I must have been seven when I first handled a condom. I’d found the packet in a drawer at home. I didn’t know what it was, but it felt dangerous and important and likely to impress my friends. Instead, it inspired a wild chorus of laughter and scurrying away when I held it out in the palm of my hand.
Group discussions about sex on Twitter feel the same. The localized #VerbalIntercourse and the universally decadent #TwitterAfterDark conversations are populated with responses by GIFs, LQTMs, and cryptic statements with trails of ellipses. Conversations about, say, body count or eating groceries start off well (read: naughty) or with good intentions, before spiraling into saucy punchlines, with the launching of both targeted and obfuscated salvos. Where one can easily be told that their “sexual experience couldn’t fit into a perfume tester bottle.”
We’re back in primary school giggling at the girl with the silver square in her hand.
One could reasonably argue that perhaps I’m not on Twitter often enough or I don’t follow the right people to see nuanced and deeply enriching collective conversations about this topic. Perhaps. I will say, though, that I repeatedly find gems in soliloquies on timelines by friends and strangers alike that speak truths in ten or less tweets. Yet what tends to happen is that they’re soon massively retweeted and their meaning then challenged and/or distorted. Many times, it is also often too late or too awkward to start a conversation with the author.
Let’s not forget that I’m writing about the heterosexual experience and even though that’s the “accepted” narrative in Kenya, conversations still tend to be railroaded or not fully teased out.
Maybe the issue, then, is the medium (and before that, the lack of intellectual development in my peers and me). It is quite difficult to have these necessary reflections within the confines of a 140-character belt and the greater frenzied Twittersphere. Where does that leave us then? Blogs? Those are largely one-sided. Ditto for books. Back-and-forths are restricted to a blog’s comment section where the possibility of having a conversation depends on either party having time to respond. One could write response pieces, but who has that kind of time? The other party also has to care enough to want to respond to your response.
The solution then becomes a curated live or recorded interaction.
Thankfully, those have occurred. The Atieno Project held an unconference that focused on Film, Sexuality and Gender in Kenya. Among the speakers were Miss Mandii and Queen Gathoni, torch bearers of #VerbalIntercourse and Dr. Wambui Waithaka who advocates for #CondomFriday. It was a physical gathering of Internet personalities and thinkers in general who were interested in sharing their viewpoints on all matters gender.
But podcasts can serve the same purpose. They put knowledgeable or sometimes just really brave people in the same room to candidly speak on these varied topics without restrictions. I’ve been greatly pleased to find long-running sex positive podcasts, especially the cheekily-titled Guys We Fucked.
Despite these readily available avenues, why don’t Kenyans properly speak about sex and reproductive health more?
It would be remiss of me to not mention sex therapist Getrude Mungai who set tongues wagging with her interactive late night TV show, Connect that was dedicated to discussing the finer points of Mombasa raha. Nor Classic FM whose breakfast show presenters continue to find new angles to discuss sex and relationships each morning.
However, unlike Getrude who seemed to value married couples above all others, Maina and King’ang’i have attracted a huge listenership over the years by making themselves both a conduit for salacious nonsense and purveyors of the same. This is made worse by King’ang’i, who regularly plays the devil’s advocate even on difficult matters such as rape and domestic violence. That he normalizes misogynic beliefs through comedy is deeply disturbing. Maina makes it worse by countering with nothing more than a wheezy laugh and call for disagreeing listeners to phone in.
Why are we so ill at ease about clinically discussing sex in public?
We have the triple misfortune of being a nation that clings to outmoded traditional values, straight-jacketed religious beliefs and a government prone to selective prudishness. Former President Moi famously banned the Kenyan TV show Tushauriane for showing a kiss on the national broadcasting station KBC. And, in 1995, we also suffered a two-year ban on condom communication.
When we did in fact discuss sex, it was largely through the terrifying lenses of a 17-minute clip on the ravages of HIV/AIDS and STDs on the body. The Kenya National AIDS/STD Control Board approved stomach-churning documentary was narrated by a jolly Raphael Tuju — a man who, years later, made an unsuccessful Presidential bid. Kenyans of a certain age can recall afternoon classes (hopefully double Maths lessons) cancelled so that a TV could be wheeled into a schoolroom, or a VHS tape spilled into a dining hall VCR for a nauseating lesson on the dangers of doing bad mananasi (bad manners) in Silent Epidemic.
They’d sooner shock us into total abstinence, called “chilling”, as opposed to soberly teaching us about reproductive health. I don’t remember their being a follow-up video about family planning methods or one teaching boys to respect women or unlearn rape culture. God forbid if girls learnt that they had agency at a young age or boys were taught that they don’t have a divine right to the female body.
It was better to have us continue to think of sex as a feverish overlapping of bodies with the repeated motion of sliding doors that ultimately resulted in pus-filled skin lesions, no?
A recent move to introduce sex education in schools was christened the tire-flattening, “Condoms for Kids” Bill and at first thrown out. It found an unlikely champion in Kenya’s Deputy President who announced a move to reconsider the divisive Bill. Stating that they government will find a way “[that] respects and which is in context to our culture and religion because that is the way it should be.”
The first time I’d seen Kenyan women outside of my group of friends openly talking about their sexual health, preferences, and habits in a way that moved me was on the YouTube series Y Do We Do It? It was a special ladies edition recorded on of the presenters’ birthday. The first question she directed at the group of twenty-somethings was: “Who here walks around with a condom in their bag?” To my astonishment, they each answered; and to my reading, in a truthful fashion. They weren’t single-worded responses either. They went on to explore rape culture and consent, contraception and sexual health plus mediocrity in a quarter-life crisis(!)
Now that was fun.
I’m at an age where I swap gynecologists’ numbers with my friends and debate the safety of IUDs over the ring or over pills. It is with these very same people that I can share the embarrassing tale of a Whatsapped picture of an unfurled, unused condom (I swear, D!) found on a window ledge that I laughingly referred to as evidence of fucking.
These are the types of conversations I want to see had in the public sphere. I want us to own what they say about us; to ourselves and the society at large. That’s why I’m extremely excited by an ongoing South African YouTube series called Women on Sex that features mental and reproductive health professionals, celebrities, and ordinary womenfolk candidly discussing sex. The episodes unpack female desire, while airing and challenging myths. The interviews are interspersed with dramatizations of statements shared through interpretive dance, animated drawn fingers and placards. It is glorious and necessary and more educational than a film reel of diseased body parts.
And it is exactly the kind of thing this silver packet-carrying girl needs. It’s what we all need as a nation.
Wanjeri Gakuru is a creative writer and freelance magazine journalist living and working in Nairobi. Wanjeri is also a member of pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada. Follow her on Twitter @mawazo_mengi