Africans have very ancient cultures passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. In the teachings of traditional African cultures, everything in the world is inhabited by spirit; we’re all essentially spirits with a physical form. As spirit and matter, we all have the ability to naturally slide into ecstasy or “fly” into the realms that spirits inhabit and to experience these “other worlds” with all the senses of the ordinary physical realm.
One doesn’t try to be spiritual, he or she just is…
Spirituality and physicality are meant to go together. These two are in-separable. When spirituality is ignored, physicality is misused, and when physicality is denied, spirituality is corrupted. But when spirituality and physicality are nurtured as inseparable, we experience “heaven on earth.”
A life lived on earth with a conscious effort to connect spirit and physical form is a life fully lived. The sexual union between a man and woman is believed to be a beautiful thing because it whets our appetite for creating life-physically and spiritually. Every time we have sexual intercourse there is a potential for a child to be conceived, a potential for a spirit-soul to come down from the spirit world of souls into this physical world.
The sexual act also whets our appetite for exploring, experiencing, and sharing body and spirit with another. The sex act is one of the most powerful tests of self-knowledge and interpersonal power in the African epistemological universe.
African erotic cultures are characterized by a fiery passion to experience sexual union as often as is possible, not on abstaining from it…
The African understanding of sexual awareness is more than about sexual pleasure, it is also a self-reflective process rooted in the concept of surrender-surrender to the facets of ourselves that are more unruly, highly energized, spontaneous, unpredictable, uncertain, and closer to the primal forces of nature. Similarly the African understanding of “sexual union” is not always about “sexual penetration” but about extending and experiencing the flow of raw sexual or erotic energy using all of our senses.
Sexual abstinence (no sexual intercourse) is not equated to “chastity” in which an individual chooses to deliberately abstain from any sexual union, pleasure or expression of sexual desire for religious purposes. An individual can enter a “sex fast,” a selective kind of sexual abstinence in which one withdraws or withholds from certain sexual practices in order to heighten other particular senses while completing a task or undertaking. These are choices that one makes consciously.
In many traditional African societies men and women, young and old, have the “permission” to be openly sexual in a culturally acceptable way…
Sexual expression and enjoyment is not something that simply happens when a young man or woman reaches a certain chronological age. Parents and close family members are fully responsible for sexual education at the child’s early age, but as boys and girls reach puberty, the community is responsible for their sexual education to ensure that they have sexually fulfilling lives. The community hands over this responsibility for adolescent sexual education to same-gender elders selected for their position in the community, their erotic experience, and inherited abilities to understand the intricate nature of sexual relationships.
Coming of age rituals begin at ages ranging from 12-18 years and can last up to five years. Girls and boys are often taken out of the community, away from the concerns of everyday life, to teach them all the ways of adulthood. They are exposed to rigorous studies of the self, one’s purpose in life and contribution to society. While in a non-threatening environment, the initiates are guided to uncover their sense of self and to examine their beliefs, values, and thoughts-(Who am I? What is the meaning of my existence? What do I have within me to achieve my life’s purpose? How do I know the truth? How do I know when I’ve stepped out of harmony with who I truly am? Etc.).
Before joining the adult community, they also learn about the changes happening in their minds and bodies as well as the responsibilities that come with those changes, rules and taboos of the society, moral instruction, and social responsibility. Their education also includes the “how to” of sex. Knowledge in the elements of sexual performance is given and demonstrated in an explicit manner. This knowledge is, in all cases, considered sacred and secret, and not to be shared with the uninitiated or “outsiders.”
Boys learn a masculine cockiness whose discourse is centered on protecting, taking care of, and giving pleasure to women…
Their sexual “how to” education includes knowledge about “medicinal plants,” (see Uganda Sex Tree – National Georgraphic) ideas about sexual prowess, endurance, and “sex-fasts”-rituals of abstinence used to heighten the senses.
The curriculum of the rites of passage for girls is centered on self-awareness, grace, and dignity. Their “pleasure” education includes how to emotionally and physically prepare themselves for intercourse and includes such practices as clitoris elongation and massage; masturbation (looking for the bean in the oil as they call it); the use of tantalizing, jingling, and jangling sexual movements enhanced with musical sounds, beads, body decorations, scents, and incense that heighten sexual pleasure. Girls also learn about culturally prescribed coital positions and art of lovemaking (see Teaching Safe Sex, Ugandan-style).
The months immediately following initiation into adulthood are a time of exploration, fun, joyfulness, laughter, and defining one’s sexual identity and assertiveness. Girls and boys move away from playing with their own sexual peers to exploring relationships with the opposite gender-playing pranks; engaging in petty altercations; feigned pain, disgust, and anger; mutual teasing such as addressing each other as “heartthrob,” “sweetheart,” “husband,” or “wife.”
