In the northern part of Nigeria, the call to prayer wakes most people between 5:00 and 5:30am, striking a harmonious chord with the local birds who chitter, sing and crow.  In my opinion, when you wake up like this, it means you are going to have a good day… at least, until your grandma or an aunt or your mother comes to wake you up.

“Say your prayers,” she’ll command, before detailing your itinerary for the rest of your day.  Then comes the discussion about what is to be eaten for breakfast.  Sometimes it might include koko, a spicy porridge made from local pap with Kosai, a type of bean cake.  Sometimes it might be Masa and miyan taushe - a form of fried pancake made with rice and eaten with local vegetable soup, or even something else - but either way, it is frequently a great meal to start the day with.

Some of the most cherished attributes of Northern Nigerian parents is their dedication to making their kids happy, and to help them keep perspective as they age, particularly around life lessons about how life is not always a bed of roses.  Most Northern children are acquainted with the parental proverb tone of:

“A rayuwan nan, duk abun da kayi ko mai kyau ko mara kyau a kwariyan cin tuwon ka zai kare”

“In this life, whichever way you decide to make your bed; good or bad, that is how you are going to lie in it”.

These were the kind of adages I grew up hearing on a daily basis, often as words of caution for myself and my younger siblings and cousins.  There is a proverb for every situation – nutrition, academia, love - but there was always one subject that was markedly missing: never once in the home have I heard any form of proverb, correction, home schooling, or even a discussion on the subject of sexual health.

This was the kind of strict moral environment I was brought up in, where at the mention of “Nono” (breast) might see you lead to what was less affectionately known as the koboko room – a room in the house which could be the mother’s or father’s room, where naughty kids are being punished with a flexible locally made whip gotten from the hides and skin of camels or donkeys  which is usually a woven, slender and flexible whip known as the “koboko”  But at times, this word would occasionally pop out of my mouth, or that of my younger sister’s, less from profanity than curiosity.  We wanted to know more about our bodies, or receive an explanation of something we saw or heard recently and did not understand, but instead we get the rod.  It seemed like a grave injustice – both then, and now - because instead of receiving knowledge or an explanation, I was expected to know what I didn’t know, and then promptly repress it.  I often wondered to myself how I could ever understand my adolescence or any medical risks I might attract if I could not even ask questions about my sexual health.

Being a part of Northern family simply means you must have the ability to maintain and keep good “Zumunci”, which means to maintain good relationships with friends and family members, both immediate and distant.  Zumunci was often maintained through family gatherings or events, of which Northern families enjoy many.

This was how I met Amina*, a girl who attended the same school as my baby sister Sammira* and whose family later became close family friends of mine.  One afternoon, as we three sat around, cracking jokes and teasing one another, Amina said to my sister: “Ke baki san cewa mun fara balaga ba?” Which, in English, means: “Don’t you know we are maturing already?”

This remark made us crack up in laughter and I, playing the fool, asked her innocently what she meant by “Balaga”.  She told me that I should already know, but I, abruptly realizing that my joke had backfired because I truly didn’t understand, so I pressed her for an answer with a sincere tone this time.

“It’s when you are matured enough to have sex and get pregnant,” she said, smiling mischievously.  All three of us began to laugh again, because such responsibility seemed a lifetime away. So I asked, “Where did you get this information from?”

“I overheard my older sisters talking about…” she blushed.

“What?” my sister asked, curious but pretending not to be.

“About their experiences.  With guys.  But I don’t remember the details!” she said, clapping a hand to her mouth.

Sammira kept on smiling sheepishly, but her face made it clear that she had truly no idea what Amina was talking about.  The subject changed, the games continued, and we grew older.

This whole scenario was interesting at that time, but it was not until I thought of it later that I realized there were a lot of subtext to our crash course in sexual education; Like how Amina attributed adolescence with the ability to have sex and get pregnant, but not to ensuring safety precautions existed to counterbalance this new world.  Her information, like that of so many Nigerian youth, was half-baked.  I wondered how many other friends in her circle she had shared this new word - balaga – with, whether they instinctively thought it was a bad thing, even without proper context.  I wondered If Amina’s older sisters really knew how to mitigate sexual risks to their health.

