We Don’t Do That In Our Culture

One of the most common excuses you’ll hear someone from an African country give when confronted with a moral/ethical issue they are unable to respond to (or respond to honestly without making themselves look bad) is: “We don’t have that in our culture.” I most recently saw this when, in response to the news that Lupita Nyong’o had bought the film rights to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s book Americanah, a Nigerian lawyer admonished Chimamanda to “try to represent Nigerians more accurately” now that she is the world’s source of information on Nigerian life. His bone of contention: the fact that Obinze leaves his wife for Ifemelu at the end. According to this man, Nigerian men “don’t leave their wives for girl friends…”

Now, I’m a believer in culture; that expression of the authentic self, rooted in history and shared experiences. I believe that as Africans, we have the responsibility to ensure that what is good about our cultural  heritage and values, whatever country or tribal grouping they come from, don’t get drowned out by the wave of globalization that is sweeping the world. I believe that ultimately, culture will constitute one of the tenets that will help ground us in this tech driven, sometimes miasmic and constantly changing world. I believe an awareness of culture is what will help us make decisions that work in our own interests. I’m not talking about the African culture that consists of Ankara prints, ethnic jewelry, Afrobeat music and witty proverbs – that convenient cultural identity which helps us defy  a world that would force us to assimilate to an otherness that is definitely not ours.  That culture that we bring out, dust off and present when we want to impress our foreign friends with our exoticism. 

I’m talking about the culture – the collective consciousness of who we are and where we come from  that can help us answer questions on heavy moral and ethical issues : human rights, sexuality, work ethic, economic advancement, life after death, living with integrity and compassion for one another…things like that. Surely, us Africans had thoughts on these subjects that are worth hearing (and may be…just may be, living by) which existed before Western Europeans showed up with Christianity and “civilization” and convinced us that we were all barbarians. Paul Chidyausiku’s poem “A Proud Old Man” comes to mind:

The old man could have, as so many of us Africans do, bowed his head and submitted to the “superior knowledge” the colonial masters brought. But he had a clear idea of who he is and where he comes from and that enabled him to look at the way of life of Westerners, not with moonstruck eyes of awe but with a critical eye which enabled him see what was deficient. This is not to suggest that his assertions about pre-colonial African life are correct. No adultery? Please… The value here is that he questioned with a critical eye.

I thought a lot about this during one of my classes on the ethics of medical research in Africa and recently talked about it in a comment in Minna Salami’s blog, Ms Afropolitan. It is easy for Western ethical philosophies to clash with and ultimately overwhelm those on the continent and I think this happens because not enough of us are really taking the time to assess the philosophies and religions that existed on the African continent before the Christian/Western inundation. We lump them all under contri fashion (backwards thinking) and ignore them. My research turned up some reading from the likes of Michael Onyebuchi Eze, Wole Soyinka and Cheikh Anta Diop. I couldn’t help shake the feeling that we would be able to answer many more of these ethical and moral questions in ways that made sense to us (whether or not they aligned with Western principles) if we dug a little deeper into those forgotten philosophies and took the time to pare away the obsolete from the relevant. I feel like the collective “we” suffer from massive cognitive dissonance in that regard, where many of the things we do, do not align with core beliefs we have (or believe are ours) but we do them because that is the “modern” way. There is a common anglophone Cameroonian saying which sums up this dissonance perfectly: Mungang for pocket, Bible for hand (Talisman in the pocket, Bible in the hand) . 

When it becomes 
just too much, we dig in our heels and say “That is not our culture.”

But what exactly is that culture? What are it’s manifestations? Can we clearly articulate the beliefs it espouses on the various facets of life?  Can we use this culture to critically examine the decisions we take on a daily basis, individually and collectively? Or are they just feel-good pseudo memories of the old days when things were still how they should be? Can we use this culture to answer pressing moral and ethical questions of our time? How is this culture changing as it encounters and interacts with cultures from around the world? All we know right now is that our cultures took the back seat when European ships anchored off African coasts.

