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review - the Sunny Side of Sex

East African Badonkadonk

by Kavish Chetty / 21.06.2012

This evening: a double dosage of East African sexuality. Together, these two documentaries produce an ambiguous portrait of an already penumbral theme. Sexuality in Africa comes across to us in a phantasmagoric flow of nastiness: teary clitoridectomies, foreskins slashed at with bloodied butcher knives, the incarceration and torture of homosexuals (a “European invention”), the corrective rape of lesbians, gang-banging as a rite of masculinity – and then perhaps most recognisably, that dark comic quotation coasting the circuits of the internet: a Ugandan pastor telling his repulsed congregation that in gay culture, men consume their own faeces for a sexual kick, or as this dude summons in his best moronic eloquence, they “eat da poo-poo”.

At the Fugard tonight, the audience is what my friend critically calls, a “Chimurenga crowd”. He means by this mainly youngish middle-class white women, prone to moral outrage, who will give their necks a yogic workout (left, right, left, right) in displays of disbelief. But spliced among us is an admirably healthy contingent of blacks and men, all buying their portal into the fascinating domain of sexuality on the continent Conrad called, “this prehistoric Earth”. The opening film is curiously celebratory, an antidote to the litany of rape-ish clichés about Africa I opened with. It’s called The Sunny Side of Sex, by Dutch documentarian Sunny Bergman. Bergman travels to Uganda to lightheartedly investigate ssengas. These are the aunties of young women who are enjoined to take their marriageable nieces aside and teach them the mechanics and operations of “how to please your man”; or in other words, the savoir faire of good, thorough pomping. This is, of course, quite the cultural jolt from our own societies, in which those jobs are usually left to the vicissitudes of porno and rumour.

Bergman, something of an amateur anthropologist, “goes native” as we used to say back in the glory days of Empire (nostalgic sigh). So she visits a ssenga herself and gets it first-hand. It begins approachably enough. Her teacher demonstrates how to seductively move her hips, and then accelerates into a display of the Ugandan variant on supine twerking. As it has been known that Ronge lurks around Mahala pilfering my slang, I’m going to say that these here honeys know a thing or two about how to rumble that “badonkadonk” – with a bit of luck that word will now appear in the Sunday Times in a week or two. It’s a pleasure, Barry. In one scene, we get a view of some older-aged women on the floor, giving their asses a vigour rumble to show that they were all well-versed fuckers in their youths. I reckon Bergman missed a trick by not setting this scene to a soundtrack of Nicki Minaj’s “A$$”, ‘cause all I could hear in my head at the time was “ass ass ass booty booty ass ass twerk… now make that motherfucker hammer time.” The various techniques all aim to teach virgin girls what to do when they’ve got a man’s dick ‘twixt their lips.

The above is only the mildest Bergman has to offer, however. Later on, her ssenga teacher her how to “prolong this labias”. This is the apparently quite popular Ugandan practice of labia-pulling, designed to stretch the labia minora a fearful measure down the thigh. My friend calls this “that orchid effect”, but the local slang is “the twin towers”. Young women are encouraged to partner up and gently massage each others’ respective woman parts – careful not to “finger-fuck your friend,” the ssenga cautions. Elongated labia are a cultural attraction in Uganda, loved by women and their partners. Bergman’s tale altogether seems to point to an emancipatory and liberal sexual culture in Africa, a freer, less hung-up attitude to sex. She also points out the obvious contradiction of this Sapphic rite in a culture which fears and loathes homosexuality.

