You Sexy African!

by Tiffany Kagure Muge

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Africans are sexually conservative; that at some point between our freeing pre-colonial toplessness and the strictures of neo-colonial pastors praying for us to stop “chronic masturbation”, we lost our collective inner sexual freak. We lost that thing that allowed us to enjoy sex as part of religious rituals and have schools that taught men and women how to unleash the pleasure found in the their bodies’ connection to the cosmos. Now we have seemingly become a people who, under the rubric of a warped morality, have bachelorette parties in which you are told you shall stay on your knees in prayer; who judge or attack one another for wearing miniskirts, or for mentioning that you and your husband may indeed have sex outside of the three times required to conceive the three children you have. One needs only look at how churches speak about “virtue”, how a girl is raised to not even look sideways at a boy until the day she must bring a good one home. One needs only watch a good Nollywood film in which any woman who is even slightly “loose” ends up either dead, struck with a strange disease, or plagued by demons.

The vagina has become that which is supposed to signify all that is pure and wholesome within society. Yet it can easily be defiled through something as natural as having your period and unnatural as being raped. It is the source of good when used well and mass evil when not. It is policed to the extent that it is now even tied to bursaries awarded in order to reduce the spread of HIV. It is a kind of Pandora’s Box, a source of both life and shame.

Women who have decided that they are not going to put up with bad sex and have their voices grow hoarse from faking orgasms, who instead choose to seek out the sex they feel they deserve are labelled hoes (whores), THOTS (That Hoe Over There), thirsty, or simply dismissed as being too wild. Such a woman’s sexuality makes her both desired and damned; an old tweet I read on my timeline pointed out this irony; 

“you may call me a slut now that we have broken up, but you can never un-eat this pussy.”

Women owning their sexuality are characterised as destructive, incapable of following society’s rules, or stereotyped as having emotional issues (often tied to their relationships with their fathers — the so-called daddy issues — and possible trauma in the form of hypothesised prior sexual assault). Only the most righteous of women ostensibly ever truly deserves to be referred to as a “good woman”. Those who cover up are seen as balanced, confident women while those who expose their bodies are seen as neurotic, exhibitionist attention seekers.

There are still more insidious ideas wafting around the continent, polluting our minds and tainting our sex lives. Misconceptions such as women being mere vessels from which to extract pleasure or as receptacles for men’s semen; thinking that women are machines into which if you put enough friendship coins, sex will fall out; women as incapable of articulating whether they want sex or not; women as incapable of knowing what they want or when they want it; women as not permitted to change their minds before, during, or after sex; women as incapable of insane heights of pleasure (There are some who still consider female ejaculation to be a myth. It is not). It is still necessary for us to continually (re)understand sex and pleasure from a woman’s perspective and re-examine notions of sex, desire, consent, and agency.

Nkiru Nzegwu provides a corrective to these forms of misogynist sexual conservatism in an  analysis of the African erotic in her “Osunality”. Nzegwu wants us to understand the various historical contexts that had an impact on the ideas we now accept as given. These ideas about sexuality, agency, and pleasure have evolved over time but are now often accepted as “the way things always were.”  When Nzegwu advocates for a modern way of understanding sexuality she is urging us to think of new ideas not merely based in “modern western ways of thinking” but rooted in our own African contexts. One needs to only look at the kitchen parties and bed-dancing in Zambia, the aunties from the coasts of Kenya, ssengas who have set up stalls to teach sexual skills in the streets, and even the (slightly too heteronormative and patriarchal) African sex safari based in traditional medicines and healing practices one can experience in Alexandria Township in South Africa.

Despite being steeped in modernity we, as Africans, have a tendency to fall back on culture and tradition either consciously or unconsciously in order to entrench power relations. One sees a man within polygamous communities such as South Africa speaking of his need for multiple women without any understanding of the context of pre-colonial marriage practices, merely because he wants more than one moist place within which he can rest his weary penis. With bride price and lobola, for which men take out loans to “pay” for their future bride, the notion of a man owning a woman is symbolised and recapitulated.  

When challenging oppressive ideas about women’s sexual agency, we can look to cultural-historical ideas as well as modern ones: In the same breath that one speaks of a vibrator one can speak about the vagina’s awesome mystical power in a cultural sense, and show that African mysticism and an African woman’s orgasm have a meaningful, shared context. Reclaiming women’s sexual agency happens both by going forward creatively — as seen in some of the sex-positive African women’s spaces like Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s Adventures From the Bedrooms of African Women — but also critically, by taking the argument back to the pre-colonial context and traditional context right to the place of those who argue against women’s sexual agency like to take refuge. The regressive traditionalist cultural argument against sex positivity and sexual empowerment is that they are neither cultural nor traditional; but, as African feminist know, they, in actual fact are a powerful and important elaboration of African culture and tradition.

