I recently ran a workshop for young girls titled Our Bodies Are Powerful and Beautiful at the Girls Summit preceding the 10th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights convened by activist group Purposeful in Freetown, Sierra Leone. That day I facilitated two workshops — one targeted at girls aged between 14 and 17, and the other for older girls and young women aged between 18 and 22. All these girls and young women came from countries across the continent and its diaspora, including Morocco, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Nigeria.
I started my session by asking the girls what they wanted to know about bodies and about pleasure. Their responses came gushing out: “Why is the first day of menstruation painful?”; “Is it a crime for a girl to have sex between the ages of twelve and fourteen?”: “How can we get parents to talk about sex and pleasure with their kids?”: “Does FGM [female genital mutilation] cause infection or sterility?”: “Why do some girls bleed during sex?”; and on and on and on. The questions kept coming. Clearly the girls appreciated the space that had been created for frank, honest, non-judgmental conversations.
I had no expectations going into this workshop. I have been writing about sex and sexualities and facilitating conversations on the subject with older women for well over a decade, yet this was the first time I was holding space for younger women in this manner.
Many years ago — eight or 10 — I was invited by my alma mater to give a talk to students about the lives of African women in pre-colonial Africa. I have always been a bit of a history buff, and so I was excited to share what I knew. My opening slide had my full name, and after introducing myself to the group of mainly 17-year-old students, I spoke about the various roles that African women had played in our societies historically (and presently); how active African women had always been in public life — the key roles of market women, the centrality of traditional priestesses and healers, the importance of Queen Mothers, and such. I said nothing in my speech about sex and sexualities. Plus, in those days, I had only been blogging for a few short years.
When my session was over, some students came over to chat and one young man quietly asked me, “Are you the same Nana Darkoa who blogs about Adventures From the Bedrooms of African Women?” I couldn’t quite hide my shock that he knew the blog, but he quickly tried to reassure me: “I am not doing anything, I am just reading.”
I wish I could go back in time to reassure him. There is nothing wrong with a young person seeking knowledge about sex. Young people deserve to receive open, frank and non-judgmental information about sex and sexualities. Young people need to be taught about their bodies and how powerful and beautiful they are, but they are rarely told this.
I know this from my own childhood, and it was a privilege to be in Sierra Leone serving as an “Auntie” to young girls from across the continent, sharing with them what I have learnt about the beautiful possibilities that our bodies hold when they are truly our own; that your body first and foremost belongs to you; that you deserve to feel safe in your skin; that no act of sex should feel painful; that sex with yourself is okay and the safest way to experience pleasure; that no adult should have sex with a child. Indeed, that is not sex but rape. That pain is a sign that something is wrong in your body and should not be tolerated because you are a girl or a young woman.
At the end of the workshop, I asked the girls to write a love letter to their bodies, and a couple of them chose to read their letters aloud to the entire room.
I love your beautiful colour because it shines bright like a diamond and it is one in a million. You are beautiful like damn, and you are everything I need. I love everything about you, your eyes, your hands and legs, breast, buttocks, mouth, your shape, etc
I am happy about everything in my body because it makes me who I am.