It was a night like any other balmy Nairobi night. A mixed group of young people out at a club of the kind Nairobi used to specialise in before the de-zoning that sparked rapid development: a converted colonial bungalow on an acre of land.
Inside the bungalow, a bar and what was once a sitting room, which, at a certain time of night, spontaneously transforms into a packed dance floor. Outside, parking for those who arrived early enough to get it, and a beer garden. It was that time of night when people began showboating. Stories would get more and more outrageous, each person trying to outdo the last with tales that might once have been rooted in a distant truth but quickly evolved into the fantastical.
In the midst of all this vying for attention, one of our friends (I’ll call him Steve) suddenly jumped onto a table and began to gyrate his hips. A few people told him to get off and stop spoiling the view, but Steve did not listen. As he continued to dance, something strange happened. We’ve all been there – that moment when there is a lull in the conversation and, no matter how loud it had been, whoever spoke next had everyone’s full attention.
We were witnessing a visual version of that.
The music drifting out of the house changed and Steve responded by changing his movements. It quickly became captivating. People at nearby tables stopped talking and focused on Steve.
The waiter who had approached our table on a mission to tell Steve to get off the table or risk being thrown out stopped in his tracks. Turned out that Steve was an incredible dancer. But there was something else in his movements. This was not just Steve trying to score points. Steve’s eyes were closed and he was enjoying himself, even though he could barely move his feet in the clutter of glasses on the table, but it was clear that he was not making it up as he went along.
We were not just witnessing Steve dancing – this was a dance.
‘The sengenya dance,’ he informed us when the track stopped and he jumped down to rapturous applause. Steve naming the dance broke the spell and brought us back to our tipsy storytelling. Someone called Steve out, saying he must have made up both the dance and its name. To sengenya in Nairobi is to talk badly of someone in their presence, using a language that the person does not understand.
We expressed our suspicion that Steve was playing a trick on us. He was enjoying us. Steve has never danced in our company before. That was the first time we had seen him dance and not only did he do it but he did it exquisitely. And then he said it was the ‘sengenya dance’ – something we had never heard of… He must have made it up. The mood turned sour as Steve continued to insist that the dance was real.
Steve hails from the Kenyan coast, and that is where the dance is from, he said. Most of us were Nairobi kids and we countered that we had only ever heard of the chakacha.
Steve maintained that we knew nothing and went home in a huff.
It turned out that Steve was right…
This was in the days before Google, so it took much longer for us to independently verify (much to Steve’s chagrin) that there was such a thing as the sengenya dance and to settle the argument.
The moral of the story
I am sharing this story because I believe it to be a mirror for the discussion around sexual pleasure on much of the African continent today. The Internet is littered with articles surrounding the taboos on discussing sex, let alone sexual pleasure, and much hand-wringing occurs on African Facebook groups among 30-something mothers who were never taught anything about sex and seem doomed to repeat the pattern with their own children.
Yet, just like Steve’s dance, the exuberant expression of sexual pleasure is right there before our very eyes. So much so that even the elders, deeply concerned with our moral wellbeing, have drawn attention to this.
Take this letter to a Tanzanian newspaper from one Kapaya, which opens with this sentence: ‘The people are doing dances that are entirely unacceptable.’
This letter could have been written at any time from 1900 to the present day. (It was actually published in 1957.) Kapaya goes on to complain:
Since I first learned that there was such a thing as dansi, I have never seen dancing as wild as this. People grab each other and shake their hips, and boast that they are doing mnenguo. If a man finds himself with no woman to dance with him, he does not hesitate to grab the body of one of his peers, get into a line and dance a traditional dance of the msoma, and he will then call it dansi. [Callaci]
I, for one, wish I had been invited to that party. It sounds like a lot of fun. But if we unpack Kapaya’s letter, there is something else going on. The different expressions of pleasure through the African body were not always regulated in this way. In general, the way in which the African body has been described in writing over the centuries has often been through a distorted lens. The clue is in Kapaya’s use of the world ‘wild’.
Historically (and even in the present) ‘wild’ is an external stereotype that has long been attached to the African continent. I am unconvinced that it is something that Africans routinely use to describe themselves. There is the sense of a colonial underpinning to the moral tone of Kapaya’s shock. Dance and the strong link between dance and sexuality has always been a means through which people on the African continent have expressed themselves. ‘Dance and sex both use the same instrument – the human body – and both involve the language of the body’s orientation towards pleasure. Thus, dance and sex may be conceived as inseparable…’ [Hanna]
Kapaya, and many parents the continent over, may not explicitly state this, but they are quick to recognise it and chastise their children for ‘unacceptable’ expressions of (sexual) pleasure that we are no longer supposed to talk about.
Before the massive disruption that was colonialism, there were traditional spaces (both public and private) that allowed for the discussion of sexual matters and the expression of its pleasure. On the Swahili coast for example, there were the unyago, puberty rites in which younger women were shown ‘the proper ways’ by older women [Mugane]. These ways included pleasure for women. Although the rites were always conducted in private, single-gender groups, dance became the place where public and private met. Dance was an appropriate way for people of all ages to use their bodies symbolically. It remains a powerful form of communication, and one that has not been silenced, despite repeated attempts to do so. According to Judith Lynne Hanna ‘The physicality of dance, imbued with “magical”’ power to enchant performer and observer, threatens some people.’
What we experienced the first time we saw Steve perform the sengenya dance (Steve performed it regularly after we all made up) was that power. It is a power that is unsettling to those who try to control ‘the wild’.
What those trying to control ‘the wild’ forget is that both sexual pleasure and dance are a form of communication. People will always find a way to connect with each other, take pleasure in doing so, and express themselves while doing it.
While, post-colonially, the expression of African sexual pleasure may have become problematic, the possessors of African bodies are not going to stop having a good time. In order to maintain societal cohesion through tumultuous change and the assimilation of new cultural concepts, what occurred was an increased tension between the public and private expression of sexual pleasure.
In plain sight
We know that it is impossible to contain joy – so where is the best place to hide something contentious but in plain view? Allow me the indulgence of one more story to illustrate this:
Many moons ago there was a trader called Ali who used to work across the Kenya-Tanzania border. All the border guards knew that Ali was also a smuggler but they never caught him. Every morning Ali would turn up when the border post was opening, riding his donkey, and allow the guards to thoroughly search both him and his donkey. Ali was always compliant and never complained about the way he was treated. Ali upheld his courtesy to the guards when he walked home at the end of every evening. One day, when Ali was walking back, he informed the border guards that he would never see them again because he was retiring. They pleaded with him (on a promise of clemency) to tell them what it was that he had smuggled across the border all these years. Ali smiled and said, “Donkeys.” Only then did the guards realise that Ali would arrive on his donkey in the morning but walk back home on his return.
The dancing that happens in various guises every day all over the continent is just like Ali’s donkeys. There, in plain view, for those who wish to see it, is the fullest expression of African sexual pleasure.
The body speaking in place of taboo words.
Callaci, Emily. “Dancehall Politics: Mobility, Sexuality, and Spectacles of Racial Respectability in late Colonial Tanganyika 1930s-1961.” The Journal of African History 52.3 (2011): 365-384.
Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Dance and Sexuality: Many Moves.” Journal of Sex Research 47.2-3 (2010): 212-241.
Mugane, John M. The Story of Swahili. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015
The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.