Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, the author of The Sex Lives of African Women, joins Aja to talk about African women’s sexuality, feminism across the African diaspora, and the idea that caring for your community is integral to self-care.
Aja Monet 00:07
Hello, beautiful listeners. My name is Aja Monet. I'm a blues surrealist poet and organizer, dreamer thinker, lover, liver. I'm here, present with you right now. And I'm the host of The Sound Bath, a podcast brought to you by Lush Cosmetics, where you'll be hearing conversations that cleanse. Thank you so much for being here with me today. This podcast explores what personal, social, and environmental care and wellbeing really mean in today's society. This show is designed to be listened to in the bath. So sit back and enjoy the conversation. At the end, stick around for a beautiful meditative, sonic sound bath. On today's episode, we have Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, is a Ghanaian feminist and writer. She's the author of a book called “The Sex Lives of African Women”.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 01:13
I think the world we live in is, it's created out of a story. And, and we can tell ourselves a different story to create a different kind of world.
Aja Monet 01:22
The way I found out about Nana was I was in Ghana, in Accra at a bookstore on my way home, and I was about to exit out of the store when I saw a beautiful cover with the captivating words on the cover: “The Sex Lives of African Women”. I had to have this book in my hands. I must know about this conversation. What's going on, you know? Nana and I are now in conversation about her book. This is kind of the universe and the way it works. I'm so excited to have you all listen to this conversation. Nana's work really brings light to the diversity and experiences of African women when it comes to not just sex but feminism, the most crucial thing in our lives, I believe, changing the world. She is a wonderful person, a strong and powerful political thinker. And she's very thoughtful about the diaspora, how care and community care are really one and the same, is one of the things that we talk about as well. Let's get it. I am so honored and excited and just very encouraged to be in conversation with you, Nana. I stumbled on your book. I was in Ghana this past New Year. I went to look for the nearest bookstore in Accra that someone recommended to me, and as I started looking around, I stumbled on this really cool cover, which actually I'm a little salty about because I think the cover in Accra is a lot better than the cover in the States. No, no shade to whoever did the cover for the States’ book, but it just immediately stopped me in my tracks. I’d gotten a bunch of other books, and I was about to leave. And I saw it on the counter. And the woman who works at the bookstore was like, “This book is selling off the shelves; people are just coming in and love this book. Gotta get it.” So, of course, the title is just interesting and intriguing. It's provocative. I think it's an invitation to listen, to learn. But it's also just kind of a little controversial, right? ‘Cause I don't think we hear of the sex lives of women in general, it’s not popular conversation, it’ss not comfortable for the masses. And yet, it's a reality. And yet it is a part of our experiences. And so, I'm just so excited to be in conversation with you. Please give us an introduction to you and how you came to writing and being a writer ‘cause I know that this book came out of a blog. And so I just want to learn a little bit more about your journey into writing and why language and writing became your medium of communicating your stories.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 04:16
Thank you so much, Aja. I am cheesing so hard. If this was video, people would just see me grinning from side to side. I have been following you for ages. So yes, thank you so much for supporting. So just a little bit about me and my background and how I came to write this book. Yes, you're right. I started a blog in 2009 with my best friend Malaka. it's called “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women”. And it was a space that we created for African women to share the experiences of sex and sexualities. We basically got to a point where we realized that, oh my goodness, you know, we had nothing approaching comprehensive sex education growing up. All we were told was a version of, “don’t do it”. And nobody really says what the “it” is. And somehow you're meant to figure it out for yourself, right, as you grow up. And so we just wanted to create a space where women could get together, they could share their stories, they could share their experiences. And when we started, it was very much Malaka and I blogging all of the time. We were blogging about our own sexual experiences. And what would happen over time is people reached out to us and tell us about their experiences. And over time, I realized that our experiences of sex and sexuality as African women were so diverse, they were so different, and totally not what was in the mainstream, right? Especially in Western mainstream media, I felt like African women were always being portrayed as victims of diseases like HIV and AIDS, or women who had no power and agency over their lives, or women who were constantly pregnant, or women who had experienced FGM. And I knew from the blog that, yes, those stories may be true, but there's so much more to our experiences. It's way more complex. And so I thought, actually, I'm going to take my time, interview as many African women from across the continent and diaspora and put that together in a book. And that's how “The Sex Lives of African Women” came into being.
