By Rumbi Munochiveyi
My friend, Chiedza, once told me and a group of friends that England was the loneliest place she had ever lived. She had no family, no friends, no lover. She wanted to get a dildo. The only reason she never got one was the mortifying fear of her father receiving, upon her death, all her belongings at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. What if the dildo fell out? “My father,” she gasped. “Finding out that I owned a dildo!”
We laughed. But we all agreed. None of us could imagine offending our fathers like that. We were all African women in that room, and it has always been clear to us that your sex life does not fully belong to you.
Then comes Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah!
Reading her, you keep thinking, no, no! She just did not…they just didn’t…did they…did they just talk about this, this very private matter…to the world, this taboo subject, these unacceptable behaviours…and without the permission of their fathers…Do the fathers know? Has the church heard…of this…of this…abomination? I exaggerate. And yet many a black African woman would understand.
Sekyiamah’s The Sex Lives of African Women is a collection of stories from thirty-two African women living in various countries around the world. The book centres black African female sexuality through an exploration of journeys women take in search of sexual pleasure and freedom. Through their love and life stories, we learn about the varied experiences of African women from different backgrounds and stages of life. A twenty-one-year-old speaks; a seventy-one-year-old speaks.
Sekyiamah organises the stories into three sections forming an arc that takes the reader across what feels like a timeline of the story of womanhood and female sexuality. In the first section, “Self-Discovery”, we meet young women eager to explore, while grappling with the realities of the terrain. Some have become disenchanted. One young woman is called a whore for having bedded another man before meeting her current boyfriend. Another speaks of dressing up or down for men—to attract or to avoid attraction.
We are met with archaic ideas about virginity: women saving “it” for marriage, as a special gift for your husband, only for most to regret that misplaced loyalty to a person they haven’t known. Bibi—thirty-five-year-old, straight, Nigerian—was still a virgin at age thirty-two. “I wanted my virginity to be a gift when I got married,” she says. Attending a progressive women’s college could not trump the dictates of culture and religion.
But these women learn. They grow. The author herself spent years thinking that having sex with a guy meant “I would need to stay with him forever, and then once I was married, I realised I should have done what a lot of guys are encouraged to do and sown my wild oats.”
“I, too, have wild oats,” she adds.
Nafi, thirty-four, straight, Cameroonian Fulani, describes her now sexless marriage after a wild romance with a man she dated on and off for years, in a relationship that thrived on a most unexpected passionate cybersex. Her perspective on dating, marriage and relationships is sobering. It comes with a good understanding of where most of the conflicts women face come from. “As a woman your identity is first linked to your father and then your husband,” she says.
She talks about her man’s displeasure at not getting sex when he expected it. “I think that’s typical of men, especially African men. They feel entitled to your body especially if you’re in a relationship with them or have had some sort of intimacy with them before.”
Her story highlights the complexities and changes in a sexual relationship over time. In the end, Nafi has a confused, sexless marriage that must end in divorce, a difficult situation she seems at peace with.
From stories about self-discovery, we go on to “Freedom”, the second section. The women here reject suffocating, stodgy love. Fatou, one of the section’s memorable women, concludes that “the institution of marriage has been set up to trick women.” It’s a bold claim but she backs it by restating a commonly held belief that marrying a man means a woman gets taken care of. “But that’s not true,” she says. “Many women lose all the privileges of a free woman when they get married. And what they gain is nothing compared to what they lose.”
For Miss Deviant, who was sexually abused as a child, adulthood provides the freedom to become a sex worker. She is the dominant one in bed; she controls her clients. Sex work is her way of taking back power. From her account, we see use of sex toys, hear talk about self-pleasuring, and learn of a total commitment to pursuing desire and fulfilment.
In the book’s final section, Sekyiamah approaches “Healing”. It is unfortunate that too many stories about the sex lives of black or African women involve rape and assault—which recalls Taiye Selasi’s The Sex Lives of African Girls and Toni Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, both of which feature violations in the home, the one place a child must feel safe. But the stories in Sekyiamah’s book are not fiction. Tafadzwa, from Zimbabwe, was raped by her boyfriend and his friend, together. “They went away with my soul that night,” she tells the author.
For a sizable chunk of the women in these pages, the first sexual encounter was rape. Or some kind of assault. Esther is raped but would not call it that. She comes up with a story of a near rape experience. Then, one day, she finally gathers the courage and calls it what it is, “rape!” To her surprise, her mother says, “I knew he raped you.” And yet, they both cannot do anything about it. Even with the knowledge that it can happen, that it happens, and that it has happened.
From sexual abuse in childhood; from abuse in relationships; from violence perpetuated on our bodies through so called traditional practices and culture; from violations fostered by religious institutions; from state-sanctioned violence and from the “harm and trauma we ourselves perpetuate”—how do we heal? One sure way, or perhaps a starting point, is breaking the tacit pact of silence, as this collection does. “Silence leads to damage,” one rape survivor says. And in that light, the existence of this book is healing.