Although cultural and traditional rituals may not be performed every day, they are internalised as received ideas by many and thus inform contemporary daily interactions. A man does not need to believe in cutting off the clitoris of a woman or understand the diverse histories of the practice to misinterpret it as an endorsement of the primacy of his pleasure, even at the expense of hers; or that his masculinity is assured only by the symbolic mutilation of her femininity. A woman does not need to believe in polygamy to justify being cheated on because “men should not be starved of sex.” The average African man under the age of thirty-five who has barely been to the village will nonetheless tell you about the putative cultural role of women. He does this based on fabulations of  the village “where men are men and women act right” rather than his personal lived experience.

Culture has a rich, diverse and fluid meaning.”

A look at culture allows insight into the lives of a particular group and hearing the views of those within the group illuminates power dynamics. There’s a hierarchy of who has control over their sexuality based on cultural ideas: the coital duty of the wife, practices such as Female Genital Cutting, breast ironing, and so on. When such ideas are advocated by female (and male) members of communities, they speak to sexual power dynamics. When a man and woman, man and man, or woman and woman confront each other, such ideas choreograph their sexual interactions. What do men and women talk about when they talk about sex and how do these conversations play out between the sheets?

A conversation with a group of men once came to the mind blowing conclusion that if women said “no” then men would not cheat. The assumptions were that men had no control over their genitalia and women’s vaginas were a vortex from which no man could escape, and thus they must do their damndest to keep that kitty under control for the good of all. This conversation gave women a sort of negative agency whilst also perpetuating the idea of the strong penis that will not be controlled. This again centred the man as the prime mover during sex whilst the woman was a crucible for his virility, either checking it or allowing it to spill forth.

From her reflections on the sexual practices of Luo people, Tsanga gives an example  of the practice of widow cleansing, which continues to this day in some communities: When a woman’s husband dies she must be cleansed by a jakowiny in order for her to be passed on to the man who shall eventually inherit her (Ter). The jakowiny is an outsider and sometimes sought after because of his limited mental capacity, often having been a jakowiny for many other women. Even when a woman dies uninherited she must be inherited in death showing that a woman, even when she is dead, must belong to someone sexually. Widow cleansing not only has repercussions for the prevalence of HIV/AIDS but also raises questions of sexual agency and ownership as well as the violation of a woman’s body. Widow cleansing is a cultural practice that occurs in other African contexts, for example in Southern African countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. Arguably a universal theme, that a woman’s vagina is public property is one that is deeply entrenched within an array of African traditional and cultural contexts. Participants in the study emphasise that “sex in Luo culture brings order to society.” Tsanga argues that there is a need to explore how cultural and traditional notions seep into the greater society, which I completely agree with. One cannot act as though we date and shag in a silo, the notions which inform other interactions will inevitably inform activities we engage in between the sheets.

One of the alternative reparative narratives is that of the African eroticism exemplified by the goddess Osun, and philosophies of the African erotic described by Nkiru Nzegwu. Nzegwu entices us to engage in a shift of the mind (and body) to a different cognitive framework, that is, from a Western one that is based on Greek phallocentric ideas of sex to one based in African philosophies and understandings of the sexual act.

The resultant European/Western conception of eroticism underwrites theoretical, literary and fictional narratives of sexuality from a phallocentric position that emphasises and legitimizes the privileging of men’s needs, desires and fantasies.

She challenges us to throw off the cloak of the argument that “this is African tradition” which is used to defend a male-centric paradigm of sex, because it is not how we, as Africans, historically got sexy. It is from a European context that we have derived manichaean juxtapositions of the Madonna and the whore, where a woman can only either encapsulate frigid purity or be wildly, insatiably, disloyal and promiscuous when it comes to sex. This is “the sexualised gender hierarchy of the West [which] eroticises male dominance and female subjugation as sexual.”

The influence of the West must also be seen in how a great deal of our own history is forgotten or lost.

The African context, however, is thus one that not only recognises but also unites the power of the penis and the command of the clitoris, a fact we must remember.

Jane Bennet says in her paper on subversion and resistance, that “what can be understood (remembered) of the diverse paradigms, activities and performances that comprised sexual being within the lives of our ancestors is minimal.” This obscured history needs to be re-placed within the consciousness of post-independence African citizens who continue an engagement with Christian colonial values (alongside Islamic religious ideas in some parts of the continent), which include the disallowing of same sex practices, public displays of desire, the concept of a clean sexuality as well as “the erasure of the sexual power of people gendered as women.” Furthermore, there was the hyper-sexualisation of the African body by colonial libido, with the naked and revealed body becoming something to be both feared and desired.

