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Women's initiation in Zambia: learning the art of dancing in bed

 INSP 05 January 2019

In the Zambian tradition of 'chinamwali', older women instruct the younger how to cook, clean and, intriguingly, how to have sex. Justine Sibomana was allowed to attend one of these private ceremonies, and found that watching was not an option. (1672 Words) - By Justine Sibomana and Jorrit Meulenbeek

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The ladies who sing and drum the songs that are used to teach different sexual dance moves. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the married women showing of her skills while others watch and learn. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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The ladies who sing and drum the songs that are used to teach different sexual dance moves. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the older ladies assisting her student tie a 'chitenge' around her waist, a prerequisite for doing the dance moves. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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Two matrons, recently married ladies who have already completed their training, showing one of the students (left) how it is done. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the matrons showing one of the students (left) a dance move. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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A girl dancing, shaking her waist to the beat of the drums. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the girls practising an exercise whereby she has to move down into a kneeling position as slowly as possible, a form of showing respect to the husband. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the older women giving a demonstration of one of the dance moves. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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Ladies teaching each other how to position their hands. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the girls practising an exercise whereby she has to move down into a kneeling position as slowly as possible, a form of showing respect to the husband. Photo: Justine Sibomana

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One of the older ladies demonstrating exercise whereby the woman has to move down into a kneeling position as slowly as possible, a form of showing respect to the husband. Photo: Justine Sibomana


Staying in Chawama, a compound outside Zambia's capital Lusaka, I spent many an evening chatting to the local women as they sat outside and cooked on their charcoal braziers. It intrigued me how a lot of the gossip would come back to one topic: the importance of 'chinamwali', the traditional initiation training most Zambian women go through before they get married.

From the way things sounded, this is the key to a successful marriage, but during our chats the women never quite revealed what is actually taught during these mysterious ceremonies. Of course I grew more and more curious, and when I finally got the opportunity to attend one, I did not have to think twice.

After paying the entrance fee of 2000 Zambian Kwacha, less than half a dollar, I walked into the small dark living room. It had just one window and the furniture had been shifted to the side. It was cramped with women of different ages, from old senior teachers to the recently married matrons, and of course a handful of fellow students.

In the corner two ladies were seated, holding large drums. The door was closed behind me, and while I was still trying to gauge the atmosphere, the ladies started undressing, some just pulling up their shirts to reveal their bellies, while others remained with only their underwear and a 'chitenge' wrapped around their waist.

Without any further introduction, the drums started beating and the women burst out in song. The drum beats were so intense and loud that I could physically feel them, as the ladies all started shaking to the rhythm in sync, instructing us to copy them.

Most of the dance moves were clearly sexual movements. Every few minutes the song and the beat changed, introducing a new move. I could not understand the song lyrics, all in chiNyanja, so I was left to guess how some of the motions would actually come in handy in practice. Most moves were imitating sexual positions, while others were dances to arouse your husband or exercises to become more flexible.

As I watched the more experienced ladies dance, tilting their waste independently of the rest of their bodies, I really did not think my body was capable of doing such. But as I struggled to imitate, the old ladies would come to stand behind me, holding my thighs to make sure only my waist would be free to move.

"No, no, you're doing a Shakira", they said when I would still be shaking too many other parts. When I finally managed to get it right, they clapped and cheered with excitement.

Bridget Banda, who went through this training before she got married three years ago, looks back on it as a very positive experience. "I have grown because of it. I see more maturity in myself. Now, when I see women who did not go through it, I think I am much better off."

She feels most Zambian men want a woman who is initiated. "Did you not go through training?", is a commonly heard remark from men scolding their wife. In some cases disappointed husbands even end up sending their wives back to be taught more, one of the worst thinkable embarrassments for the family.

"Most men know what to expect of a woman before they get married", Banda explains. "So when their wife does not live up to that, they end up having affairs."

That is one of the main risks of not going through initiation, says Florence Mutambo, one of the experienced 'banacimbusa' who are teaching me. "If you do not know how to please you husband in bed, he might just end up going to a prostitute", she puts it plainly. "Those people are professionals at these things, so he will be much better off there."

