There’s what you think you know about sex in Africa. And then there are sensual and beautiful aspects of African sexuality and the African erotic.
There are things that you think you know about the nature of sexual activities in Africa: abstinence-preaching pastors, bursaries tied to virginity tests, bachelorette parties based in prayer, and the constant fight against HIV and AIDS or FGM (female genital mutilation).
And then there are sensual and beautiful aspects of African sexuality and the African erotic – including powerful practices, traditions, scholarship and spaces that focus on female pleasure, agency and sexual knowledge.
It’s no secret that many sexual and reproductive health and rights battles are being fought across our continent. Hundreds of thousands of African women die in childbirth each year, sexual diversity as a right is basically non-existent, and debates around safe and legal abortion continue to rage. Africa has become a site for both local and international rights and equality fights.
When talking about sex in Africa, therefore, the focus is often on high levels of HIV or other health matters or issues surrounding forced marriages and sexual violence. Of course, we must not be blind to serious sexual rights issues. They form an important, albeit macabre, part of our sexual knowledge.
But so rarely is the spotlight on the joy of nookie itself. We are missing the full picture by focusing on problems that arise from sexual activity.
And this only makes matters worse. Failure to see and understand the beautiful and sensual aspects of African sexuality exacerbates the problems we want to address. It’s also a missed opportunity – to draw on progressive traditions and ideas to help us have good and healthy sex today.
A number of African scholars and sexuality pioneers have focused on the female sexual experience in order to challenge traditional, colonial and historically-skewed ideas of what it’s like to touch the squishy bits of others and brandish one’s sexuality.
Sylvia Tamale could be considered the Godmother of Sexuality. She is editor of African Sexualities: A Reader, the first work of its kind to gaze deeply into a range of aspects and histories of sexuality on the continent.
Tamale’s talks, including her lecture on Nudity, Protest and the Law, as well as her academic papers, having informed and delighted many young feminists. They have also earned her the title of ‘Worst Woman of the Year‘ from some Ugandan conservatives.
Zethu Matebeni is another great mind. Her work on queer women’s experiences has explored everything from the sexual identities of black lesbians to how HIV and AIDS affects LGBT women.Stella Nyanzi, a firecracker and all-round scholarly badass, has also used the academic realm to challenge ideas about gender and sexuality on paper and in public spaces.Nkiru Nzegwu‘s essay Osunality: Or the African Erotic (which appears in African Sexualities: A Reader), explores how the pleasure of both partners is built into the African erotic and how “African sexual ontology is progressive and a stronghold of female power”. Nzwegu argues that it’s a western view to focus on male pleasure as the measure of a rockin’ good time in the sack.
The “sexualised gender hierarchy of the west,” she says, “eroticises male dominance and female subjugation as sexual.” She makes a convincing case that this in turn limits everyone’s fun.
Nzwegu’s delicious phrases ‘Osunality’ and ‘Osun honey’ reflect her focus on female pleasure, agency and sexual knowledge. She says the “Osun force outlines a sequential flow from desire, arousal, copulation, pleasure fulfilment, conception, birth and growth”.
Female sexuality, in other words, does not begin and end with optimum baby-making but includes sensual stages and engagement with want. Women who embody this Osun force showcase their sexuality in a bold, outward manner.
The work that these women do is important because their knowledge of sex and sexuality comes from within the continent rather than from outside. It is also embedded within a feminist and female-focused framework, which directly challenges colonial, anthropological ideas.
Sex lessons from Africa
Spaces already exist across the continent with the potential to help us share the knowledge we need to explore our sexual energy.
There are sexuality schools for young women and those of ‘marrying age’, for instance, with professionals and families willing to offer a crash course in coitus before the jaws of matrimony snap you up.
In Kenya’s coastal region, bachelorette parties have someone called ‘an auntie’ who gives advice on marriage, usually an aunt or older female relative.
In Nairobi, there is a similar ‘sex auntie’ for hire whose reputation is so good that her entire business is based on word of mouth. Najad (no one knows her surname) is said to teach everything from how to keep the coochie clean to how to squirt during sex.
In Zambia, pre-wedding events that involve “bed-dancing” use drums and dancing to impart sexual knowledge. To the background of a drumbeat and singing, women perform dance moves that simulate sex. Once the bride-to-be has got the moves down, she can use them to arouse her husband; this practice also makes a woman more flexible (which I suppose is a direct benefit for her partner, too).
In Uganda, women are taught how to pull the labia majora to create a more inviting and warm environment for the man when he slips in. This act is also meant to help with female ejaculation and orgasm as the act of tapping the penis on these elongated lips send some on a one-way trip to Orgasm Town.
This sex education (at least in the Baganda kingdom) is offered by Ssengas – older women who work to initiate girls into adulthood.
The knowledge produced and shared in these spaces is supposed to help a woman come into her own. Young women are taught seductive glances, dances that enhance pleasure and even how to utilise waist beads for increased sexual stimulation.
Most of this advice is taught and demonstrated “in context” by an older women in the group, and it is stressed that these moves are only to be thrown down in the bedroom, and ‘only for your husband’.
These spaces are therefore far less sex positive than one would hope for (with the act of sex again tied back to marriage). But, despite their heteronormative and sometimes patriarchal nature, they recognise the need for sex as a social good that should be worked towards and not shied away from.
We need sexual partners on the continent, and around the world, to re-conceptualise what it means to be having good, safe sex and what healthy sexual practices look like. Ideas of Osun Honey, and the cultural curation of knowledge, merging with digital moves forward, can create something whole, healthy and extremely fun.
This was first published inOpenDemocracy. There is also a Ted Talk we did on the subject in Cape Town.