Aja Monet 06:18
Wow. Okay. The reason why this also seemed so timely for me was part of the reason I was in the continent was, I had been brought on by an organization called V Day, which started after the Vagina Monologues was written over 20 years ago. And every year, on the same day, which is February 14th which is known as V Day, women all over the world perform this play to raise awareness, raise funds, and resources around domestic violence, assault, and even pleasure. And one of the big things that I loved about your book that felt almost like an affirmation, the reason why that intrigues me is because when I was in Accra, my home girl, another sister who's actually Ghanaian, her and I got in a conversation with some men in Ghana, from Accra, who we love and who we know love us dearly. But it became kind of tense as we started to talk about some of the experiences that we know women in Ghana were having, you know, just, for example, the discrepancy between wages, while Ghana is maybe more progressive than some other countries in the continent, in terms of women's voices, rights, access, that didn't come easy, there are women who fought for those things and continue to fight for those things. And there still seems to be this discrepancy between what the men think is freedom and equality and empowerment, all these things and what the women are actually experiencing. And I remember this conversation being so tense because these men were like, “Well, you women are from the West, you don't know what it's like. The women in Ghana, they're very liberated, they're very free, they have everything they could want.” And we're like, :Nah, there's a lot of issues here, still” you know, but there's this assumption that it's like, when women start talking about, in the continent at least, about their own empowerment, their own agency, that somehow this is something from the West. And it's not something that women need and are seeking and are fighting for, and are creating every day on the continent, in their own lives in many, many different facets. So there are women who have been doing this work for a very, very long time. And yet, it still seems to be this conversation where the assumption is that the West is bringing some feminist thought to the continent that wasn't already there, you know? I wanted to know your thoughts on that, your relationship to the diaspora, and what you've seen in Ghana that has been so inspiring for you as a woman?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 08:41
I think it's so ridiculous when people try to say, oh, feminism isn’t African, right? Oh, another variant of that, which is an issue that we're currently grappling with in Ghana, is homosexuality isn’t African. And this will always be told to you by somebody who's probably wearing the sharpest, you know, Western business suit. And I think, I think it's just a way that people try to shut you down, try to control you try to delegitimize whatever you're saying, right, by saying it isn’t African. And I identify as an African feminist. And for me, it's really about looking to my ancestors, my feminist ancestors, African women who through their actions, showed their politics, you know, resisted all sorts of discrimination, resisted the colonial powers, resisted being oppressed by their husbands, resisted coup d'états, it's just been part of their everyday life. And so, for me, when it comes to feminism, that's a core African value. And I like to describe myself as an African feminist because my feminism is concerned about the issues that's existing on this continent, right and this is the, I guess, my sort of circle of concern, and these are the issues that I want to work on. And in terms of the diaspora, for me, I also identify as a pan-Africanist. And so it's really, really important for me for there to be strong connections between the continent and its global diaspora. Because the only reason why there's a separation between us and those in the diaspora is because of slavery, is because of colonization is, because of migration. And so, for me, that reunification is really, really important, you know? I've had some people say to me, “Oh, why did you call your book ‘The Sex lives of African Women’? There's so many people you interviewed from the diaspora.” For me, those people are Africans, they're descendants of Africans. And it's, it was actually really, really important for me to show that. You know, until a few years ago, for example, I had no idea that there was so many Afro-descendants in Latin America. Like, our people are spread all over the world. And we actually have so much in common, even though we've been separated by continents and by oceans. And I think it's really important that we come together, that we produce knowledge together, and that we share, we share our knowledge. And so for me, that's why Ghana's efforts to foster links with the diaspora is really important. And in fact, I'd like to see us expand. I feel like we've really focused on, you know, the diaspora in North America, for instance, which is obviously important. But then how about a place like Brazil, where we have the largest African diaspora outside of the continent. I went to Brazil a few years ago, and I, it’s the only place I’ve been to outside of the continent where people were speaking to me assuming I was a Black Brazilian, where the food on the street was just like what I eat in my home here in Ghana, you know? Yeah, so for me, that's my relationship to the diaspora, it's important for us to be connected and to reunify as much as possible.
