We assume that our parents didn’t tell us about these things because they are old-fashioned and traditional, they are African after all, unlike those white people who are so open with their affections and sex. When even our grandparents are surprised that we seem to know about sex, this reinforces the myth of the prudish African. If our parents are hush-hush about sex, and our grandparents are the same, our ancestors must have been the same and it must have always been this way.
But the truth is that it wasn’t always like this. Although there is still so little research into pre-colonial African sexuality, the little information available points to the complete opposite in African attitudes towards sex. And as with most topics, both good and bad with Africa today, if you trace changes in African sexualities far enough, you will come soon across the ubiquitous role of European colonialism. It’s such a pity that African sexuality, like other fields relating to the continent (apart from our extensive collection animals), is woefully understudied.
Pre-colonial sex education
Approaches to sex in pre-colonial African societies will, in certain respects, resemble post-colonial Africa today. Sex was generally not spoken about in public, that is unless it was in socially sanctioned public spaces, but these spaces were very important. The spaces tended to be initiation ceremonies, where the youth officially became adults and had the knowledge and expectations of society imparted to them. Or they were marriage rites, in which pretty much the same thing happened. These initiation ceremonies were like schools in which the youth were taught society’s rules, culture and even history. The sexual aspect was just one part of it. This form of education took on various forms, but one similarity between them was that there were spaces where talking freely about sex was allowed. In these schools, young women would be shocked to see their grandmother talking openly about sex, praising a young woman’s breasts and thighs as attractive, or even going as far as demonstrating the kind of moves she enjoyed in bed. Boys would listen intently as their fathers and uncles advised them on the hazards of having too many mistresses.
In between learning about what counted as acceptable adult behaviour in their respective societies, young people would learn about sex not solely as a means of reproduction but as a means of pleasure. Students learned what was expected of them in marriages, they also learned how to use sexual enhancers such as waist beads and body decorations, food aphrodisiacs, knowledge of erogenous zones, rhythmic pelvic movements and even different styles of moaning.
Sexual knowledge was imparted through diverse means across the continent. In Mali, the magnonmaka joined the married couple on their wedding night to ensure that “intercourse proceeded smoothly”, while in Nigeria, the Itsekiri people had an older female relative supervise a girl’s first sexual encounter to ensure that the experience was pleasurable. Among the Kikuyu and Zulu, sexual knowledge was transmitted through songs and dances. An line from such a song in Akan goes “when my husband holds my hand and he leaves my hand and touches my breast, I get pleasure”. When it was not enough to sing sexually explicit songs, there were demonstrations with clay figurines. In some other societies, young women were given phallic objects to “practice with”.
Through all this, it is clear that the elders talked to the youth about sex, that there was public discourse on sex in strictly regulated spaces. These institutions created men and women who were sexually confident. At the same time they were society’s means of regulating sexuality, maintaining it as something to be kept private. But Europeans labeled the initiation rites and the singing and dancing that came with them “collective expressions of obscenity”.
I believe most Africans when discussing the place public displays of affection have in our cultures, forget that such displays were not always acceptable in Europe. It was in Europe that chastity belts were used, and Europe also has its share of forced marriages. When African encountered Europeans, the former had more open ideas about sex and sexuality, especially when it came to women. In several African philosophies, sex was the foundation of a harmonious society because good sex led to happy couples, which led to many children and thus a stable population. Meanwhile, in Victorian society, “proper” women were not expected to experience the slightest sexual arousal, much less openly enjoy sex, hence Isaac Baker Brown’s clitoridectomies and the need to market vibrators as mechanical cures for “female hysteria”. This was the kind of repressive sexual culture that was forced on Africans through colonialism, Christian missionaries and Western education.
While Africans today may consider our ancestors to have been unnecessarily prudish, under the European gaze Africans were sexualised. In the racist European imagination, African men were savage brutes while African women were hypersexual with insatiable sexual appetites. On encountering African societies where nudity was the norm and not frowned upon, Europeans saw evidence of sexual invitation and promiscuity. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Europeans sought to impose their ideas of sex and sexuality onto those they colonised, and they were largely successful because our ideas of sex and sexuality were drastically transformed under colonial rule.
European colonisers were so deeply involved in the lives of the colonised, that in the Belgian Congo they even intervened in breast-feeding. Colonialists changed traditional customs where sexuality was paramount in places like Uganda by introducing new sexual mores, taboos and stigmas, and switched the focus from sexual pleasure to reproduction. The missionaries also played their role, with their vision of completely reconstructing Africa and creating a staunchly Christian society unlike the rapidly secularising Europe of the early 20th century and their impact was more far-reaching.
Missionaries measured conversions by the extent to which Africans abandoned their customs. What they demanded of the newly converted Africans was a strictly conservative level of Christian conduct that was far beyond what they experienced back home. They meddled with traditions and institutions without understanding their significance thus leaving in their wake mangled up forms of tradition. A lot of these initiation rites mentioned above came along with genital circumcision for both young men and women. Missionaries seeking to ban female circumcision thus had to target these rites. For example in Kenya, Protestant missionaries who attempted to ban female circumcision among the Kikuyu also sought to prohibit ngwiko, a kind of initiation rite that allowed new initiated youth adults to experiment sexually without penetrative sex, essentially that society’s understanding of safe sex. The missionaries eventually relented due to public outcry and let female circumcision continue under their medical supervision, however ngwiko remained outlawed so the operations continued without the systems that came with it.
Colonialism, its left arm capitalism, and its right arm missionary work, completely rearranged African society. As society changed and evolved, new ideas gradually became grounded in traditional culture. Things that were not the norm in the past suddenly became tradition. Societies where pre-marital sex was sanctioned under certain grounds, and in which it was okay for men and women to have multiple sex partners, were post-colonially labelled as deviant. And this is how the spaces for public sex talk gradually disappeared and African ideas about sex and sexuality changed drastically.
Today, only a few communities still maintain age-old philosophies, communities like the Woodabe, for instance, who still maintain open attitudes towards sex. Or like the modern ssengas of Uganda who today impart sexual knowledge to young women, now widening their curriculum to include teaching about HIV/AIDS prevention and care, as well as using modern technology to enhance traditional sex education.
Our ancestors had the sex education thing pat down yet there are no time machines for us to travel back to the good old days just to learn sexual cues. At the same time it is worrying that Western influenced schools on the continent do not teach about sex and sexuality outside abstinence, pregnancy and abortion prevention, and the dangers of STDs, HIV/AIDS. Perhaps it’s time for all of Africa to bring back traditional sex education with a modern twist. Like the modern ssengas of Uganda are doing.