8 June 2018

Africa: The Limits of Imagining Pleasure - Writing the History of African Sex

Photo: Pixabay

Is kissing unAfrican? Is foreplay unAfrican? These questions speak to ideas which view certain aspects of pleasure and sexuality as foreign. Through fiction, Rafeeat Aliyu says African writers can challenge stereotypes and assumptions of the place of both romance and pleasure in history by creating stories that push at imposed boundaries.

Is kissing unAfrican? Is foreplay unAfrican?

"Love is not African in concept," I once heard a secondary school teacher say. That such opinions exist today suggests that Africans, generally speaking, view certain aspects of pleasure and sexuality as foreign.

There is difficulty in seeing ancient or pre-colonial Africans as sexual beings. This is not surprising when one considers just how understudied African history is. There is still so much we do not know about pre-colonial African histories and there are still too many Africans who believe we were saved by European colonialism. African history is woefully under-represented on the global stage - and it only gets harder when it comes to sex.

In search of the history of African sexuality

On the Wikipedia page for the global history of human sexuality, you will find that Africa is largely missing. It gets mentioned twice, when Aids is discussed. This almost perfectly captures the frustration that comes with trying to learn more about the history of African sex. However, if one digs deeper, one can catch glimpses of sexuality in colonial documents. Take this example : a folktale called "The Dishonest Father" starts like this:

A girl and her friend went out to make love, and when they had gone, the girl herself found a lover, and she took him, but she prevented her friend from doing the same, so the friend became angry and returned home.

The folktale implies that both girls are unmarried. Digging further, one learns of the Hausa institution known as tsarance, in which young, unmarried people were allowed sex that did not involve penetration. This institution existed among other African ethnic groups too: the Ashanti had 'couples play'. Sex without penetration does suggest foreplay but the details of what went down when young couples got together are not available. In fact, some scholars have argued that tsarance was actually exploitative and harmful for young girls.

"The challenge is that no one really knows. We can only speculate", writes Myne Whitman in response to a Nigerian reviewer who found the love scenes in Kiru Taye's historical romance novel His Treasure 'unrealistic' - love scenes such as this one:

Leaning over her, his lips swooped down on hers, reigniting the shameless desire within her. His tongue invaded her mouth. She tasted her tangy sweetness on his lips. His earthy spiciness assaulted her nostrils with each breath she struggled to take. Her body keened with inflamed feelings. He roamed her body with his hands, tweaking and rubbing her breasts, which grew heavier, and nipples that got tighter. They moved lower to caress her stomach and waist. Overcome by rippling sensations, she couldn't tell where she ended and where Ikem began. When he lifted his head, she was gasping for breath.

"I want you inside me. Please."

- Excerpt from His Strength by Kiru Taye

What makes a scene like the one above appear 'unrealistic' boils down to the kissing and the suggestion of oral sex. As for oral sex, it has been said that Lucy, the first pre-historic woman, practised some sort of fellatio. There are ancient Egyptian myths and images depicting fellatio, although history has been less forthright when it comes to cunnilingus. As for kissing, current research disagrees that prolonged kissing with tongue is universal. Among 168 cultures surveyed in this study, 31 of which were in Africa, only 46% had prolonged kissing. Of the 31 African cultures surveyed, kissing was present in only 4. On the surface, this research correlates with the proponents of the "kissing is unAfrican" theory.

It is interesting to note that throughout history, the growth of kissing went hand in hand with the development of society, thanks to a presumed emphasis on oral hygiene and the rise of social classes. But the available research should not be a limitation. Pleasurable sex is more than kissing and oral sex, and even without those two, there are ways to imagine pre-colonial African sex. Especially considering that, barring cultural restraints and society's judgement, what we enjoy now is very likely exactly what our ancestors enjoyed 100 000 years ago.

Where imagination meets pleasure

Bridging the complex gap between assumptions, historical fact and imagination are writers. African literature is wide and diverse but in that diversity, both romance and historical fiction are small niches. When the latter two are combined as historical romance, the niche becomes narrower. Yet some women are using fiction to challenge notions of sex and sexuality in African history.

