Toys for Germany's "unseen children"

The founders of Neukölln-based children's company Tebalou grew up without toys or story book characters they could relate to. Now they're bringing a more diverse range of products to playrooms across Germany and beyond. 

Tebalou co-founders&nbsp;Tebogo Niminde-Dundadengar (left) and&nbsp;Olaolu Fajembolaare trying to give more children the chance to see themselves reflected in their books and toys.<br>
Tebalou co-founders Tebogo Niminde-Dundadengar (left) and Olaolu Fajembolaare trying to give more children the chance to see themselves reflected in their books and toys.
Markus Wächter/Berliner Zeitung

Berlin-It’s a quiet Friday morning on the normally busy Lahnstraße in northern Neukölln when I arrive looking for Tebalou – an online outlet for children’s toys and books, but with an important difference. The brand's name is a composite of the first names of its founders, Tebogo Niminde-Dundadengar and Olaolu Fajembola. Both of the entrepreneuers are mothers, more specifically Black mothers, who had an idea that arose out of necessity.

When they discovered that finding toys and books their kids could relate to wasn’t such an easy task, they opened their online shop in summer 2018. They set out to exclusively sell products that offered an alternative to usual prototypes of skin colour, family structures and gender. Last year, they were even recognised by the government as part of its “Culture and Creative Pioneers” awards initiative for their efforts.

Reaching the office, I receive a friendly greeting from Tebogo. The shop’s slogan is “Diversity in the Playroom”. Absolutely, I think, we definitely need more of that! Just browsing what’s on offer at quickly gives you an idea of what the whole project is about. The list of the site’s most popular items features a Black doll, a tactile memory game and numerous picture books with children of all different skin colours on the covers - including many English language titles. The range of products has been thoughtfully picked out.

The two women’s desire for a more diverse offering in children’s products stems from their own childhood experiences. Olaolu tells me what it was like growing up as a Black girl born in Germany in the 1980s: once in a while she would come across a Black doll, but the main characters in her books were never Black. Some could be found in the classics of German children’s literature – but they were always stereotypical portrayals she couldn’t identify with. “We were unseen,” she says. “As children, we couldn’t see ourselves anywhere!”

Nowadays, a more diverse range of products is available, but these options are not yet widely established within the children’s market. Tebogo and Olaolu decided not to open an indie shop of the kind that would have gone down a storm in Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods, but with good reason.

“We wanted to be able to offer this range throughout the entire German-speaking world,” Tebogo explains. Neither of the pair grew up in Berlin, but rather in rural areas – Tebogo in the south of Germany and Olaolu in the north. They know what life is like there, and want to make it as easy as possible for their customers. They also offer delivery throughout Europe.

They shook hands on the idea for the shop at the very party where they were first introduced. They started working together from home, packaging up their first orders in the living room and taking them to the nearest corner shop to be dispatched. Soon, their range of products was so big they had to look for additional storage space.

We have a right to see other perspectives portrayed besides the obvious ones.

Olaolu Fajembola

Sitting on a red sofa in that very storeroom, I survey the shelves. As a former bookseller, I know about the weaknesses in our children’s books market. And I also know that no-one should underestimate the power of those books. Even today, most main characters in children’s books are male. They're white, cisgender, they live with both their parents, they are thin, often blond, don’t have a disability, and if they do, then that normally miraculously disappears at the end of the story. “Who are these books for?”, I ask myself, as do Tebogo, Olaolu and a host of other parents who want to give their children more opportunities to identify with the things around them.

The topic of everyday discrimination has been mulled over a lot in the public sphere over the last few weeks – and been approached in a new light, it has to be said. The death of George Floyd in the USA has caused distress throughout the world. Tebogo and Olaolu noticed that too when, during the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, demand for their products rose.

White, privileged mothers like me were suddenly sitting down at home and scanning their children’s books for diversity. Mine were a dead loss. Having not paid enough attention to diversity up until that point, I vowed to look for alternatives – and I found Tebalou.

Do white children notice when the heroes in their books look like them? Yes, in the same way Black children notice when they don’t look like them. Tebalou wants to sensitise what is on offer to children, and present Germany as a diverse society without hierarchies. Olaolu, who has an academic background in cultural studies, smiles as she tells me: “A child isn’t just a child with a darker skin tone or a disability. They’re not just a girl or a boy. Children are a lot of things – they might be rebellious, or they might not. They might live with both their parents, or they might not. Maybe their sister uses a wheelchair or their brother is blind. Children’s books should reflect a child’s life, and we have a right to see other perspectives besides the obvious ones portrayed alongside them.”

Diversity in the playroom - some of the dolls available from Tebalou's range.
Diversity in the playroom - some of the dolls available from Tebalou's range.Markus Wächter/ Berliner Zeitung

It sounds as if two pathways are being opened up to parents with regard to children’s books – either you choose books to read for fun, in which the stories help paint diversity as something completely normal, or you can use books as a starting point for discussing topics like feminism, inclusivity or racism with your child.

As a psychologist, Tebogo knew that a lot of things with children happen subconsciously. She explains: “These days we know that even as babies, children start getting used to what the people around them look like.” She retells a story from her midwife, who would wear her long black hair loose at home. But when she visited families where the children weren’t used to seeing people with dark skin, the midwife had told her, she would have to put her hair in a plait so that they wouldn’t be scared of her.

However, white parents who think all they need to do is buy their child a Black doll and call it a job well done have got the wrong idea entirely. Olaolu shakes her head and says: “People really need to talk to their children about privilege as well. Does your child know that they are white? Do they know what that status means? What privileges do you yourself have? Parents have to first be able to understand for themselves what racism and privilege actually are.”

“Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to engage critically with their children’s toys.

Tebogo Niminde-Dundadengar

Now I’m the one nodding in admittance that in the past, I’ve often asked someone “where they really come from”. That I did it under the impression that the answer would help me get a better picture of that person – and that without wanting to be discriminatory towards them, I ended up doing it anyway. Tebogo and Olaolu know exactly what I’m talking about – and how much influence that has on a child.

Actually ensuring your child has a diverse range of toys and books is an important step. Child day-care centres are among Tebogo and Olaolu’s customers too, not just individual parents. Tebalou stocks card games in which the king and queen cards have the same value. What that demonstrates, the two founders say, is that we don’t have to invent a range of completely new toys – adapting the old ones does just as well. Things like a woman engineer being pictured in a puzzle like it was the most natural thing in the world – and the puzzle itself is of course made from a sustainable material.

“Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to engage critically with their children’s toys,” Tebogo says. “It’s a question of whether they can justify the choice of the books they’re reading to their children.” She and Olaolu are doing exactly that, and their customers are too. There’s room enough in the world of children’s books, they say.

I leave the office. That evening, I’m sitting having dinner with my boyfriend and our child, and I tell them about that day’s conversation. I say I’d like to bring a bit more diversity into our toy collection at home. “Let’s do it then,” my boyfriend agrees. That wasn’t so hard.

This article was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.