. Adults may think of me what they think, I am here for the children.

The workshop was a big succes. The children were aged between six and twelve years old and were just as excited about the stories as I was. They wanted to know more and more. We had poetic conversations about sound and how we perceive it. Together with the doll we dove into the world of rivers, we played the self-made instruments, created sound journeys for each other, wrote our own river songs. I told them about one of the stories of Oshun and her connection to the sweet waters. Also how the worshipping ofthe orisha’s was forbidden when the shocking events happened in which people of the African tribes were forced to migrate and work. The people gaveOshun the face of Virgin Maryso they could continue to worship her in secret. In the workshop there was one girl with Downsyndrom. The organisation had mentioned her concentration wouldn’t last longer than ten minutes. Still she stayed truly engaged during the whole duration of three hours. She loved the doll and called her Bèbè Oshun. A daughter of Oshun. 

In the toilet I heard two performers talk about a doll and a yellow dress. The tone was disapproving. My heart broke. In the lunch meeting I shared my wish to reflect on the morning, but my request was turned down. I wanted to explain what my intentions with the workshop were, yet everyone was busy with their own workshops and wanted to rest.

My language may be different from theirs, I thought to myself. For them a yellow dress might be a sign of vanity, for me it is a celebration. For them my doll means disrespect, whereas for me it is the purest tool for connection. Can I find peace in their interpretation of my expression? Soon I learned that the more sensitive we become to the outside world, the more reasons our ego will find to fear about the judgements of others, we will tend to make ourselves smaller in an attempt to belong to the group.  

After the workshop the children performed one of the Oshun chants together with a Cuban Percussion band. It was a spontaneous co-creation. Most of the children had never been on stage before. Now they performed for hundreds of festival participants. They sang a call and response phrase with the musicians. How amazing they did! Afterwards the children came to the workshop space with their parents to make a picture of them with the doll and tell their siblings about the stories of Oshun. They asked if we could work further the next day. My colleagues who watched the performance did not say anything to me when we crossed paths later on.

That evening the senior producer of the festival came to me. ‘What are you doing with that black doll?’ He asked rudely. It were the first words he had ever said to me, apart from a quick ‘Hello’ during my intake. ‘Do you know how it looks like, a white girl walking around with a black doll?’ 

I know it sounds naive, but I wasn’t even aware of our differences. I do not see myself as ‘white’ nor I see my friends as ‘being’ one particular colour. Yes, I am aware of the imbalance and injustice in the world and the need for systemic change. Yes, I acknowledge the importance of handling stories and practices of other cultures with respect and humbleness. I think we would have found each other on common ground, but unfortunately he had to leave for another performance before I had a chance to arrange my thoughts.

So I ran into the woods where rivers flooded my cheeks. The image of my family, the children and me engaging with the story of Oshun, being seen as bad, disrespectful and even racist, was unbearable to me. But what I found even more disrupting, was that this way of looking, teared me and the doll – and everything the doll stands for – apart in two different camps. One white, the other black. For the first time of my life I saw a white face in the mirror that night, instead of a reflection of me in a broad range of colours. I found this way of looking so hard to cope with.

In one of the stories about Oshun she is send down to earth with her many brothers. While they fight and build, she spends time in the riverbed, singing. Her brothers do not see the value she brings by her beauty and generosity. They call her out. Oshun is sweet as the honey she always carries around with her, but whenever she doesn’t feel appreciated for what she contributes, she either floods her lakes and streams out of anger, or takes away all of the sweet waters and retreats to the moon. This is why people send many prayers and offerings of gratitude to Oshun, for they know the consequences of drought and infertility brought by her absence.

Unlike Oshun, who transferred her abundance and creative rivers to her retreat on the moon, I threw away the yellow dress and hid the doll. To the children I worked with that day I said they had to choose another artist for the workshops to come. Unlike Oshun, who was full of rage to her brothers, I so badly wanted to be accepted and embraced by the crew, that my initial inspiration and joy was no longer accessible to myself either.

The next day a new group of children entered the workshop space where the doll lay in a corner. At some point one of the older girls started yelling. ‘Eeeh what a scary black doll!’ The other kids joined. One boy that had held my hand until then, whispered in my ear: ‘I don’t like fat lips.’ I was stunned. Did the children sense my fear of discrimination and being misunderstood? I thought it was painful, but interesting to witness how clear children reflected my insecurity. By changing my clothes, hiding the doll and my wonder for the sweet water- and Oshuns stories, I conformed myself to the projections of others. It seemed so much easier to stay away from sensitive topics, though I realised that no real growth or conversation can start from a place of fear. A girl with Afro American roots picked up the doll and said: ‘I think she is sweet.’

Weeks later a graceful woman, a dancer who had also been in the festival, asked me about the doll. While we drank tea, she told me she was raised in a small village in Brazil, nearby the place where my mother in law had lived. A few days before, the woman had created a performance in that same forest, as a tribute to her mother who passed away one month before. Her mother was ‘a daughter of Oshun’, as they call someone who’s qualities are based on generosity, self-love, beauty, confidence and fearless loving. We were both touched about our encounter and the presence of Oshun in that forest. I decided to make my excuses to the doll for neglecting her. 

If I would be a character in a story, I would be a free, multicoloured being, who can hardly be labeled. From another perspective my character would be described as a young woman, who is raised in a privileged country and skin. What if I am both? The multicoloured ánd the white. From the multicoloured perspective I feel a desire to celebrate the unity we are as human beings by bringing people together through song. From the white perspective I feel called to hold space for others who are being discriminated and still feel the toxic consequences of colonialism today. Instead of forming judgement on hasty observation, I wish that if I trigger someone, or the other way around, we could have tea together and listen. I hope that from here an exciting exchange of stories can envelop, where vulnerability is strength and curiosity becomes connection. ~

When I look back on the stories that traveled with me through the years, I notice that the protagonists are much alike: their dreams and ambitions for their environment, their pure and rebellious hearts, their fear for being misunderstood and their desire to belong. Sometimes I play with the idea that the only difference between them, is that they are wrapped in different landscapes, different dresses. I suspect that when I find it hard to integrate the gift or lesson of a story, another character comes in to show me what I couldn’t yet comprehend through the first storyline. This leads me to my wish for this brand new year: Open ears and hearts, for you never know when there is a precious story coming your way.