We know so little about how our ancestors viewed sex and sexuality, it is high time we delved into this much overlooked part of our history. However before we do we may have to dump some of our biases.
It never fails to shock me just how much we modern-day Africans deny the most basic things to those that came before us. Perhaps it is a legacy of (mental) colonialism that a lot of us view our ancestors as backwards, uncivilised, naïve, even depraved. There are those among us who believe that our foremothers never knew emotions such as love or lust, and to take it further that they would never have considered any form of sexuality that was not of the vanilla, hetero variety. Several years ago I came across a comment someone left on a blog I frequent, while I do not recall the exact words used in the comment I remember it went along the lines of “no one in pre-colonial Africa fell in love, all women were forced to marry old men who already had many wives”. Looking back, that may have been a troll comment but it spurred me to write this post on African initiation rites.
Initiation rites are very fascinating to me, their existence illustrates how societies that do not discuss sex in the open find avenues to impart sexual knowledge to young adolescents. They also show that for a good number of our foremothers, not only in Nigeria but across Africa sex was something enjoyable. Young girls would learn many things during initiation rites, how to take care of themselves for example, as well as what was expected of them when they became wives. This education covered anything from using aphrodisiacs, knowing erogenous zones and rhythmic pelvic moments. Through songs and dances this form of sexual knowledge was transmitted to young girls who would grow up to become women that were sexually confident. Nkiru Nzegwu is much cited in her creation of the term Osunality, she uses the multi-faceted Orisha Osun to symbolise the sexuality of Yoruba women that also appears in countless other African cultures (also posits that in several African cultures the power does not rest in the penis but instead in the vagina).
I was (still am) excited that African authors are writing historical romances. We have writers like Naa Shalman and closer to home Kiru Taye writing love stories set in the past that feature passionate love scenes. I know there are those who will be surprised to see kissing and oral sex in a piece of Nigerian historical fiction and will label it ahistorical. At the same time I wonder, is it so impossible to imagine that sexual acts like oral sex was something that was done before the Europeans appeared to teach us everything? Widening this perspective why would we assume that “alternative sexualities” are a Western import. A friend of mine would vehemently argue that traditional practices such as massages and certain dances could have provided the prelude for women to explore sex with other women. In situations were women constantly came in contact with their peers and touched each other, she claimed, it is not too farfetched that some could have chosen to explore these avenues more.
Something that has always struck me when I read works by Nigerian scholars such as Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi challenging the ways in which our ideas on gender have been affected by colonialism, is why there still seems to be so much unwillingness to do the same for sexuality. In her book Male Daughters Female Husbands, Amadiume provides an amazing insight into the gender ideology of the Nnobi. Through her book we are able to know that there was a time when gender in that part of Eastern Nigeria was not fixed as simply “male” and “female”. There was no gender binary as it was understood to be something more flexible, this was/is a society where women could marry other women and perform “male” gendered mannerisms, and daughters could become sons. Oyeronke Oyewumi’s controversial The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses looks at the Yoruba example and puts forth the argument that Yoruba also did not place as much importance on a gender binary prior to European contact.
What surprises me is how we can be open about examining gender in our pre-colonial pasts but cannot about sexuality. Both Oyewumi and Amadiume seem to be of the opinion that homosexuality did not exist in the societies they research on, that it is a foreign concept to Africa. I always agree that Western ideas on same-sex relationships should not be imposed on African cultures, but to me the possibilities are endless. While the research is scanty on this side of the pond, studies into women-loving-women in the African Diaspora have been quite revealing as to the African connection. Gloria Wekker in The Politics of Passion argues that mati, that is put simply women who have sex and form relationships with other women in Afro-Surinamese culture, is linked to West African cultural heritage. For women of African descent in Suriname who engage in the mati work sexual activity and fulfilment is more significant that the sex of one’s sexual counterpart. Rather than being an identity, the mati work is versatile and fluid even as it may recognise he presence of a masculine spirit for lack of a better term in women who love to lie down with other women.
Sexualities similar to the mati work have been recorded throughout the African Diaspora, yet they are so few when it comes to the continent. Could our biases be blinding us to the diversity of sexualities in our pre-colonial traditions? My proposal is that we rethink the way our foremothers viewed sexuality and sex. That we open our minds to the possible realities that may not fit into our impressions of how the past was.