Culture can be a defining and unifying force. From culture springs the inspiration and vision which guides any group into their collective future. Without a clear grasp of culture in all its dynamic glory and its anchoring power, it is easy to be whisked around by whatever wind is blowing (Cameroonian music, I’m looking at you…) I believe fervently that the African continent will see progress, only after we stop depending on the world to tell us how we should be and look back on our history (pre-colonial, that is) and use the customs that guided life back then, as a blue print. Not as a one size fits all garment to apply to all situations, but as a versatile fabric that we can cut clothing out of to suit the occasion. The people, their shared experiences and resolutions, after all, make the dynamic thing that culture and not the other way around.  I believe that we can separate what makes for healthy communities from what would breed strife. I believe that we can adapt these customs to life as it exists today, to meet our political, economic and social needs.

Yes ALL Women – Even African Women

Update: Irony of Ironies…. #YesAllWomen moved on to #EachEveryWoman because the creator of YAW got death and rape threats… I tire life…

The #YesAllWomen hashtag took over Twitter yesterday in response to the video where Santa Monica Shooter Elliot Rodgers vowed to take revenge on all women who rejected him, calling their rejection a “…crime and an injustice.” Basically, this fool went out and killed six people because he felt rejected by women who chose to be with “obnoxious” men rather than with him.

The #YesAllWomen campaign features women detailing their experiences where they have been threatened, disrespected, attacked and violated for exercising their simple prerogative to exist  as women. 

See some of the tweets here.

I read through the tweets and while they grieved me deeply, it struck me that these stories of assault, disenfranchisement and insecurity – all of these stories, are pretty much the rule for African women, despite over 150 years of feminism. Some of the circumstances which generate these aggressions and  oppressions are even codified into law in some African countries, or considered part of our “culture”.  Take the recent examples of the Muslim Sudanese woman sentenced to death for marrying a Christian manthe Kenyan Law which permits a man to marry as many women as he wants without the input of any wives he might already have, the Chibok kidnappings which were simply the tip of  the iceberg, seeing as Boko Haram militants has been raping, impregnating and pillaging their way through Northeastern Nigeria for years before this attack, and  the women in beaten and tortured by men who put pepper and sticks in their vaginas for the “horrible” crime of stealing pepper (while some one videotaped and put the video on the internet).   

We might look at Elliot Rodgers actions and think these are the actions of  unhinged Westerners suffering from the disintegration of their society, but these stories happen in our communities too! When I was seven years old, a lady three houses down from ours in Clerks Quarters, Buea had to live through the horror of having her husband ( Lover?  I can’t remember their status) stab and burn their twin baby boys to death and then stab her older son repeatedly (he survived), for the simple reason that he thought she was going to leave him. We know and have witnessed husbands beating their wives to a pulp for small slights, male relatives stripping widows off land and property, the plight of “housegirls” caught between lecherous husbands and jealous wives, Niger’s “fifth” wives and the day-to-day “can’ts, shouldn’ts and don’ts” that women in our communities face.   These things happen in our countries and they happen because women still operate in a social, political and economic context where their very lives are dependent on the whims of men; fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, husbands, employers etc, who feel entitled to liberties based on nothing other than the fact that this is a woman they are dealing with. 

Even worse many women still feel that “feminism”, the demand to be treated with equal respect and consideration, is unAfrican. Commenting on this, writer Naomi N. Nkealah presents an uncomfortable situation where African women wrongly interpret feminism as being  “anti-male, anti-culture and anti-religion”  and instead of trying to understand and appropriate  the concept and redefine  it in a manner that appropriately expresses their cultural experience, they reject it completely, often to their own detriment. We cannot reject the notion that we are equally valuable without then being complicit in the injustice we face, seeing as those injustices are rooted in the idea that we are NOT equally valuable.

I wonder what a #YesAllAfricanWomen twitter campaign would look like. I wonder what horrors we would see if regular women from across the continent came forward to tell their stories. I wonder what else  could be done differently to move this situation in a better direction because, truth is, even the efforts of NGO’s and humanitarian aid efforts are subject to the caprices of whatever government situation they are found in and the subjugation of women is well and truly steeped in African politics and cultures.