Aja Monet 11:54
I'm so encouraged and inspired when I hear you speaking about it because it was very emotional for me going back to the continent and realizing, for people on the continent they kind of have some idea of where they come from, what their history, their tribe, or their region of, of where their family is from, but for those of us who've had to endure slavery and our legacy in a more immediate way, I think there is, I would like to say, seeking a belonging, right, this, this isolated feeling of you kind of are from somewhere, but not really, culturally there are things that you absorb from the, from the place that you were born and raised in. And yet, there's still this, this thing that's exists where this unlanguage-able, kind of spiritual frequency, or resonance, or vibration or tone that you move in the world with. And I think that when, when you feel an invitation, not just an invitation, but also a celebration, to go home, or to experience a sense of home, there's something really profound about that, that I think sometimes gets lost. And I think about, particularly women, and there's a lot of conversations around the knowledge and the information that those who identify as women or women who move in the world, aware of their connection to their bodies, and what their bodies have lived through and experienced, that there is constantly this state of belonging and not belonging. I think for me, when I was told what a woman was. I didn't really understand it at first. Children move in the world, and they just exist. And then they're told, “Oh, well, this is the reality of your experience. This is what your experience is.” And so I wanted to ask you about that. Like, does woman and man quote-unquote, the actual identity of these, these, these titles, these gender specific titles, do you feel like they are inventions? Or do you feel like they're natural things that you have, you came to understand, in a very natural, organic way, as a little girl coming into the world?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 13:56
No, those are really great questions. I, I feel like as a little girl, I resisted all the things that I was told good little girls had to do. You know, so I was that little girl who just loved to sit in the corner and read my book. And my mom would be like, “Come and help me cook.” And I would just be like, “I'm reading my book”, you know? And I even remember at a young age she would say, “Oh, my goodness, you're going to make someone's mother cuss me out.” And I didn't understand that until my 20s when I got married, and I was like, “Oh, she wanted me to know how to cook so that I could cook for my husband, and she wouldn't be cussed out by my mother-in-law”, you know? So for me, I just kind of always resisted those kinds of gendered roles that were placed on woman. It just always felt unfair to me, but I didn't have language for it when I was a girl, right? It was only when I was around 19 that I actually started to read books by feminists. I actually learned about, in a sense the theory of feminism from African American feminists. So folks like Bell Hooks, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, that generation of African American feminists were very, very influential to me. Also, because at the time, I was in the diaspora, I was in the UK. And so, I was being confronted by racism in a way that I hadn't previously been aware of. And that also speaks to the privilege that I had in Ghana, right, growing up as a middle-class child, really. And then I suddenly went to the UK for university and now as part of an underclass, like, I didn't even fit into the stratified society. And now I was not just dealing with issues of gender, I was dealing with issues of race, and just really not sure what was going on and really trying to understand. And feminism really helped me get clarity, kind of understand the way the world was structured, understand femininity as constructed. And that really gave me a lot of, it gave me really a lot of power because I felt like, okay, if our gender is constructed, if everything we're told is made up, then we can unmake it, we can unmake it to suit ourselves, and we can keep those aspects that work for us and do away with those aspects that don't. And that's really how I've tried to live my life since. And I think for me, the great thing also about being a feminist is, it gives you a way to identify like-minded people, to recognize them as your people, and to be able to form community with them, which is really what keeps you safe, and keeps you well, it keeps you happy. And so, first came across feminism through African American writers and of course my next logical step was, were the African feminists, you know, and I came to African feminism primarily through novels. And yeah, I think those connections between the diaspora and Ghana has always been strong. So I mentioned Maya Angelou earlier, and she's like, one of my biggest influences. And the first book of hers that I picked up was “All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes”. And this was about this about the time she lived in Ghana, you know? So I was browsing through a bookshop in London, and what, at the time, was a Black book section. And there was always like, this like one shelf right to the back of the room. And I was just like browsing, I was just like, “Oh, my God, this woman is writing about living in Ghana”. And it was just so incredible. And just so beautiful to read, right? So I feel like I very much agree with you, those connections have been there. I think people don't realize that this work of connecting people in the diaspora to the motherland is not new. And it's also something that our generation needs to continue and lift up and take to the next level. I completely agree.
