Of Braids, IUDs and Cunnilingus (Part I)

They lowered their voices conspiratorally. The questions came out rapidly in succession and the air in the small kibanda expanded with the curiosity of a million pairs of eyes trained on me. They were braiding my hair and I reached out and traced out with my fingers, on the mirror propped up on the shelf in front of me, the female reproductive system. Well, as well as I could manage with no pencil, paper, chalk or accompanying board. And my public health training kicked in.

“Is it true that if someone has a big one, they can puncture your ‘coil’?”

The term ‘coil’ in Kenya refers to the copper implant for contraceptive use.

They, the ladies, all leaned in to hear my answer.

I don’t know how we got here.

I am seated in a small plastic white chair that cups my butt warmly and has raised arms on which I place my own arms. Around my shoulders is draped a leso to protect my shirt from stray hairs falling all over. Around me, around this chair, are three ladies; one confesses later that she just ‘cleared 4th’, meaning she just finished her high school studies last year (so maybe 18 years old), another says she has a kid in Standard 8 (13 year old) and a 3 year old, and the last one is very quiet and does not give up much about herself. Her top row of teeth are stained brown and her body has that soft curvature that implies she has lived. I guess her age to be late-30’s. The three ladies are working on my hair, inspired by the picture of Fulani braids worn by Taraji P. Henson at some award ceremony that I have displayed in a screenshot on my cell phone. They are braiding, separating the Xpression braiding hair and talking kiKao amongst themselves and then intermittently asking me questions in Swahili and in English.

“Which is the best one to use so you don’t get pregnant?”

That question comes at me three times, posed by other ladies who crowd into the kibanda to finish the three-strand braids on my head. Finish because the first lady (with the two kids) started off the cornrows in the front and the other ladies started off the individual braids in the back and left them hanging, waiting to be finished.

“When you use the coil, you can only have one guy…because they measure him and then they put it kulingana na vile ako…”

Based on his penis size.

I also get statements. The statements are almost whispered and the eyes all glance at me to see whether I will cosign or whether I will debunk the stories they have been told. I poo-poo’d that one immediately. I told them there is no contraceptive that is tailored to the size of a man’s penis. However, I encouraged them to make sure even if they have a contraceptive inserted to make sure they get tested regularly. And to have their partners tested. They responded that when you ask your husband to get tested, the men start accusing them (the ladies) of having mpango wa kando (another sex partner).

I used my crude drawing to show them how contraceptives work, or rather, how the female reproductive system looks and how contraceptives work. This is where the IUD is placed and this is where the strings hang. And this is your cervix. And no, no penis will puncture your coil or break your fallopian tubes. Your coil can get dislodged due to a number of factors but the most important thing is to always get it checked. Know your body too so that if there are any changes, you are so attuned that you pick up on it right away.

“What causes cancer?”

There seemed to be this thought that having many sexual partners may cause cervical cancer. I talked to them about genetic disposition, environmental factors, and what scientists think may cause different cancers. I told them to check their boobs regularly and I showed them where the breast tissue starts and ends and how to use their fingers to check for lumps, how to look out for puckered skin on their breasts or any abnormality that includes discoloration, discharge or nipple troubles. I wished the Every Woman Counts program could be made available here.

“…she used the get the injection a lot…and now the blood comes in clumps…what can she drink to clean her blood?”

There is obviously a lot of misinformation floating around this kibanda especially when it comes to contraceptives. When one lady pipes up, the others chime in with some looking at me for corroboration. The only thing I corroborate is when one lady says that post-delivery bleeding is normal and usually will go away after some time.

Two of them talk about how when one stops getting the injection, one has to drink certain things to get the chemicals or injection contents out of your system. The analogy I choose to use is that of a phone charger. They nod in understanding as I explain to them how injectables work.

We talk about oral sex and STIs, we talk about female orgasms and how women don’t expect to enjoy sex and we laugh as we joke about the sexual performance of some men based on their tribes. I tell them to learn what works for them, for their bodies and not be afraid to claim their pleasure and not leave that up to the men.

“Is it true that certain positions make it so you can have a specific gender baby?”

“I heard not spacing your kids makes it so you get the same gender over and over again”

We talk about cunnilingus and one lady twists her face and says she would never let her man travel south. I ask if the ladies have ever sat in front of a mirror and looked at their private parts. Surprisingly, almost all of them say they have. I ask them if they know what a clitoris is. Surprisingly, almost all say they know what it is. They look down and giggle when I talk about oral pleasure for a woman and what it means. They are shy, of course, and I have to remember that I am a stranger to them. I assure them that I am not a sex expert BUT I encourage them to find the courage to voice what they want in bed to their partners. I encourage them to ask a man to get tested together before a sexual engagement and if he refuses, then leave him alone. And most of all, to remember that they are the ones who should look out for themselves.

“What about herbal remedies for family planning?”

That is the one question that I answered with a series of questions:

Me: “What is in that herbal remedy?”

Them: {silence}

Me: “It’s a pill? Who makes it and what’s in it?”

Them: We do not know. We just swallow it. We pay 150/- (~$1.50) for it and we take it and it prevents you from getting pregnant.

Me: “Who says?”

This conversation today with these amazingly funny and strong women opened my eyes. We laughed together, cracked jokes, exchanged knowledge (I picked up some lessons too) and I doled out the most public health lessons since I was in that Ethiopian village.

We talked about kegel exercises, birth stories, cesarian section scars and VBAC considerations.

“…you can only have 4 kids by c-section…the doctors told me”

In this space, there seems to be a strong demand for clear information or, at the very least, a space where women can ask these questions without shame, guilt or finger-pointing.

They called me Mwalimu as I was leaving. Their smiles escorted me home. Their questions stayed on my mind.

 

 

 

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