But in order to sustain this counter-intuitive approach to Ugandan sexuality, she has to leave much on the margins of her vision. Snarling homophobia, for example, is given only a passing glance. When a local activist tells her that white preachers have “imported homophobia into this country”, she accepts this uncritically – although, this is pretty unorthodox and assumes some Edenic pro-gay Ugandan culture beforehand . He also tells her that centuries ago Ugandan lesbians were thought of as “demi-gods”. There is something going on here though, something pointing to the irruption of colonial religion into African culture, and the way the two have sparred and reconfigured themselves into the toxic mix we have at the present. Bergman equally seems to find labia-elongation and its associated practices as some free-floating bonus of Ugandan sexual culture, but she’s unwilling to fit it into the cultural matrix in which it operates – it’s only those moments, where she does not reckon complexity enough, that we might find the hidden patriarchal element in all this sex-talk, the way in which woman are still subordinate within the grander structures of society. Liberal sex education is wonderful – refreshing, perhaps – but the questions of how and why it operates aren’t explored. As a final critique, Bergman is too quick to resort to cheap and false cultural comparisons between “the West” (which she speaks of as some undifferentiated, homogenous global culture) and Uganda. She says, “in my culture we call labia ‘shame-lips’”. Hmm… I’ve never heard of shame-lips before. Possibly she references Western cultures of neurotic body-images, where reducing and tightening the labia, or lengthening the penis are anxious obsessions.

Still, the piece had our audience split-up with laughter, and as a contradictory viewpoint, it at least adds more texture to our image of Africa and Uganda, a place where good sex is a matter of community, a familial obligation – but hence also tied up with ideas around shame.

Review - The Cut

The second documentary is the flipside of the former. Ominously titled The Cut, it crosses the territorial divide into Western Kenya and gets inside the guts of female genital mutilation, or “FGM”. Film-maker Beryl Magoko narrates the film in a broody Herzog-esque register. I had hoped perhaps that she would invoke his bleak German rhythm with something like, “now… I see only the depthless and abyssal torments of patriarchy… chasmic, yawning, our mortality immolated, those serrated teeth…” No such frigid poetry, I’m afraid, but Magoko does let her images do the talking. In one parallel sequence, we are shown young boys standing naked with clenched eyes, strained expressions of masculine immunity on their faces, and as their ritual mutilators hack away at prepuces they try to not flinch through the agony. This is all shown explicitly. In the second scene, rows of young girls are shivering and crying, razor blades are unwrapped, and their faces are anguished by the brutal cuts. The empathic intensity of these moments is nightmarish.

Magoko interviews a wide cast of locals, doctors and girls themselves – she lets her subjects offer up the texture of the dilemma. From those who call on “tradition”, to those who falsely believe these children are doing this voluntarily, to the problems of HIV and disease, and girls who run away to sanctuaries to avoid their initiation and then face enormous cultural pressure. This documentary doesn’t actually add anything to the widespread perception of FGM already out there. Like Sunny Side of Sex, its mode is expository and not interrogative. But in the later stages of the film, she does ask about what counter-measures are being taken against the practice. It does seem that, although it’s marginally declining, the invocation of “tradition” and “culture” will ensure that it has a slow and painful twilight.

Both documentaries were controversial and provocative and screened together give complexity to the vastness and variety of sexual politics in Africa.

*The 2012 Encounters Documentary Festival runs until the 24th of June in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The full programme is available here.

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RESPONSES (6)
  1. Ross Stalgia says:

    Welcome back Kavish. This site needs a shot in the arm.

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  2. Makhosi says:

    In Xhosa culture, pre colonialism, although many are unaware, there was a practice called ukumetsha, which dealt amazingly with sexual education. Unfortunateyl Christianity pushed these practices into the shadows.

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  3. Busi says:

    What do you mean by this ˜This is, of course, quite the cultural jolt from our own societies, in which those jobs are usually left to the vicissitudes of porno and rumour.” Do you mean South African society? And I agree with Makhosi about the practice of ukumetsha in Xhosa culture however I don’t think that Christianity alone necessarily pushed into the background. Plus the practise of ssengas can be found in Zambia , Congo and even Angola in this very day and age.

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  4. […] like the Woodabe, for instance, who still maintain open attitudes towards sex. Or like the modern ssengas of Uganda who today impart sexual knowledge to young women, now widening their curriculum to include teaching […]

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  5. adad says:

    good information were can I get the video?

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  6. China says:

    Hmm, yes, ukumetsha – including the wonderful advice to young men and women to practice anal sex to avoid pregnancy. Seems to me no matter both documentaries gloss over the biggest issue. No matter which way you cut it, it is always about the man and what he wants. So not really sexual freedom ne? And not all caused by Christianity/the White man? – “We were all so sexually civilized and enlightned before the white man came. Yeah right.

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