Girls say to boys, things like, “You are so much in love with me, you can’t sleep at night”; “You look at me and wish you could have me but all you can do is just look”; “You are all talk but when it comes to it you cannot even keep it up for half the night,” etc. And boys say to girls, “Have you fed our baby?”; “Would you mind preparing my dinner tonight, dear wife?”; “Even my snake knows you because it raises its head whenever it sees you,” etc.
The relationship between young men and women becomes more physical because of their engagement in co-ed wrestling and stage-acted fighting routines and riddling games meant to express wit and sexuality. Young men and women also learn culturally acceptable sexual expression and public sexual contact through formalized flirtation and seduction dance ceremonies, sometimes called moonlight dances or mating dances. These are settings in which young people ages 12-18 are allowed (more like expected) to explore seductive and flirtatious communication that includes silent speech and suggestive and provocative dance moves. The dances take place during the full moon in a special arena cleared for the occasion, or in a chief’s or elder’s compound.
For every young person, these are special occasions that require a lot of preparation-plaiting the hair, decorating the body with ornaments and plant dyes, whitening the teeth using certain roots, and so forth.
Dances begin at dusk when the drum that summons the dancers is sounded…
The dance itself is performed in a circle, with the dancers facing the centre, or in a line following a circular path with the drummers in the middle. In some dances, boys and girls alternate dancing inside the circle while the opposite sex admires their dance moves. In other dances, individuals step into the circle one after the other. A dancer is rated primarily on his or her ability to stamp out the rhythm of the drum with his or her feet and to follow the musical rhythm of the song with the simultaneous use of the torso and shoulders, and the rapid vibrations or twists of the buttocks and pelvis. Characteristic rhythmic patterns vary from culture to culture, and from dance to dance within one culture, but the common feature in all cultures is the simultaneous rhythmic body articulation, foot-stamping, and/or light leaping movements. The drummers and other dancers respond to a good performance by a lively chorus usually laden with erotic innuendo.
I remember one particular song in my birth language which when translated into English goes something like this:
I was in my house and would have liked to stay
But he [drummer] has come and wants to discuss the matter in public
So I have left my house and that is why you see me here
I am like a cricket. I would like to sing
But the wall of earth that surrounds me prevents me
Someone has forced me to come out of my hole-so I will sing
I am like the dog that stays by the door until he gets a bone
You have forced me to come when the sun has set
We shall still be here when the sun rises
Nobody goes both ways at the same time
You have told me this and you have told me that
Surely one of the two must be wrong
That is why I am here
[The others then join with a chorus]
Is something bothering you?
Why not step in the circle?
Is something itching you?
Why not appease the throb?
See what will happen.
Who knows, maybe . . .
Each dancer then steps into the circle and completes the sentence with erotic motions and movement that mirror and reflect an evolving identity and personality, expressing individual freedom and pent-up emotions.
The sensuous abandon leaves little to the imagination as the dancer flirts with his or her audience with the use of the eyes, and as he or she ripples with imaginative erotic movements and overall bodily experience.
The African subtle, bred-in-the-bone, curiously innocent sensuousness should not be confused with grabbing crotches à la Michael Jackson or table top clutching and flashing breasts. It’s not a strip tease either, but more like a hypnotic eroticism that draws its power from fascination with the implied — creativity, imagination and suggestion — and generates plenty of erotic electricity that pulls in all those around.
A dancing African is not at all concerned about what he or she looks like when dancing or with whom he or she is dancing with…
A man will dance with a woman. Men will dance with men. Women will dance with women. Children will dance with elders. Humans will dance with domesticated animals. And most of the time, an African will dance with no one at all except him or herself.
The tempo of the drumming, singing, clapping, cheers, and ululations all combine to bring the dancer into an ecstatic state. And when ecstasy grips, the dancer is transported into another world, and sometimes has to be woken up by some kind of rude reality — like falling hard on the ground.
Even the most reluctant observer testifies to the hopelessness of resistance once the “heart throbs like a native drum.” It’s like one is drawn in by an omnipotent will. You feel it in your heart, your chest begins to expand. It spreads throughout the body and you begin to involuntarily move. It enters your bones and you just give up. How can you resist something more powerful than yourself?
Dancers learn to heighten their senses and focus their sexual energy to achieve a state of ecstasy…
Surrender, abandon, or to “lose control,” is an art in African cultures, something that is taught from the day a child is born because it is believed that without the required skill to artfully do so, we would “lose control” rebelliously, blindly, recklessly, and dangerously. If we get hurt during such times, it would only reinforce our fear of abandon and surrender, steering us away from the ability to really enjoy life.
During the rites of passage, young people go through rituals and dances that help them learn how to skillfully and deliberately surrender or loosen up-turning oneself over to the power of the unknown and unknowable. These rituals are based on the philosophy that says that when we are most truly vulnerable, we are more of ourselves, more open, more trusting, and free to follow the intuitive and spontaneous erotic impulses of our hearts and souls. It is only by entering this door of helpless surrender that we discover true intimacy.