I must admit, the first minutes of this quite explicit training were pretty awkward. Some of my fellow students and teachers would really get into it, almost as if they were actually in the act. But when I looked around, everybody else seemed quite comfortable with it. Shy and reserved as Zambian ladies may be about these issues in public, inside this room the atmosphere was amazingly free and open.

"I am going to try this with my husband tonight", one lady said. "My husband never likes it when I do this", complained another, after which one of the old ladies would give some more tips and tricks on how to do it better.

They just went on and on. I could not believe these old ladies, who must have been somewhere in their fifties or sixties, managed to keep this up for so long, while I already struggled after some minutes. "Will you just stop like that and tell your husband you're tired?", they questioned when I could hardly hide my exhaustion.

As I struggled to walk home, with my muscles aching after more than three hours of non-stop heavy exercise, I looked around and saw Zambian women in a new light. I suddenly had so much more appreciation for them, being able to go through this. And this was only after one day of a more than two week programme. The next day I learned even more moves and skills, like how to shave my husband 'down there'.

After making sure the door was shut, there was nobody peeking through the window, and stressing "this is only for the bedroom, this is only for your husband", one of the matrons started giving a detailed demonstration of how all the moves we had learned are used in context. Holding her imaginary husband in every imaginable position, she went on for more than fifteen minutes, while the other women clapped and threw money at her in appreciation.

The way lovemaking was turned into a series of dance moves made it more abstract and fascinating to watch. It was nothing like a porn movie, but more like being in a theatre and watching a fine art performance. I could only admire these women, who have almost perfected this skill.

Before I came here, I would not have believed it was possible for women of different generations to freely share such intimate knowledge on this level. It really functions as a social and educational platform, and the way we bonded made it into a great experience. Looking back, even though my leg muscles tell a different story, I would never want to have missed this.

Sidebar - Backward practice or shining example?

Traditional counsellor Florene Mutambo agrees the tradition of 'chinamwali' teaches women to be submissive to their husbands, but sees nothing wrong with that. "They should be like that, it is how things are supposed to be."

From a Western perspective it may be tempting to think of traditional women's initiations as a backward practice and see a link with the country's gender equality situation.

Nelson Banda of the Zambian National Women's Lobby says Zambia still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality and women's participation, pointing out there are currently only 24 women in a parliament of 158 and there are very few women in other leadership positions.

Banda feels there is an imbalance between women and men because of initiation. "Girls go into the marriage very well prepared, but men are not taught how to please their wives, that's the sad part."

Though blaming gender equality issues on initiation traditions alone would be taking it too far, says Iriss Phiri, founder of the National Traditional Counsellors Association. "Initiation is just one component, and I do not think it plays a major part", she says. "Girls grow up seeing women in submissive roles from a very young age, it is not just what they learn during a few weeks of training."

Instead she feels that this type of counselling, if done in the right way, can have a positive impact on gender equality. That is why her organisation, now counting over two thousand counsellors countrywide, promotes the traditional way of pre-marriage counselling, but with a modern twist.

"We teach them both, women and men together", she says. This adapted form aims to sensitise men to women's rights.

She does admit that the traditional way of initiation has contributed to the problem of gender violence. According to the latest Zambia Demographic Health Study, 61 per cent of Zambian women feel it is acceptable for their husband to beat them when they deny him sex.

"Some of our culture was bad", says Phiri. "But teaching women, and men, is very good, we just have to choose the right things to teach."

Thera Rasing, a Dutch researcher who heads the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Zambia, feels that nowadays traditional teachings are often misinterpreted, distorted by modern views. She says women are indeed taught a certain subservience, but much more than this they learn how to handle their husband in a clever way.

They are taught how to avoid conflicts and to negotiate with him to get what they want, leaving him to think he is in charge. So if done in the right way, it actually gives women more power. As one initiation teacher put it, a husband is a bit like a baby. "Just as parents know how to handle their child, a wife should know how to mother her husband."

Traditional counsellor Mutambo wishes all women around the world would have access to training like this. Iriss Phiri, sounding almost surprised upon hearing there is no such thing in most Western countries, totally agrees. "If people are interested, they should come here, or invite us to come. We will be happy to train them, so they in turn can teach others."

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