Kenya is an example of how foreign influences, especially “modernization,” adversely effect traditional societies. The ethnic distribution of Kenya’s estimated population of over thirty million people in 2000 was 22 percent Kikuyu; 14 percent Luhya; 13 percent Luo; 12 percent Kalenjin; 11 percent Kamba; 6 percent Kisii; 6 percent Meru; and the rest divided among European, Asians, and Arabs.6 A political remnant of Western imperialism, Kenya, like other Afrikan societies is multiethnic, multilinguistic, and religiously diverse. What the noted Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui has called the “triple heritage,” traditional society (with its worldview, cosmology, and rituals), Islam (with its worldview, secularization and dichotomization of society), and Westernization (with its modernity, consumerism, Christianity and Marxism), has impacted upon society in every way, mixing traditional values and imposing alien ones. Depending on the level of urbanization, intergroup marriages, religion, and the amount of Western education a Kenyan is exposed to, will determine his degree of cultural dissociation and fragmentation.
In the West, religious or spiritual values are personal and private, while in Afrika they are communal and social. Even sexual behavior is a communal activity, important primarily in the context of childbearing and maintaining the lineage group. Although sharing essentially the same worldview, different Afrikan cultures in Kenya maintain different sexual values and customs. For example, among the Luo, a woman is disgraced if she gives birth before marriage, while a few groups view it is as a valuable sign of fertility. Among the Somali, Maragoli, and Luo female virginity is highly value, while it is viewed differently among the Kisii, Kikuyu, and Nandi. With the Kikuyu an impotent man may provide a partner for his wife; the same is true of Kisii culture, where a man if impotent can provide an omosoi nyomba, meaning “warmer of the house” for his wife; among the Nandi, a married woman can continue to have sex with any member of her husband’s age set; Masai women and men are considered husbands and wives to their entire age group and can have intercourse with any “spouse” they choose. In contrast, the Maragoli consider extramarital sex as adultery and subject to fines. Thus, excluding Islamic and Western sexual mores and influences, Afrikans in urban settings experience “culture shock” just between themselves. Now imagine the complexity of the relationship when a Luo Muslim man marries a Western educated Christian Kikuyu woman.
Traditional society expects parents to refrain from discussing sexual matters with their children. Nevertheless, children learn about sex from older children and through “sex play” with their peers. Adults maintain a “liberal” attitude in regard to sex play among children or the uncircumcised, though it is still subject to customary rules. Because puberty rites address social puberty rather than biological puberty, several years may lapse before a boy who has actually reached puberty undergoes the rite. In such cases, these young men “secretly” engage in sexual activities. However, even these “secret” trysts follow customs. For example, the Kikuyu tacitly understand these couples are not to engage in intercourse, though they allow petting and breast fondling. Maragoli girls frequently engage in “sex play” with boys but only after puberty can they engage in intercourse. The Kisii allow extensive sex play among smaller children, but such activities are to be kept away from one’s parents. The Luo allow uncircumcised boys to engage in interfemoral or “thigh” intercourse. A prepubescent Nandi boy rarely has the opportunity for intercourse due to the strict controls of the warrior age set. And in the few cases where customs permit premarital intercourse, pregnancy is avoided using the withdrawal method. Puberty initiation is the time when society teaches youth “sex education” and gender roles that are appropriate for society. No longer considered a child, the young adult must abandon sexual behaviors associated with childhood, thus, if adult males engage in self-pleasuring it is considered childish and immature. In addition to the shame, the circumcised man who continues such behavior is considered unfit for adult responsibilities.
This brings me back to a point I made earlier. In the West, scientist and theorist devise theorems about sexuality. In Afrika, however, the natural course of human life becomes the textbook on sexuality. And culture must provide structure for it. For example, Kinsey developed a scale of sexuality, somewhat arbitrarily, which scanned from heterosexual exclusivity to homosexual exclusivity. But in Afrika, we see sexual behavior is age-determined. It moves from childhood which is autosexuality (which often includes mutual sex pleasuring, with some behaviors being “bisexual”) to adulthood heterosexuality to elderhood asexuality. This movement is not based on a philosophy, but the understanding that human grow and change, and that one size does not fit all. Human sexuality is based on the experience of human being that has been pass down for generation; it is based on a tradition of wisdom and not simply theoretical science. And most of all it is design to let human experience what humans will experience while providing a structure that will maintain order and smooth transitions from one stage of life into the next.
Norbert Brockman, “Jamhuri ya Kenya” http://www2.rz.hu-berlin.de/sexology/
GESUND/ARCHIV/IES/KENYA.HTM. Brockford’s work is based on Angela Molnos, Cultural Source Materials for Population Planning in East Africa (Nairobi: University of Nairobi Press, 1972-1973). There are also countless smaller Afrikan groups counted among the “rest” of the population.