But there are other types of healing. Consider Vera Cruz, who had never understood what sex outside of a biology lesson’s clinical instruction. She recalls a previous lover for whom sex had been only for his pleasure. She meets a man who changes that. “I discovered that women, too, could experience sexual pleasure and not just provide pleasure to others,” she says.
Healing, you see, can just be good sex.
One special about Sekyiamah’s presentation of these women’s stories is that no one is presented plainly as just a victim. Power is not taken away from these women by speaking about them from a powerless position.
Some parts of the stories Sekyiamah has collected are difficult to read, riddled as they are with the violence of rape and sexual abuse, but nobody is presented as a victim here. In a culture that endorses silence, that these women speak by themselves is the first indication of their non-powerlessness. Then, there are actions that emphasise empowerment. For instance, Fatou begins a tradition of accompanying friends or women she knows to seek abortions after her own rape by an abortionist. She tells them to yell if anything goes wrong.
Sekyiamah offers a template with which to explore and understand the too-secret grounds of feminine struggle. At the beginning of each story, Sekyiamah gives us a little introduction to the woman we meet next. We see how she formed relationships or connections with the women who entrusted her with their stories and their voices. Each story is handled with a deft tenderness.
At some point, I imagined what men might bring to this conversation. After all, the perpetrators of the violence spoken of and experienced by a good number of these women, are men, patriarchy’s greatest beneficiaries. They, too, must participate. But their absence is loud enough to make their presence a non-necessity.
What is presented instead is a universe of women. Some of the book’s women step up as sexual beings and find alternatives. Along with heterosexuals, there are bisexuals, lesbians, queer, and transgender women. There are varied kinds of sex, too: cybersex, penetrative, sex with self, BDSM, polyamory, and open marriage arrangements. There’s celibacy. If you name it, they’ve explored it. Keisha is with a man first, discovers her attraction to women, pursues it, and later decides she prefers to be with men. Naisha, thirty-four, “went from identifying as bisexual in her early teens, to concluding in later years that at her core, she is a straight woman” but one on a “queer spectrum”.
Sometimes what we need is the language to understand what it is that we are or want. For Amina, the exclusion of other forms of sexuality in books and other media growing up, makes all alternatives “wrong” in a sense. Kuchenga, a transgender Zimbabwean woman, only discovered that language after reading Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.
But with such a book has this, responses cannot be uniformly positive. One of the first comments I read about the book, way before I read it, was a critique, claiming that the book misrepresents Africa and African women and their experiences. But that’s a misreading. One thing is clear as you read along: the sex lives of contemporary African women are still evolving.
Nonetheless, there are questions. What are the stories of lesser privileged African women like? Are their sex lives different or like those of their more educated and financially secure counterparts presented in the book? Do they have the means to redefine their wants, make choices, pursue fantasies, and carve “unimaginable” paths for themselves?
The women of this book are miles from those I knew back in the day. But that is alright. African women are responding to their own feminist movements. The poor, choice-less, African woman has been overdone and overrepresented to suit and advance the image and narrative of the African woman as helpless, primitive and without agency. Sekyiamah’s book is a revelation of the other side of African womanhood, of our parts unknown.
But there still may be things that bind us before we can all openly reach the levels of freedom acquired by the women in this book. For example, in each Zimbabwean family, a young woman’s father’s sisters—they are called Tetes—along with some of her mother’s female relatives, and some aunts who marry into her mother’s family, called Mbuyas, are responsible for a girl’s personhood training. This training entails everything the girl shall know about womanhood, from her own body, a man’s body, to learning and understanding sex. It is, for the most part, a comprehensive sex education.
These women, even as they openly speak to you about womanhood, never expect you to be seen or heard talking openly about your sex life, no matter what has arrived in your life. As such, much as it is a rebellion of sorts for me to be writing this piece for publication, it is incomplete because it is difficult for me to provide details from my own sex life. I want to. My husband would probably not have minded. But it would be the greatest disrespect to the people who raised me, my mother, and all those aunts responsible for my personhood training.
Sekyiamah is bolder. Her own story, which is seamlessly woven into the stories of the other women, slowly comes together. It is as rich and as affecting as the other stories. She is every woman in this book. Many African women will speak to having experienced the nightmares of these stories, or simply the transformative journeys of some, or having family or friends who have. And yet, I can’t quite make my own contribution because of the people who raised me—like Chiedza, who couldn’t buy herself a dildo.
Is this the reason many of the women in Sekyiamah’s book used names different from their real ones? Can we ever talk about sex in Africa without hiding? Is this progress? Is it not? Do we need faces and names? Is this what is left for us to make the journey into the next chapter of our sex lives as African women? E