These bana ba pelego figures are made by Northern Sotho mothers for their soon-to-be-married daughters. They are constructed by winding leather or cloth around a cylindrical piece of wood or a bundle of reeds (and are therefore occasionally called bana ba dihlaka, or “children of reeds”). These are then covered with beadwork, and sometimes string and pieces of thong.
On the day of her wedding, the bride presents this special doll to her parents-in-law. There they choose a name for the future first child of the newly married couple. (This also becomes the name of the little figure.)
Until a real baby comes, the doll is cherished as part of the household and as a plaything for the younger sisters-in-law of the new wife. These girls will eventually be responsible for looking after the young child. By playing with the bana ba pelego doll, they learn about the responsibilities of childcare. According to Elizabeth Dell: “The small girls will carry the doll on their backs, talk to it … treat it as one would a real baby. Part of this playing involves dancing in a circle around the doll, singing songs. If a girl happens to kick the doll over, all of them rush down to the river where they bathe – that is, purify – themselves.”
When a baby is eventually born, it is given the chosen name carried by the little figure. If it cries too much, this is taken to mean that the baby dislikes its new name, and the name is changed repeatedly over several days. When the the child stops crying, this is believed to mean that he or she is happy with his or her name – which will be kept.