by Fiske Serah Nyirongo (she/her) Edited by Janine Samuels (she/her)
Image by Shingi Rice
*Editor’s note: this piece contains content dealing with sexual assault and violence
My body was never mine when I was younger. It existed in two extremes. The first memory I have of being sexualised was when I was 7 years old. The first lesson I had about “preserving my virtue” came shortly after. I was a chubby little girl who loved to climb trees and play with little boys but as soon as men old enough to be my grandfather took notice of my body, the women in my family put an end to my childhood adventures. “Boys and men are not your friends,” was drummed over and over in my head. In the next breath, they told me I needed to save myself for a husband, a husband from the same boys who they told me would corrupt me.
My sexuality occupied these two places: I had to protect it from men while preserving it for a man who would one day show up to make me whole. The subtext in the advice I received from older female relatives was that no ‘nice man’ would want me if I had prior sexual encounters. So when the first sexual encounter I had was against my will, I hid it from my family. I was terrified of disappointing them. I was scared they would call me damaged goods. I was scared that they would tell me it was because of what I did or did not do. I was scared that they would blame my body that hardly felt like mine.
I had always rebelled in subtle ways, as a teenager. I wore lipstick, tight jeans or anything my family disapproved of because it made me feel different. I hated being controlled. I felt disgusted whenever someone suggested that my sole reason for existing was to be a mother and wife one day. My skin crawled whenever people made comments about my body's attractiveness. They wanted me to be a wife to the same group of people they told me not to trust. This contradiction helped to shape my sexuality.
After my first consensual sexual encounter, I did not feel guilty but I felt unsatisfied. Sex had been romanticised for me. It was something sacred, something that should only be shared between a husband and wife. It was brief, disappointing, and it did not have any effect on how I viewed myself after. I felt cheated and also guilty when I thought about it. Maybe my family was right, maybe sex was something that only felt meaningful in a marriage? Another part of me cynically thought that sex with most men was so unimpressive that my family wanted me to experience it only when I couldn’t easily walk away from a man who was bad at it. I did not see how people could go on and on about sex when it was so basic at that time.
My thoughts about sex and sexuality followed me to high school. I attended my first all-girls school in high school. This school taught me about myself more than any other place has. I had my first real connection with someone in high school. They were not creeped out by my obvious crush on them. It was the first time I realized that sexuality, my sexuality couldn’t be contained under one label. I was sixteen, a little jaded about boys. Girls were an area I felt sure and also unsure about. I understood teen girls because I was a teen girl but I also had never been with someone so emotionally available and so present even after sex had been had. There was no nonchalant behaviour here. We treated each other with kindness and a gentleness that kids at that age are thought to not possess. There was no rush and possessiveness that punctuated my interactions with boys.
We felt deeply, maybe because we live in a country that has all but put a target on queer people. I discovered and felt safe in my sexuality in this place. My body felt like mine, my body was full of wonder and pleasure for the first time. This was the most accepting space I occupied in my world. Of course, we gave it labels, “a phase”, scared to experiment with boys for fear of getting pregnant so sticking with safe options, curiosity, and any other thing that took out any real meaning of what it is we were feeling and doing.
We, the queer kids I knew about, had a silent pact about never talking about what happened at school out there. We spoke freely about what happened at school within school grounds but we were not to speak about a word of it out there. I recently read a line in The First Woman, a novel by Ugandan writer Jennifer Makumbi Nansubuga, the line implied that teenage girls in a boarding school ‘practised sexual acts on each other' to learn how to please their future husbands and male partners. That was the thought process that went into my head when I was discovering my sexuality.
Even if those two sexual encounters, between me and a boy, and between me and a girl felt so different from each other. I was avoiding the simple truth. I was queer. Despite my upbringing, I was attracted to boys and girls. It was freeing when I told my best friend about my sexuality but I did not come to terms with it outside the bounds of my school until I was well past high school. It came through tiny realisations and big moments. It came from reading and seeing Africans who were queer. The tiny moments came from my interactions with other queer people, they made me see that part of me as normal because they existed. I learnt about autonomy, pleasure and critical life lessons from queer people and women. They continue to provide me with countless lessons through books and other art they recommend. Sex is not something that is done to me, it is something I am a part of whenever I choose to. My body is not a sin, my sexuality and expression are vast. Pleasure for me happens when I feel safe in my body and/or in another's presence. I have full body autonomy and I do not own other people's bodies.
Knowing that my body is my own came from discovering my sexuality. It also made me respect other people’s bodily autonomy. In embracing all of me, I opened a gateway to unlimited pleasure. My body is alive, it seeks pleasure and there is nothing wrong about that. I am not preserving any parts of me for a hypothetical future. I get to experience all of me for me.
What feels pleasurable for me should not come at the expense of another's safety. I am a lover of verbal and non-verbal communication during sex. What feels pleasurable for me might not be for the other, and it's my responsibility to not chase pleasure in this direction. For this reason, I feel comfortable to be in a well-lit room when having sex, especially for the first time with someone. It made me feel weird when I was younger but I now accept it as part of me.
There is something sacred about being present in your own body, especially when sharing it with another. I came to this place and presence, through hard fault internal battles with myself. I was raised to be a wife and mother, my body was going to be for others, never my own. Black feminists saved me, they gave language to my upbringing. Feminist literature showed me a different way of being, it brought me back to myself. I am enjoying every part of me for me. My sexuality is not complicated in all its expressions. It is simple and for the first time in my life, I feel whole and free.
Fiske Nyirongo (she/her) is a Zambian author based in Lusaka, Zambia. Her fiction work appears in online spaces such as Brittlepaper (The Go the Way Your Blood Beats anthology), The Writers Space Africa 2019 magazine Love issue and Unbound magazine. Her first children's title was published in Cricket Magazine's Holiday-themed issue in 2019. She co-created a children’s book for the 2019 South African Book Dash marathon held in Johannesburg. Her fantasy novella, Finding Love in Betrayal, was published by Love Africa Press in 2019. Her short story, Pain by Any Other Name, was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba Short Story Prize. She is a graduate of the 2019 Afro Young Adult Workshop held in Johannesburg by the Goethe Institut and facilitated by Mohale Mashigo. Her short story, Aftermath, was published in the Myaambo Zambian anthology in 2020.
Some of her nonfiction work appears in the following publications: The Kalahari Review, LAPP Magazine UK, Meeting of Minds UK, Urban Ivy Chicago, The Kitchen Witch Newsletter, Boldly Mental, Nikki Darling Australia, Our House LA and Pink Boot Magazine. She was a 2020 PenPen African Writers Resident.