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Moroccan children’s toys between yesterday and today
BRIO Prize 2004 Talk

Jean-Pierre Rossie

Moroccan children’s toys between yesterday and today

BRIO Prize 2004 - Lennart Ivarsson Scholarship Fund
Osby, Sweden, October 29th, 2004


I would like to start with an anecdote from my family history that goes as follows:
My maternal grandparents ran a quite important toyshop in my hometown Ghent in Belgium between 1922 and 1942; my grandfather going yearly to the toy fair in Leipzig to buy toys, among them Brio toys. Although I was about two years old when this toy selling activity stopped I doubt this has influenced my toy and play research career. On the contrary, I remember clearly being fascinated by Africa since my mid-teens and my interest in children and youth might well be linked to my involvement in the scout's movement between age six and twenty-one.

Combining the themes of Africa and childhood, I obtained a Ph.D. in 1973 with a thesis written in Dutch on Child and Society. The Process of Socialization in Patrilineal Central Africa. As my thesis was based on documents, I really wanted to do fieldwork. However, since doing research in Central Africa was impossible for familial and other reasons I turned my attention to North Africa. Supported by the Belgian National Foundation for Scientific Research I did research among the small Ghrib semi-nomadic population of the Tunisian Sahara between 1975 and 1977. My research project was to study the socialization process and children’s play and toys are part of this. Soon I found out that getting involved in play and toy making activities was a useful way to get information not only on these activities but also on childhood, gender differences, family relations, social and economic organization, local customs, and the evolution of all this. Moreover, it is a good way for creating relationships with children and adults. Between 1980 and 1990 I worked in the social service for especially Turkish and North African migrants of the city of Ghent, meanwhile collecting bibliographical and museographical information on toys and play in North Africa and the Sahara. From 1992 onwards I have been able to do research in Morocco on a regular basis and in different regions.

On the scientific level, I like to describe myself as following two directions in the study of toys and play, namely the cross-cultural and the historical approach. I view both approaches as relevant and important as they try to relate information referring to a specific time and place to a broader social, cultural and historical perspective. The usefulness of doing so lies in the possibility offered by these approaches to overcome and challenge one-sided interpretations based on specific situations, for example industrial toys used in high tech communities. Looking for similarities and differences over time and across cultures not only helps to relativize narrow interpretations but at the same time to broaden their relevance. A socio-cultural and historical perspective also makes it possible to find out what is specific for a given period or human group and what is more or less universal.

That today I am speaking to you at the BRIO Prize ceremony is certainly related to a process whereby I left the world of Africanists for the world of toy and play researchers and I want to express my sincerest thanks to Brian Sutton-Smith and Krister Svensson who have been very helpful in this context.

Talking here in this fine toy museum, I shall discuss some aspects related to toys made by Moroccan children and to artisan-made or industrial toys. The photos figuring in the text and made during my fieldwork in Morocco serve as an illustration. I want to stress that what is shown here are toys of or for Moroccan popular class children. The toys seen in city shops and given to Moroccan children of the wealthier class are often the same as those seen in Western toyshops. For a description of the toys and the play activities in which they are used, together with information on the time and place of my finding them, I refer the interested reader to my publications available on the website of the Stockholm International Toy Research Centre: (see publications, then books/articles). On this website the bibliographical references related to my research can also be found.

The aspect of materiality in Moroccan children’s toys

The great variety of material to make toys surely is remarkable and children sometimes give themselves a lot of trouble to get it as in this case where boys from the High Atlas Mountains embark on a risky expedition to get suitable clay.

Especially in rural areas, but not only there, children use much natural material for making their own toys:

· Material of mineral origin like clay, stone, sand, gypsum.

· Material of vegetal origin like leaves, sticks, bark, reed, vegetables, dates, flowers. The photo shows a rare large boys’ doll with a head of summer squash and eyes of potato skin.

· Material of animal origin like skin, hair, dried excrements and wool. For this doll the wool has been plaited to create a typical hairdo.

Moreover, waste material is used for toys made or used by Moroccan children:

· Rags among others for dressing dolls as those made by these village girls.

· Paper to make windmills, kites and whistles. This windmill made by a boy living in a small town is linked to an important festivity, namely the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

· In this example floaters of a fishing net are used as wheels for this herd boy’s car.

· Iron wires and tins are very useful to create all kind of vehicles. In a small town the boys found a way to add to their truck a new device, namely a lifting tray after seeing how a concrete mixer had such a lifting tray when the irrigation canal was repaired.

· Pieces of plastic are used for many purposes but this photo shows a plastic second hand doll wearing a self-made dress.

To make toys children regularly use natural and waste material in combination.

· As when girls play at household and dinner party.

· The same happens when musical instruments are made as in the case of this remarkable violin created by a fourteen-year-old herd boy.

The aspect of technical know-how in Moroccan children’s toys.

Making toys not only necessitates adequate material but also technical expertise.

· As when this village girl makes small houses with stones and mud by the way using snail shells as dolls. An interesting aspect of this doll play is that a mobile phone was used represented by a used TV remote control, this way showing how tradition and innovation mix in children’s play.

· Making toys that can move or have movable parts asks for a specific expertise. Some ways to resolve this problem when making wheels and axles are shown in the next photos. For the first example the maker used pieces of cactus for the frame and the seat.

· In the second case the wheels are old oil filters from a truck.

· However, building a skateboard with three wheels made of the used ball bearings from a truck is a more difficult undertaking.

· A boy, I call the Sidi Ifni toy maker, enjoys himself by creating toys for other children as seen on the next photo.

Artisan and industrially made toys

· Artisans used to make toys in wood, clay or tin but most of this activity stopped long ago. Only the artisan made tops.

· And children’s drums are regularly seen today.

· Cheap plastic toys of doubtful quality and second hand toys are invading the region.

· However, toys that are more prestigious are sometimes brought along by migrants returning to visit their family.

· In small and large towns shops offer games such as table football for a small fee, this entertainment normally available to boys only.

· However, others who have no money can still create their own version of table football.

· Slowly electronic toys find their way in rural areas as here in a popular quarter of a small town. This new type of toy circulated in a playgroup of four boys.

· The commercialization of self-made toys, of which I can give two examples, is linked to tourism. The first example are the toy animals of palm leaves made by boys and sold to tourist visiting the Tineghir valley in Central Morocco.

· I found the second example in 1998 in a village near the sand dunes of Merzouga. Here the girls still played with their self-made doll but occasionally sold it to passing tourists.

· Yet, a few years later young women made the kind of dolls seen on the last photo, exclusively to sell such dolls to tourists.

As a closing remark, I want to thank the Lennart Ivarsson Scholarship Foundation for the honor of being awarded the BRIO Prize. Yet, on a professional level I experience this as a sign of interest in and appreciation for research on non-Western children’s toys and play shown by an important member of the toy industry.

© 2005-2008, , Jean-Pierre Rossie