Sex in This City

Sex in This City,” New York Times, 26 June 2012. 

Kenya’s policies on sexual health aren’t keeping up with changing mores.

NAIROBI — Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital barely sleeps. Not only are most workers up before the sun, for many young men and women, the predawn hour is when the real fun starts.

Then, Nairobi’s youth spill out of clubs and bars, and head for their chips funga — a slangy way of describing French fries to go. In Kiswahili, funga means “to be covered,” a reference to the way any late night greasy spoon will bundle your potatoes in tinfoil or a paper bag for takeaway. But among the young and hungry, chips funga has become a euphemism for taking a paramour home from the club.

The term works as a noun (“chips” or “chipo”), verb (“to chip”) adjective (“chipsed”) or past participle (“chipoed”). In many ways it’s the antidote to funga ndao — meaning to marry, or “tie the knot.” Chips Funga is now also the name of a Web site for online dating in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Kenyan youth, who love wordplay, have come up with variations. A “corporate funga”: a tryst during the week; a “regular funga”: a more consistent companion; a “sausage funga”: a man who is taken home by a woman.

To me, sausage funga reveals a new culture of female empowerment. Too bad the policies and programs related to sexual health in Africa are not improving fast enough to keep pace with sexual mores.

Upwardly mobile, working and educated women in Kenya are taking ownership over casual sex. In a post titled “You’re Really Terrible in Bed. Honestly!” a female Kenyan blogger explains:

“It’s an unwritten rule that a sausage funga should not by any chance sleep over, request for a toothbrush, insist on using one of your towels, stay long enough to even open up the fridge and make you breakfast that was not asked for, ask for your number or take you out for lunch etc. This is just a NO-go zone.”

This is a forward-leaning statement. It implies financial independence, a level playing field for female opinions and even a right to satisfaction.

Unfortunately, this sassy stance is unusual. In Kenya and in Africa generally, women are rarely so well off or so well regarded as to run the show. Most African women have very little control over how and when they have sex, and consequently, when they bear children — or if they contract HIV/AIDS.

Just 46 percent of women in Kenya use contraception, and the figure dips dramatically outside of urban centers. Those who want contraception often can’t get it due to high prices or shortages. Sporadic sexual activity — fungas — actually reduces the likelihood of proper use. And women who rely on hormonal birth control are more likely to be casual about condom use.

Given Kenya’s rates of sexually transmitted disease — about 1.5 million people there are living with HIV — the funga culture is a dangerous form of empowerment.

On July 11, the Gates Foundation and the British government are convening a massive summit on family planning. It’ll mark a useful turnabout. In part at their behest, for a while much of the funding for health in Kenya has been spent on preventing malaria and HIV rather than improving access to contraception. And it’s rare to see a “talk to your partner” practicum or even a male-focused outreach campaign.

Thus it was encouraging to hear, last week, Kenyan popular radio specifically debating contraceptive methods and the role men can play in safe sexual practices. A recent national study concluded that urban Kenyan men are willing to talk with women about protection — even if few of them bring up the topic themselves.

In addition to joking about takeaway food, young Kenyans could explore another kind of sausage funga: insisting that sex itself take place “covered up.”

Dayo Olopade

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