Aja Monet 17:42
Yeah, I think, well, it's intentional for some of our history to be (erased), not told. (True) Yes. So I think that there is, in doing this work and in having these sort of conversations and in creating these connections as writers, just in terms of the lives of being sexual, creative, independent, assertive women in the world, I think that there is room for us to just in the very nature of building relationships, which is what I believe the foundation of all organizing is, right? That in those relationships, we start to see those who witnessed those sorts of relationships. Even the young people come up under us they see possibility in that, and then it becomes just a norm, then it becomes just a way of life. So the next question I have for you, in the conversation of “The Sex Lives of African Women”, I wanted to know why the sex lives and not the emotional lives or the love lives, because one of the things I know does not get talked about a lot, or there's not a lot of room for when I was in Ghana, conversations around therapy or the emotional lives, the mental health of not just women, but men primarily, that these conversations seem very taboo. So I'm interested in why the sex lives of African women and then does that extend and how have you seen in your work and your research into the emotional and love and intellectual lives of women as well.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 19:13
I really wanted to focus on sex because it's still very much treated as a taboo subject when it comes to African women, like the physical act of sex, right? And the idea that a woman should just take delight in her body. And that a woman can take delight in her body without it being connected to her emotions, you know, can take delight in sex and enjoy having sex with somebody that she's not in love with. And for me that's also really, really important. And of course, you know, there are lots of women who, for them, sex is a deeply emotional issue. There are some women who can only have sex with people they love. And so, I think actually focusing on sex allows you to see the whole spectrum, you know, and it legitimizes those for whom sex is a purely physical act. And for me, that was actually politically important. And, and also just to, I guess, encourage women to recognize that actually, sex doesn't always have to be tied to our emotions. It can be, it's great for some people that way. But it doesn't always have to be that way. So for me, that's why I wanted to talk about sex lives of African women. But I also think when you talk about the sex lives of African women, you also get to know so much more; you get to know people's culture, people's way of life, even people’s spirituality, for some people, sex and spirituality are deeply connected. One woman I interviewed described sex and sexuality as two sides of the same coin, right? So even though I'm entering through the physical, I think there was a lot of room to go into even the metaphysical. But I also think just focusing on the physical is good enough, as far as I'm concerned, and maybe that's my own agenda.
Aja Monet 20:56
No, I think I think that that resonates deeply with me. And I know it resonates with a lot of other women that maybe if we have more conversations about the sex lives of African women, but all women, that we can start to be humanized in a very, very tangible way. (Yes) Because this needs, this work is so necessary for the sake of just life, you know, experiencing life ,experiencing a physical life with one another, that as these conversations become more normalized and less taboo, that we actually heal from those conversations and we see, hopefully, shifts, because I don't know if people see conversations, or even storytelling, as transformative as it actually is. And so that's something I wanted to maybe delve into in that question which is, what role do you think storytelling plays in shifting society and culture around these issues that we face as women?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 21:51
I think storytelling is critical to changing the world really; even if that change starts on an individual level, it can really spread in a collective way. I've had so many more men message me and tell me how my book has made them reflect on their life. It's made them think about the choices they've made, has made them feel more brave. It's made them it's encouraged them to like, pursue sexual freedom for themselves. And I think books do that. I think stories do that. Part of the reason why for years I’ve been encouraging women to share their experiences on my blog is because for me personally, writing is a form of therapy, it is a form of healing. Writing helps me think, it helps me process, it helps me figure things out. And I recognize that it's really, really powerful. And I think it does that for a lot of people as well. And I also think stories shape the world we live in, right? You was asking me earlier whether you know, I believe in more or less social constructivism, and I think the world we live in is, is created out of a story. And we can tell ourselves a different story to create a different kind of world.