Nzegwu points out that “imperialism radicalised sexuality worldwide and colonialism, apartheid, and global capitalism reconstituted only white women into paragons of purity and beauty […] deserving of love and affection and fetishized non-white bodies as dispensable and worthless.” Thus a contemporary policing of women such that we are unable to dress as we please for fear of being attacked, and we see instances of corrective rape as men seek to put women in their place as women, and we have execrable social media memes such as #Mollis, which was a circulated audio recording of what sounded like a woman being raped and which was found  risible simply because she, her voice inflected by her ethnicity, mispronounced her attacker’s name. The meme trended because of the classist claim that she did not have a mastery of English in spite of the more important fact that she sounded like she was being sexually assaulted.

Nzegwu asks this question to cosmopolitan Africans:

…what is the justification for embracing a notion of eroticism that is steeped in an ideology of gender inequality, that construes the bodies of African women as undesirable?

Again, Nzegwu urges us to return to the philosophical roots of certain threads of African eroticism. She argues that a relocation to an African ontological schema as well as closer look at the foundation on which it rests could highlight the flaws of the modern understanding of sexuality as well as paint a different picture of sexual desire and passion.

Ancient Egyptian erotica are extant in the form of paintings, texts such as The Instructions of Kagemni, and songs that spoke of love and sexual desire. Although the Egyptians are but one example of the ancient erotic, their philosophy shares certain elements with other beliefs from various others within the continent including that of Yoruba religion. One such overlap is in the Yoruba goddess Osun. Although Osun is the sole female divinity amongst sixteen male deities, she is the one in whom “the Creator-God placed all the good things in earth…” She is the epitome of sensuality and sexual pleasure and her existence speaks to female sexual knowledge and agency. In turn, women who embody this cosmic force wield their sexuality “openly and unselfconsciously.

“Osun’s force outlines a sequential energy flow from desire, arousal, copulation, pleasure, fulfilment, conception, birth and growth.” However, this whole process does not need to culminate in the creation of life. The principle of pleasure is at its core. The principle of pleasure for both partners is at the heart of sex. Osun, like other female African deities, does not exert her power and reinforce female sexuality by negating male sexuality. It is understood that the two must work in conjunction with each other to truly realise the transcendence of sexual experience.

This is contrary to contemporary thinking that says a woman who shows she is sexually equipped to handle herself and her pleasure is not someone who enjoys a God given right (see “The Song of Songs”) but is a threat to the order of society; that such a woman’s presence  can only make things sticky and slippery in a way that makes all around her uncomfortable as they have to deal with their own repression. The contemporary gendered parlance of “conquering” a woman, “smashing the pussy”, and other phrases speak to an adversarial idea of sex that means the woman must eventually submit. Within this rhetoric there is no partnership, only a sexual battle. (About this conflict, Saul Bellow asks:

“In times like these, how should a woman steer her heart to fulfillment? […] Man and woman, gaudily disguised, like two savages belonging to hostile tribes, confront each other. The man wants to deceive, and then to disengage himself; the woman’s strategy is to disarm and detain him.)  

The message amidst this sexual antagonism is that you, as a woman, shall spread her legs and be beaten with the putative magic stick.

There are still traditional spaces in which women are taught to embody these ideas of the erotic and the sensual. Sexuality schools such as those seen among the pan-ethnic Sande and Bundu, in which they have kpanguima, taught women the potency of pleasure as well as “the value of controlling and taming the spouse.” Nzegwu says that Sande instructors focus on moulding young girls into self-assured women. Such schools recognise sexual power and pleasure as a social good that can, and must be, taught and harnessed all within a paradigm of what is culturally acceptable. Remnants of these sorts of practices can be seen amongst the ssengas of Uganda or even the “aunties” of the Kenyan coast. Instructors focusing on sexual pleasure and the sexual empowerment of women are present in Ghana with the Dipo of the Adangme, Chisungu of the Bemba and Tonga in Zambia, and the Olaka of the Makhuwa from Yao and Makonde in Mozambique, among others.

Sex in Africa should be about invoking traditions so as  to surface their sex positive foundations as they truly were and are before they were stripped of their sensuality. Great sex is not a Western notion; the freedom for a woman to experiment and explore her sexuality is not for, and does not even originate from, the “foreign feminists” but is something deeply ingrained in African spirituality and eroticism. Take a good look at the vagina, at her secrets, her depth, the fact that she has the only human organ that is designed purely for pleasure. It may be time to wonder what else can emerge from there other than a baby. Get a mirror and a friend to help in the journey of ecstatic discovery, feel your merry way, and submerge your lovely self in something different.