Why African Women SHOULD Talk About Sex Part 3: Because We Do Have Sex

First of all, if you are a believer in chastity, look up to the top right hand corner of this web page. You should see a small red box with a white X in it. Click on that X. Have yourself a good day. Wrong blog post for you.

Still here? OK. I tried to warn you.

So we’ve talked about little girls and adolescents…now we edge into the arena of young adult women. This post is targeted towards women like me who are in their 20’s. Psychology says at this point in our lives, the greatest struggle before career and education is the conflict between Intimacy and Isolation. Intimacy being where we successfully cultivate close relationships with some one of the same or opposite sex (which can have a sexual component). Isolation occurs when we don’t, often with less than desirable results.

Various traditional  Cameroonian cultures and I daresay African cultures for the most part, place high value on a woman’s virginity. Historically, a lot of effort has been and continues to be put into ensuring that women remain chaste until marriage…efforts that often result in pain and trauma for women, both physically and psychologically. Female Genital Mutilation is an example. This is a practice which, for those of you have have not really thought about it, involves taking a blade and literally cutting off parts of a woman’s vagina, either to remove the areas that enable her to feel sexual pleasure, or to reduce the width of her vaginal opening so sex is as painful and uncomfortable as possible, partly as a deterrent to pre-marital sex. Interestingly enough, when she marries, no ceremony is or can be done to open that passage, or restore her ability to feel pleasure so… yes, sex remains painful, traumatic and generally un-pleasurable even when she is “allowed” to have it. For those of you clenching your thighs together in imagined pain, yes it is real and it is still not completely illegal in Cameroon and many other parts of Africa. Chew on that for a bit. 

We could go into an exploration as to why this value is placed on female virginity  and have intellectual conversations over preservation of blood lines and the fabric of society but until you can convince me of how a woman having sex before or outside of marriage is  more harmful than a man doing the same:

Don’t get me wrong. Marriage vows are sacred. The problem in our communities is that when a man has pre- or extramarital sex… “He’s a guy… Men are dogs. Na so they dey.” It is almost expected that men will have sex…I daresay it is odd if a guy is NOT having sex by a certain age. When a woman does… “Kill am! Kill am die! Ashawo! Akwara!” Panties bunch up so tight, the resulting wedgies must be epic. If  we’re ensuring women remain virgins, can make sure men do the same. Why would I keep my floor “clean” just  for a guy to come walk on it with his dirty feet? 

And then we have the religious argument. I have no problem with a faith choosing and promoting the path of chastity. I think it is an admirable path and quite honestly it would probably save Africa  from a lot of it’s troubles, if one successfully remained perfectly chaste. However, not everyone is devoutly religious and not all religions subscribe to the chaste model of sexual behavior. Oh and not all religious people are chaste. Don’t let that Bible or Rosary or Misbaha  fool you.  So, if this is your cup of tea:

The simple truth is that young people male and female  are interested in sex and no matter what religious or cultural context they are in , no matter what the health risks are, odds are they will eventually be doing it. Now, African young adult men can talk about it, openly sometimes without fear of censure. They can share experiences, buy protection and freely enjoy the sexual aspect of their beings without too much stress. African Young adult women, not so much. But at the same time they are the women these men take to their beds. What sense of decency and purity are we trying to protect? The illusion or the non-reality?

This post is for young African women like me  who have chosen to acknowledge the fact that we are human beings –  females with sexual desires which we can choose to or not to fulfill. Who realize that sex is not the “bad, scary thing that will ruin your life” that it has been made out to be and that it is NOT the devil’s tool of deception. That  it is not solely a biological mechanism for reproduction. It is not some shameful activity that we let ourselves fall into and afterwards swim in oceans of guilt and self recrimination and promises never to do it again…until we do. This is for the African women who do not conflate being sexually active with being promiscuous, because that is the biggest and most incorrect assumption that is often made. “You’re not a virgin, so you must be sleeping around.” Well not necessarily so and even if so, it’s still really none of your business what I do unless I seek your counsel.