One performance is followed by another .. and there are songs and dances to court lovers as well as songs to insult rivals…
Over the course of the night, songs easily become a battle of the sexes, and in most cases, turn into sexual seduction. Some daring and overly self-confident young man will inevitably, from time to time, dance towards the girls flaunting his hips or pelvis. The girls then mockingly strike back by tightly knitting their arms around one another’s waists. This stops the young man from singling out any particular one girl as his target for teasing. But some young men are not repelled by this kind of sisterly bonding and will continue to approach, sending the girls running away, laughing, and screaming euphorically, only to come back and join the dance.
It is at times like these that girls and boys practice what they’ve been taught about erotic rituals, the art of seduction, and the effective way of transmitting sexual energy and attracting attention in order to be chosen by the opposite sex. Girls learn that showing off healthy skin and child-bearing hips, eye or soul-gazing, and a confident and cheerful personality gets the boys all wound up. Boys on the other hand, learn that physical fitness and flexibility, playfulness and cockiness, are attributes that make one stand out.
During the breaks when drummers change to dancers and other dancers take over the drumming, boys and girls step aside into the less lit corners, either in groups or pairs. There may be affectionate petting, stroking and caressing, but sexual intercourse is not supposed to take place — well, sometimes it does.
In many traditional African societies, boys and girls are strictly forbidden to engage in penetrative sex until they are properly initiated into adult status. Many cultures have what is accepted or permissible as adolescent or “immature sex” and what is considered adult or mature sex. Adolescents may be permitted to engage in all forms of sexual pleasure except penetrative sex. In many cultures, penetrative sex is believed to be harmful mainly because the girl will get pregnant out of wed-lock, something that is considered a severe disgrace to her family status. Usually brothers and cousins monitor their sisters or cousins to make sure no sexual intercourse takes place and also to make sure no young man tries to force them into doing anything against their will. The more respected and feared a girl’s brothers and cousins are, the more respectful young men are towards her.
Parents and elders as a whole do not interfere with the flirtations of their children…
Some parents may sit at a distance and watch for socially unacceptable behaviour. A boy or girl who disrespects the family name with unacceptable behaviour is heavily punished. Depending on the gravity of the crime, punishment can be anything from scolding, to spanking with a leather whip.
Enabling the sexes to meet on neutral ground, openly and respectably, tends to remove some of the secrecy and unhealthy curiosity that is part of the mental transition from the self-contained experience of early youth to the new awareness of the new polarity of the sexes. Teen competitiveness, constant body contact, and purported romantic liaisons all provide individual and interactive challenges, and contribute to personal maturation, social development, and spiritual enrichment. They provide an individual a level of confidence and exuberance that comes from a healthy sexual attitude and a healthy sexual life.
These mating dances are often fruitful arenas for initiating relationships — traditional dating agencies as it were — supervised by elderly persons experienced in such affairs…
Unfortunately, traditional systems of sexual education are quickly disappearing and many young people today get little or no meaningful sexual induction. Contemporary or “modern” African societies mostly concentrated in urban centers and townships have adopted the culture of “passing the buck” with reference to the social institutions that ought to take care of children and undertake sexual education in the early years of development. The family passes the responsibility to the school, the school to the church, while the church, in turn, passes it back to the family. In the end, the child gets no proper instruction. Most of what many African children raised in urban and sub-urban Africa know about sex is from the little sexual information they come across in books, on television, and from their peers. This serves as a means by which they define their sexual identities and behaviours.
As Africa becomes more “modernized,” adolescence to adulthood passage rites are being replaced with getting a driver’s license, getting drunk, or getting laid. Many modern Africans have discarded the slow, subtle arts of flirtation and charm that our ancestors have used successfully for thousands of years, and replaced them with the “modern” quick, direct strikes — punching his or her number into the cell phone, grinding and bumping with him or her on the dance floor, rubbing his shoulders or her feet, and having sex with each other senseless — all within an hour.
Young people are growing up uneasy and uncomfortable about their bodies and most are out of touch with their sexual thoughts, feelings, and bodily responses. Many are sexually confused, anxious, and insecure. Formal schools and universities in modern Africa are often centres of even greater sexual recklessness and promiscuity on the one hand, and ignorance and repressed sexual uptightness on the other.
Similar cultural stories are being written in other parts of the world, all over the globe. This is a call for all of us, people all over the world, to wake up, reflect, see where we’ve fallen away, and to begin to heal ourselves towards a healthy sexuality.
Disclaimer: Much of what I discuss here does not apply to “African cultures” that are a mixture of borrowed fragments of modernity and exhausted relics of tradition but rather to Sub-Saharan African cultures that have not been influenced much by “modern” ideas and concepts, Judeo-Christianity and Islam.