I remember at the age of 13, a few weeks after I had succumbed to the calls of Mother Nature – my first period came – one of my mother’s friends called me into the living room to speak to me about something ‘important’. She had waited until her son had gone out to play and like a paranoid old woman, bolted the door hastily making sure the security door chain was tightly fixed to avoid any unwanted interruptions.
She began with, ‘you are now on your way to become a fully grown woman, and before you do that there are some things that your mother asked me to tell you.’ There we were for thirty minutes, my face slowly turning into a mucky shade of green as she graphically explained the process of labia elongation or in Kinyarwanda: Gukuna Imishino/ Guca Imyeyo. The term guca imyeyo literally means ‘to cut brooms’ – girls used to go out in the bushes in a group, and when asked where they were going they would reply that they were going out in the bush to look for grass, which they would turn into brooms. Although men know about the practice now, traditionally they were not meant to know, which is why they came up with a respectable name for labia elongation.
For those who do not know, it is a process whereby a girl who is in her puberty stage gently pulls her inner labia outwards (away from her body) by applying force on them using special herbs which girls are trained to search for in the Rwandan bushes – these act both as a lubricant and to make the labia swell slightly so it is easier to grab. However for those of us outside Rwanda, we are advised to use unfragranced lubricants, or nothing at all. Every day for 10-20 minutes girls pull all along the length of the labia from top to bottom so that after a while their general shape remains unchanged, but their protrusion beyond the outer labia increases; this daily ritual may go well into adulthood, some even carrying on when they are married.
Later on that night as I waited for sleep to engulf me I replayed the words in my mind – I had never taken time to ask why this was required of me and for whose purpose it was. I was simply told what it was and how it was to be done. I felt slightly grossed out, how could they ask me to distort the shape of my jewels, let alone sit there looking at myself down there? I just put this at the back of my mind; there was no way I was going to conform to this vulgar practice!
Ten years later while on a trip in Brussels, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had just come from Rwanda where despite major Western influences, the practice is still very much alive. She described some pretty distressing scenes whereby girls in boarding schools would sit in a row facing each other and pull each other’s labia while catching up on the latest gossip. To me it just sounded like a scene from an X-rated film but I had been taught never to challenge our cultural values in a public setting, so I kept quiet. Recently, I listened to a Rwandan radio program which made me understand labia elongation better and why such scenes as described by my friend were common. The sexperts on the show, explained that when girls pulled their labia in a group, it not only gave them a sense of belonging but it also helped them to know that it was not something they were to be ashamed of. Furthermore, it helped girls to get a snippet of the pleasure they would feel with their husbands when they got married.
Contrary to the belief that in Africa, sex is usually the man climbing on top of the woman to do his business and snore once its over; in Rwanda sex is a process and men are expected to make their wives orgasm (kurangiza) and ejaculate (kunyaza). Hardly what I would call a ten minute job. Labia elongation is supposed to make this easier to achieve because when the lips are long they are easier to grab and play with during foreplay, they fully cover the penis and cause more friction during penetration and for the women, that area becomes even more sensitive due to the pulling and thus, the act of tapping the penis on her lips will allow her to ejaculate.
For this reason, a woman on her wedding day is given a special mat (ikirago/umusambi) which she uses to protect the mattress from getting soiled when having sexual intercourse with her husband. It had never occurred to me that the beautifully patterned banana fibre mats that I saw many Rwandan brides receive as presents were for that purpose. I thought they were used for the same thing we used them for at home; as a child our maid would spread the mat under the avocado tree’s shade when the sun was very hot and we would feast on our Saturday lunch. Little did I know!
A documentary that was filmed in Rwanda and broadcasted in Canada called Le Sexe (Autour du Monde) spoke to a variety of Rwandan women about the cultural practice and how they felt about it; while the older and less educated women said it was something they could never question and would definitely encourage their daughters to do so that they would be able to find a husband and not bring shame to the family; the modern more educated woman said that even though it had its benefits, the woman who failed to ejaculate is blamed by the husband, and can be disgraced in front of her peers and sometimes thrown out of her marital home. But like every cultural practice, it has both its positives and negatives so we cannot pull wool over our eyes and condemn it without carefully considering both sides.
Labia pulling is not a new practice nor is it only done in Rwanda; having done a little bit of research, I found out that there were recorded sightings of women with elongated labia in the early 19th century, the most famous being of Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman (The Hottentot Venus) from South Africa. She was brought over to Europe in 1810 and was paraded in a cage in Piccadilly Circus and later on in Paris to excited onlookers who wanted to see her gigantic buttocks and genitalia.
From random conversations with other African women, I learned that it is also done in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. Although there is no medical proof that a woman with elongated labia, has more sexual satisfaction than a regular woman – the amount of satisfied Rwandan women are sure a testimony that perhaps women all over the world need to start pulling their lips in order to cure fake orgasms.Rwanda has made some very positive progress with regards to empowering women; they have the highest level of female representation in parliament in the world and are doing so much more on the ground to close that gender gap. It looks like they may also have the most sexually satisfied women in the world, how about that? Sexually empowered women in Africa – bet you never thought sex, power, woman and Africa could be put in the same sentence.