This is for the African women who recognize that choosing to give oneself to a man is our prerogative. A prerogative which no one has any business controlling, unless we choose to cede that control. This is for the African women who refuse to be ashamed of their bodies or afraid of the power we have to feel, to discover our bodies, to experience pleasure and share that experience with someone we deem worthy. This post is for the African women who arm themselves with knowledge to protect themselves. This is for the African women who above all recognize that while sex is a wonderful and fun thing, sex is not a joke. Who recognize that it is an act which has dimensions that could have very real consequences if not approached with some good old common sense.

 This is for the African woman who is ready  to be sexual but also to be smart. To  take responsibility for her actions, make sensible sexual choices and face the consequences  they bring, whatever they are, because you see  it’s easy to shout “I’m a grown woman and I can do whatever I want” but grown women can have unplanned pregnancies, or STD’s. Grown women can get involved with men who do not care about them beyond hitting and quitting. Grown women can get into abusive sexual relationships. Grown women can miscalculate and trust their bodies to the wrong guy and end up hurt or even dead.

This is for the African women who can be discreet and understated when that is needed. So you’re a sexual being. Yay you! But there is a time and place where that sexuality can reasonably be put on display and  I’m not sure that work and /or school or some other professional environment is quite the right place, especially if you want the focus to be on your talent and intelligence not on your boobs falling out of your dress. No, I’m not trying to police your body, I’m drawing attention to the fact that your place of work or your classroom is really not the ideal place to unleash your inner Yonce. Also, us African women know we live in contexts where sex is still a taboo (especially to our African  parents) and while we work to change things, to open up the discussion we need to realize that in-your-face sexuality the way it is done in the West is still not the norm for us. A little discretion never hurt anyone.

No, this is neither appropriate workplace attire nor behavior.

I remember an old condom commercial that aired on CRTV. A young woman was about to go out for a night on the town. While saying good bye to her mother, her mother slipped her a packet of condoms. I remember there being some outrage over the ad with some saying the  mother encouraged  her daughter to be promiscuous…you know because it is only when parents talk to young people about sex that they go out and have sex. I was a child when this ad aired and I remember feeling confused by it. My upbringing had taught me that women are supposed to be chaste and not have sex, but I also knew that girls have ended up pregnant( the most visible sign of female sexual activity) and that AIDS is incurable. So perhaps the mother, realizing that ultimately her daughters actions were out of her control just wanted to provide her with the tools to ensure maximum safety whatever her choices are? 

Of course we’re African so we cannot ignore the issue of disease or gloss over it. I find the argument that people (read: women) should just not have sex so they can avoid these risks, extremely annoying. Dear reader, if you can point me to a time period in history when chastity in humans was the norm not only in word but also in deed, I pledge my present and future earnings to you. And no, the story of Adam and Eve really does not constitute history… and if you insist, see how quickly that fell apart? 

Sexual activity before marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Recent trends in rates of sexual activity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The focus of these studies tend to be on the high rates of disease and pregnancies… but the point that is often missed, is the amount of sex that needs to be happening for these rates to be what they are. Which only points to the fact that tradition and religion nothwithstanding, we are doing it… and we’re not being careful. Many of us don’t know to be careful and many us don’t have access to the things that will help us  be careful because we are afraid to even show interest in sex as that would make us seem like bad women. Truth is it is not doing us any good. The sooner we realize that the ideal of complete abstinence for all is just not feasible, the better.

Young African women should talk about sex with each other, with sisters who will listen, with friends and aunties and mothers, because we are having sex, we have been having sex for ages. It’s not anything new that the “corrupt West” has introduced us to. Young African women should talk about sex with each other because sex is a normal aspect of the human experience. Young women should talk about sex because there is a lot we can learn from each others experiences, many pitfalls we can avoid. Young African women could try to be the kinds of friends that others feel comfortable talking to about sex, because we need each other as sounding boards, as voices of reason, as GPS navigators in an often confusing terrain fraught with emotion and confusion.

So this post, the last of my thoughts on sex is for you, my sisters. My brave sisters who choose to live their truths. Stay safe. Stay smart. Stay sexy.