Kiru Taye has written historical romances to "convert the thinking of a lot of people, including Africans, about our ancient practices, especially with regard to relationships and sex". In my interview with Kiru, the question of "what history" was touched on. She places oral history, passed down from generation to generation, over the 'biased' history narrated by colonisers. The history embedded in the former is not necessarily captured in Western history books and this is where Kiru draws inspiration from when she writes. She credits the power of imagination, weaving this with stories and anecdotes her grandmother told her as a child.

Kiru puts it succinctly : "It seems that Africans lost their imaginations when it comes to lovemaking when they adopted colonial Victorian values. Our ancestors certainly weren't 'lying back and thinking of England' during sex, if you catch my drift." This is a view supported by the available resources, songs like the one below, from Ashanti nubility rites. Kiru asserts that ancient Africans were sexual, whether we want to admit it or not, and the fact that songs like this have been recorded suggests so:

Rejoice, rejoice!

Vagina of Adwoa

If someone 'eats' you

And fails to reward you,

Slay him!

- Girls Nubility Rites in Ashanti (1977), Peter Sarpong (p. 24-25)

I shall lie with my lover on my father's bed.

You elderly women are having sexual intercourse with me;

Penes are enjoyable!

- Girls Nubility Rites in Ashanti (1977), Peter Sarpong (p. 78)

Barakat Akinsiku is a Nigerian writer who has written both romance and speculative fiction. "I don't think it's entirely possible to stay true to historical facts in African historical fiction," she says, "especially in the areas of romance and sensuality." Barakat mentions that documentation on African history is scarce and the reality is that what one finds is usually limited to customs or rites of passage. Even though she doesn't write historical romance, I sought out her perspective as someone who has written fiction inspired by history.

When it comes to romance in the pre-colonial African past, Barakat again mentioned imagination and stressed that boundaries should be limitless."You definitely cannot think of roses, chocolates and serenading jazz music for a pre-colonial romantic mood setting, but you can imagine or even create alternatives for use in such settings, bearing in mind say the crude objects available in such an era," she said.

To evade the strict interpretations that one can expect with historical fiction, she suggested the speculative genre, which allows for experimentation and provides "endless possibilities".

The need to explore outside the boundaries

On one hand is the power of imagination, and on the other is the reiteration that humans have not changed much in millennia and that cultural norms may not have prevented people from exploring what society labelled taboo. When these come together, the possibilities of what we see as historical sex are truly endless.

However, consider that for many people today sex follows a certain formula: kissing, foreplay, penetration. I have been haunted by the idea that growing up in today's sexualised world means my ideas of sex are radically different to those my ancestors may have had. Within the aforementioned formula, practices such as kunyaza, the central African sex technique focused on the woman's orgasm, struggle to fit in. When one reads that "in some cultures, the only person allowed to remove [a woman's] waist beads was her husband on her wedding night", the image that could come to mind is a teasing that revolves around the removal of waist beads.

Traditionally, mothers adorned their daughters with waist beads during their first menstruation as a rite of passage into womanhood. The beads symbolized a young lady's fertility, developing body, and her sexuality.

Even if romantic kissing is present in a minority of African cultures, there is nipping or licking around the face and face-to-face snuggling. Consider the possibilities of food, clothing (other than waist beads) and perfume as part of foreplay.

Haba was in the entrance-hut when [Gude] arrived, he couldn't see her in the dark, but her perfume overpowered him. He seized her and wouldn't let her go into the compound, he couldn't see her but he could smell the scent of her perfume, so he caught her and carried her off to the hut in the forecourt, they lay down together there and did what they pleased.

- Baba of Karo: A Woman of the Muslim Hausa (1945) by Mary F. Smith (p. 203)

It is also important not to limit the imagination to heteronormativity. Awuor Onyango's "The Library of Silence" is a project that speculates on a future library, documenting the existence of black women using images from historical archives. One of the clips shown as part of the exhibition at the Chale Wote festival in 2016 shows an elderly African woman buying and installing a dildo in her home. What would she use the dildo for? Was it just a symbol of fertility?

Through fiction, African writers can challenge stereotypes and assumptions of the place of both romance and pleasure in history by creating stories that push at imposed boundaries. Writers of historical romance are essential to breaking stereotypes surrounding the history of sex in Africa. With that said, there are still so many spaces that remain unexplored, boundaries that remain to be pushed, in order to create a more complex mosaic of this history.

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.

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