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Africans are NOT ashamed to kiss

To many observers, Africans tend not to kiss in public because they’re prudes. Consequently, some Africans have bought the idea that kissing in public is a sign of civilized behaviour. Both are wrong.



From Michael Corleone to Fredo, Belle to the Beast, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to East German President Erich Honecker or Britney Spears to Madonna, kissing has universally proven itself to be the best way to speak all of the world’s languages. In the animal kingdom, elephants enjoy doing something comparable with their trumps and bonobo apes suck on each other’s tongues for up to ten minutes at a time – did this inspire the French? The kissing experience is unrivalled and studies even reveal that people remember their first kiss better than any other first time of their lives, including their first intimate experience.

However, in Africa, the pretty persuasive legend depicting romance as an absurd invention exclusive only to occidental societies has been peddled around our continent for centuries. Therefore like the many people the following fact will not surprise, I belong to that category of African kids who have never seen their parents kiss before. Affectionate gestures, sweet words in the ear, holding hands or hips and conversations about intimacy were outrageously non-existent in our daily lives. We would only catch a glimpse of such tender passion during the daily ritual of glamorous soap operas. But the amorous fiction embodied in these churches of love tickling the hearts of their pious female followers was in deep contrast to the complex reality of everyday romantic relationships as they evolve in Africa between tradition and globalization.

The kissing opinion: ‘Africans are principled, not ashamed’
I had numerous thwarting conversations with individuals inviting us Africans to come out of our ‘sexual shame’, as our refusal to kiss openly is considered to be ‘superficial, pointless and irresponsible’. I was even more wounded by my fellow African who grew up only to form the opinion that kissing in public is a sign of civilization or of racial superiority. What an embarrassment! What grander agenda are we pursuing when we condemn ourselves to mimic every little attitude the white man adopts? Every African country has the right and the duty to have its own customs and practices and I believe them to be just as adequate and valid as any other western habit. Therefore instead of repeatedly criticizing Africans for not doing this or for doing that, a goliath step in the right direction would be to learn how to respect other people’s cultures while staying true to our own. It’s a very difficult art to master.

The African man is not ashamed to kiss let alone to love. In fact it’s out of respect that he chooses not to publicly display comportments that belong in the private sphere. He may learn fast – drop him anywhere in the world and he will adapt – but he also carefully observes before taking action because he doesn’t want to end up betraying his heritage. Traditional values are indubitably the pillars of his social conduct. Have you ever wondered why it is so hard for an African man to switch to eating salad everyday? Even when it comes to something as simple as his diet, he prefers to keep it as intimate to his culture as possible. Have you ever met a Senegalese, a Nigerian or a Somali, telling you he is not from his country of origin even if he has never been there? I doubt it, because even though he was raised some place else, he always identifies himself first as an African man. Can you now imagine him being forced by society to kiss his woman in public, as if he was competing to be the best inamorato on the planet? If there is no greater reward than the guarantee of becoming a sheep, don’t spend too much time looking for him in the herd. Spoiler alert: He’s not there.

This commentary naturally does not incorporate the men who do not kiss in public solely out of discretion for their four other girlfriends scattered around the city. It speaks to the decent one-woman men who do not kiss overtly because they make it a mission to preserve our cultural dignity.

The kissing brigade: Meet some of our African detractors
– The Mursi and Surma people from South Sudan and Southwestern Ethiopia have adopted the radical way: abstinence from kissing! It is still the norm for Mursi women to wear large pottery or wooden plates in their lower lips. These lip-plates are both symbols of Mursi identity and a sign of beauty, female strength and self-esteem. (Aside: interesting paper here about the uneasy encounters between the Mursi and tourists who photograph them.)

A Mursi woman with her lip plate, South Ethiopia. Photo: Eric Lafforgue

A Mursi woman with her lip plate, South Ethiopia. Photo: Eric Lafforgue

– For the Tonga tribe in Mozambique, kissing is an indecent attack on basic hygiene. When they observed westerners kissing for the first time, they mocked their ignorance, confidently claiming that the white man has a preference for eating dirt.

– In Siteki, Swaziland, couples caught kissing passionately in public are obligated to pay a $12 fine. The country, of course, is less prudish when thousands of supposedly virgin young women dance topless in front of the last absolute monarch in Africa, Mswati III. The popular polygamist uses this event – particularly loved by tourists – to choose a new spouse every year. He currently has 15 wives.

– For the Mandja people in Central African Republic, avoiding kissing it is a matter of survival: native women have the upper lip perforated and adorned with a wooden disc that ends with two hooks. Their kiss is a handshake where the man imprisons the thumb of his dulcinea.

These teenagers were arrested after this photograph of them kissing outside their school in Nador, Morocco, was posted on Facebook. The arrest sparked a “kiss-in” protest outside the Moroccan parliament. Photo: Senna/AFP/Getty Images

These teenagers were arrested after this photograph of them kissing outside their school in Nador, Morocco, was posted on Facebook. The arrest sparked a “kiss-in” protest outside the Moroccan parliament. Photo: Senna/AFP/Getty Images

– In the “Nador kiss” affair, three Moroccan teenagers were arrested in October last year after a photograph of them kissing was posted on Facebook. The young kissing couple (14 and 15) and their photographer were charged with violating public decency, risking up to two years of imprisonment. A “kiss-in” campaign was organised by dozens of demonstrators on 12 October to defend the right to public displays of affection. The adolescents were acquitted in December.

– Kissing in public is now banned in Uganda. ‘Every conduct of sexual nature is strictly prohibited in public’ said President Museveni, in power since 1986. He added, ‘If I kissed my wife of 41 years in public, I would lose elections in Uganda.’

– They’re not big fans in Guinea, either. Psychotherapist Jean-Luc Tournier jokes about it in his book The Little Kiss Encyclopedia: ‘Guineans never laughed louder than in front of languorous kisses in movies. In the theatres of Conakry, the bantering public could not understand why the hero and his ladylove would indulge in such lengthy foreplay before proceeding to the act.’

– In Cameroon, one editorialist I heard on the radio didn’t hesitate to drop it raw: ‘Kisses for us women here are not necessary as long as they can be replaced with a good home, jewellery, clothes and furniture. Love can’t give you comfort, money does.’

The kissing experts: How do Africans kiss?
Courtesy of Nigerian-British filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, the video “Eaten by the heart” attempts to show how African cultures can affect the enactment of love. This excerpt is beautiful, real, amusing and revealing.

Zina states: “So many of us cite with confidence that love is universal. But the performance of love is, it seems, cultural. I wonder how the impact of how we choreograph and culturally organise the performance of love impacts what we feel inside and who we become.”

The kissing debate: Did you recognise yourself in me, or any of these individuals?
My opinion may not be the most popular but do not hesitate to tell us yours. Do you kiss in public? If not, is it out of shame, values or something else? If yes, did you grow to be comfortable doing that or were you always? What are your theories in regards to our reasons for being so private? If public perception were not a problem, would you be able to express your love more openly? – PS: Do the increasingly daring Nollywood love scenes always leave you as uncomfortable as they leave me? – Whatever it is, share away!