Why African Women SHOULD Talk About Sex Part 2: For The Adolescents We All Were

It is an accepted fact that teenage boys think about sex almost permanently. Countless jokes and punchlines are based on that fact and biology will concur. Teenage boys for the most part have their minds on sex and sex on their minds.

But what about girls? Are we just as obsessed? Just as curious? As secretly desirous ?

More specifically, what about African girls?

So, Palava Women…

Did you think about sex in your teens? Talk about it with your friends?  Did you have friends who were sexually active? Were you sexually active?

I’m not even going to ask if you talked about it with your parents.  Odds are, you didn’t. 

Another way to look at it:

Anyone you know got caught in a sexual act? Got pregnant? Got an STD? Got HIV/AIDS?

Were they raped or otherwise coerced? Or were they victims of their own curiosity?

In my experience, if ever an adolescent girl was caught in a sexual act,  the reaction towards her depended on the age of the man she was caught with and his relationship to her.

If it was another young man of an age within range of hers and a non relative, she was a bad child intent on bringing shame to her family.
If he was older and a non relative, then he either raped her or she seduced him.
If it was a relative, it was an abomination to be hushed up
If she ended up pregnant she aborted the baby or was sent to the village.

Very rarely was it ever thought of as a case of her  simply being  curious enough about the demands of her body to act on them…. The assumption is that whatever her desires and curiosities may be, they are irrelevant.

But then that raises the question once again, do female African adolescents feel sexual desire? 

And if so, what are they supposed to do with those feelings?

In my case, my openness with my mother about these things diminished when I hit my teens. Why did that happen? Because I was no longer a child. I was on the cusp of womanhood and my questions about sex no longer would have been the notional queries of a child with more knowledge on the matter than her years warranted. I knew that my questions would have been tinged with the element of interest.

I also knew that this element of interest is what strikes fear in the hearts of parents and people in positions of leadership over adolescents.

Whenever the topic of adolescents (especially adolescent girls) and sex comes up, the general reaction is one which seems to suggest that talking about it is creating a permissive atmosphere, one in which the adolescents feel that because their parents/elders are talking about it with them, it must be OK to engage in it, to experiment. The problem is that NOT talking about it is producing the exact same results…and worse. You see, a young girl with biological sexual desire, that element of interest,  is a prime target for those uncles we talked about as well as teenage boys with  pretty rabid elements of interest of their own. 

Talk about kerosene and matches.

African women should talk about sex to adolescents African girls because we all have been adolescents and I daresay most of us felt those pangs and yearnings that left us breathless and a little confused…a little ashamed. African women need to talk about sex to adolescent girls because adolescent girls need to hear that sexual desire is normal.

They need to hear that it is healthy.
They need to hear that it is beautiful and powerful.
They need to hear that it can be dangerous.

African women should talk about sex because quite often, those yearnings will eventually focus on one person and if he ever found out he was the object of a young girls sexual interest and was a boy or man with no honor, the doors are once again flung wide open for abuse, in this case, her interest could be used against her.

“You wanted it so you can’t cry foul if I force you. Besides, who are you going to cry to? Everyone will call you a whore, an akwara, an ashawooo, a wolowos.”

African women (and men) need to talk about sex with their sons, because those boys need to learn respect, for themselves and for a woman’s body.

I don’t really care much about what context the discussion is had in. Religious people might want to stress abstinence and more liberal parents/elders may want to make protections available but the conversations need to be had.

What we have now is a situation where no one is talking and teens are feeling around in the dark, looking for clarification, for understanding and reassurance that someone out there knows what is going on, but we are too afraid to come forward and say “Yes, I’ve been there” because somehow we feel we will be enabling bad behavior.  They have no one with whom they can talk about what they feel  and ask for advice on how to deal with it.  Some are even in environments where normal, healthy sexual desire is branded as some external influence, to be rejected and bound and cast out.
Adolescents are left with no recourse they can turn to if they were under pressure  to engage in sex because to even express interest is to have fallen, to be bad.

So things go underground and only show up when a girls belly starts swelling, or when disease wastes away, or when a girls abuse is so much, she commits suicide.

The status quo is not tenable.

African women should talk about sex, for the adolescents we all were.