Sex, Sexuality and Negotiating Africanness in Nairobi

By Spronk, Rachel | Africa, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Sex, Sexuality and Negotiating Africanness in Nairobi


Spronk, Rachel, Africa


ABSTRACT

This article presents two themes: how young professionals personally experience sexuality and issues of cultural belonging or identification; and how these issues are interrelated in their lives. I identify ways in which 'young professionals' as a social group are in the vanguard in respect of societal reconfigurations of gender, sexuality and culture. I argue that this group embodies post-colonial transformations concerning reconfigurations in gender, sexuality and culture. I work out the complexities of sexuality and culture by focusing on public debates about African heritage, gerontocratic power relations and conventional morality, on the one hand, and personal sexual relationships, intimacy and self-definitions on the other. Finally, I explore how sexuality has become central to self-expression and how cultural self-identification is an ambiguous concern for young professionals.

RESUME

Cet article presente deux themes: la maniere dont les jeunes professionnels vivent leur sexualite et les questions d'appartenance ou d'identification culturelle, d'une part, et la maniere dont celles-ci s'articulent dans leur existence, d'autre part. Il identifie en quoi les << jeunes professionnels >>, en tant que groupe social, sont a l'avant-garde en matiere de reconfiguration societale du genre, de la sexualite et de la culture. Il soutient que ce groupe incarne des transformations postcoloniales concemant la reconfiguration du genre, de la sexualite et de la culture. Il etudie les complexites de la sexualite et de la culture en s'interessant aux debats publics sur l'heritage africain, les relations de pouvoir gerontocratiques et la moralite conventionnelle, d'une part, et les relations sexuelles personnelles, l'intimite et la definition de soi, d'autre part. Enfin, il explore la place centrale qu'a pris la sexualite dans l'expression de soi et la preoccupation ambigue que constitue l'auto-identification culturelle pour les jeunes professionnels.

**********

'For us, life is about having a fluid disposition. Nairobi is a shot of whisky.' (1)

Patrick and I met at a friend's party in 2001. We were leaning over the balcony staring into the Nairobi night while the sounds of the party made up the background noise. He asked what had brought me to Nairobi and we engaged in a discussion about the lifestyles of his generation (he was then aged twenty-eight). His generation, he said, was marked by a spirited approach to life, 'hip and ambitious', a generation he also characterized as 'dangerously nearing Westernization'. He got somewhat agitated and started fulminating about the dominance of 'the West'. Somewhere along the discussion we started talking about female circumcision, and he got very upset. He said:

   Female circumcision is part of our African culture. You do not know
   how important it is for women themselves, they are not forced to do
   it in my community [the Abagusii ethnic group]. While they want to
   be circumcised, it is criminalized by outsiders, Westerners. Where
   I come from, the place is infested with NGOs trying to estrange the
   women.

I kept quiet so as not to anger him further. At the time I met Patrick I was living in Nairobi, engaged in a year-long study of the lifestyles of young professionals like him. I wanted to find out how sexuality was embedded in social relations and meanings and therefore how sexuality was related to processes of social transformation. I had undertaken to study the love lives and sexual lives-both the ideas and practices-among this group of twenty- to thirty-year-old professionals.

Two months after our first meeting, Patrick agreed to participate in my research. Again we discussed the matter of female circumcision. This time he said:

   You know I cannot marry a circumcised woman because I want us both
   to enjoy sex. Female circumcision is no option for me, it's
   barbaric. … 

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