Sexual education amongst young people, in this context, seemed to be cobbled together by gossip between misinformed siblings, cousins, and friends.  As can be imagined when the blind lead the blind, rumors can spread quickly when there is no authority or education to verify or contradict them.  This can have disastrous results; when the youth of a community is misinformed, the future of such community is bound to suffer this ignorance, often inherited from their parents and perpetuated by themselves.

There are proper scenarios in which open communication and lack of shame around sex can actually make a positive impact in the lives of young girls.  One such example was when, at age 19, a girl in my friendship group with a strong inquisitive streak realized that she had no idea what it felt like for a lady to have sex for the first time.  She was especially curious about the role her hymen would play in this, and whether there would be a large amount of blood.  In this instance, my friend failed to crowd-source a satisfactory answer from her circle of friends, all of whom were similarly uneducated on the subject.  She decided to approach her mother for answers and, lo and behold, was scolded and chastised for having such supposedly “immoral” thoughts.

As everybody knows, shaming and reprimands cannot stop a curious mind. In the spirit of Zumunci, my friend was invited to one of Amina’s older sister’s wedding.  After the traditional rites, aunts and family members took the time to catch up and celebrate the newlyweds.  My friend and Amina soon found themselves chatting about love, marriage and the possibility of babies when my friend thought to ask her friend the question that had seen her so severely upbraided by my own mother?

“Wai shin mai ke faruwa in na mace ta hadu da na miji bayan aure a daren fari?” she asked Amina.  What happens when a woman has sex for the first time after marriage?

“I don’t have any idea,” Amina quickly answered, “But let’s ask Mummy!”

My friend, still self-conscious from her last experience of asking an adult this question, was startled by Amina’s openness.  She followed her friend through the crowd in pursuit of her mother, and, upon finding her, watched in awe Amina asked the question.

My friend had expected a scolding from Amina’s mother, and cringed against the expectation of a public humiliation.  But instead, Amina’s mum smiled, and answered them both in great detail.

“The hymen is just a thin membrane – not skin, so it is meant to move under pressure.  What happens when you have sex for the first time varies between people: for some, it may break, for others, it may simply shift.  Some people feel a little pain, some feel none at all.”

“And the blood?” my friend asked, bracing for the worst.

“A little.  But not much.  Some women do not even bleed.”

The girls swapped an excited glance – the answer had been found! – but Amina’s mother had not yet finished.

“Remember, though, that a hymen is not just something that is changed through sex.  Sometimes it happens if you are the kind of person who is very active – riding bicycles, or horses, or falling off trees.  It can happen at any age, so it is not uncommon for a girl to only find out during her first sexual experience that it is not even a part of the equation! It is important to keep in mind that our bodies are made for living with.  There is nothing inherently shameful about the way you are.”

Later that evening, my friend told Amina how fortunate she was to have such an honest and kindly mother.  She had felt more at ease with her friend’s mum than her own, and could put her thoughts on the topic aside, now that she was confident she had a source of first-hand information henceforth.

This experience demonstrates the fear of most young Northern Nigerian youth who have a lot of questions about their own bodies but are too ashamed to have an open discourse with their parents or other adults.  Society in this region is one that prefers not to ask, which can have disastrous results in situations of sexual trial and error.  Young people who might seek a confidante have no way of verifying their sources as the said contact may be very inexperienced or be an older person with more malevolent intentions.

My wish is for Nigerian parents across the country – and particularly in my own communities and region - to understand that times are changing and that the pressure to raise moral children through censored education will more likely push them into trouble.  To provide a young person with age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual education allows them to make informed choices about their sexual health, and is the key preventative tool against reckless sexual choices, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS.

We need parents to have candid conversations about sexual health with their children, for the same reason that they send their children to school: to ensure that they have the skills to navigate an adult world with dignity, security, and good health.

 

*Not her real name

 

About the Author.