Aja Monet 22:59
Yeah, I love that. I have, in my book, “we are the stories we tell ourselves”. And I think that that resonates deeply, which is why Black women writers and storytellers and poets have been so crucial to my life is because it helped me realize that I could write a new story, that I could create the world I wanted to live in by writing a new story. So, you sharing these stories, I think is an invitation for women to one, see themselves, but also to write their new stories. I think as I've gotten older, I don't know if you've heard this, but I was always told that like, “Oh, wait till you get into your 30s like, wait till you're in your 30s” because apparently this is supposed to be the roaring 30s for women apparently. And it's so interesting because I think as a woman, I think age does do, does have this miraculous kind of relationship with time that I think it's actually really beautiful. I and the first person I ever heard share such a beautiful relationship to age was Maya Angelou. She talked about it with such enthusiasm and sassiness and sexiness about being 50 and then 60. And then, like all the things that she discovered as she got older, whereas often for women, you know, we don't talk about the pleasure of women's lives as they get older. We don't, I mean, women, women aren't seen as sexual past like 40, I feel like. I mean, oftentimes in the conversations in film and television, and, you know, magazine, all this stuff that we see in music videos, it's like, you don't think about women as having pleasure beyond a certain age. So I wanted to ask you as you've aged and as you’ve grown, like what are the things that you find to be more exciting that you've learned about your relationship to your body and to your pleasure and sex? And that, do you see that there's a culture around that in Ghana? Like, are there women as they get older, are there certain things that you see women practicing more freely or with more enthusiasm as they've aged, or what are your thoughts around that?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 25:05
I mean, one of my goals is to grow old disgracefully. That's like my real goal in life to grow old disgracefully. And by that I mean like, just grow old on my own terms, right? And do whatever I want to do and not be hindered by what my age is, and what society says a woman of a certain age should be doing. And I think that's what I love about older women with spunk, right? It's like, (yes), like, you know, they're doing their own thing. And I think that is what comes from growing older, you realize that you should not bother yourself with what other people think. You should not be stressed about what people think of you really, what's important is what you think of yourself. That's the most important thing of all. And you kind of have to figure out what works for you. If you go by what society says, I think you'd be miserable. society likes to put older woman in boxes. And the good older woman is the woman who is constantly caring for her grandchildren and sacrificing for everybody else. And if that's what you want to do, you can do that but you can also live your own life and figure out what that means for you. And for me, that's my goal. I love older women who are just living life on their own terms and that’s just completely who and what I aim to be, and I have definitely felt more free as I've grown older. I'm now almost 45. You know, my next birthday next year, I'll turn 45. And yeah, I definitely feel like more confidence in myself now than I did in my 30s. I felt more confident in my 30s than I did in my 20s.
Aja Monet 26:39
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 26:40
And I think life is only just going to get better.
Aja Monet 26:42
Yeah, I love that. I would love to end on … Are there any specific sounds that, when you hear them, they bring you a sense of peace or belonging or calm or care?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 26:54
Oh, that's such a beautiful question. And for me, it's the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. Just hearing that over and over again is so calming, the sound of the ocean is super, super calming.
Aja Monet 27:09
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 27:10
Aja Monet 27:11
That is one of my favorite sounds as well. Wow Nana, thank you so much for this conversation, for your time, for your work. I look forward to meeting you in the flesh in person soon, very soon.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 27:23
I can't wait.
Aja Monet 27:25
Yeah, me either. I can't wait. I can't wait for all the things that I hope we can do together in the future, in whatever ways I can support. So, thank you. Thank you so much for your time.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 27:37
Thank you so much Aja, thank you for this beautiful conversation and for your incredible work and for your words and for your activism. And yeah, just for being you.
Aja Monet 27:47
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah 27:49