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Why Africa Must Face Up to the Vagina Monologues (The Nation - Nairobi)


The eve of International Women's Day found me heading to the Carnivore to watch Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues for the first time. The proceeds were earmarked for a worthy cause, I was there to support a friend who was taking part in the readings, but largely, I came to feed my curiosity: What could more than a dozen women have to say about that rarely discussed, most private part of their anatomy for over an hour? Would we be walking out bored after ten minutes, demanding our money back? Turns out there was a lot to say, scream, moan and shout about. The show lasted all of two hours!

Sitting there sipping some good Kenyan coffee to warm our cold bones, at first I didn't know what to expect of this room full of expectant women and a few nervous but courageous men. I had asked a friend to book front row seats, figuring this was bound to be one steamy ride and we didn't want to miss any of it. Yet, once the cast came on stage, and the audience calmed down the mood shifted to oddly comforting albeit slightly embarrassing at times. It does tend to get a bit much when the word vagina is repeated hundreds of times in one evening!

We Africans don't talk about such things, well not loudly anyway. And even when we talk about sex, we rarely mention the parts involved in the act.

Truth be known, I shudder as I write about it, let alone say it. Blame it on our socialisation that in most cultures makes girls hate whatever is "down there". After all, where else in the world are women punished so severely for being women, for possessing this part of their anatomy? In many cultures, it had to be cut out and thrown away to prepare the girl for womanhood. According to some cultural diehards, removing a girl's private parts would stop her from becoming sexually promiscuous before and during marriage. Today, hundreds of thousands of girls are still forced to undergo female circumcision, performed in the crudest of ways in many parts of Africa.

Where else in the world do girls use cow dung or sit on sand during their menses because they can not afford sanitary towels? Where else are young girls under ten, raped as part of a cleansing ceremony or cure for HIV positive men? Is it any wonder that girls grow into women who associate this part of their bodies as a source of deep personal pain and shame? Is it then surprising that they are shocked and forced into silence by societal scorn for their womanhood, and that they, in turn, perpetuate that same scorn and silence on their daughters?

The monologues are a study in contradictions. Irreverent, yet at times righteous, shockingly frank yet occasionally naive. They are disturbing, yet hilarious. It is true that the monologues are not for everyone, and some parts, the transvestite monologue being a case in point, sound foreign.

However, in the sense that women are the same everywhere, this study of female sexuality becomes relevant. Contrary to some misconceptions, the show isn't about women bashing men or even, about sex. It is about women exploring their womanhood and how they feel about themselves. It is about the things - rape, violence, circumcision etc - that make women hate their womanhood.

That said, everyone must make up their own mind when it comes to the Vagina Monologues. And even if we can't stomach the show, we must find ways and opportunities to talk about our sexuality, examine why we feel the way we do about being women and separate the cultural myths that have been shoved down our throats for so long from the facts.

We do need to find a way to break the silence that surrounds women's sexuality in this part of the world. We must find a way to reclaim or own our bodies, for so long viewed as the property of others.

Finally, on that Tuesday evening at the Carnivore, all the Vagina Monologues cast was defiantly saying, is what each African woman should proudly proclaim. That is if we hope to reduce the shocking statistics on all forms of violence against women. My womanhood is mine, and no one has the right to take it, cut it or use it without my consent.

Carol Mandi
Managing Editor of Truelove East Africa