It’s 11pm on a Friday night in Nairobi. 16 women, aged between 25 and 36, sit in a soft-lit room in a hotel in Westlands. Most of them are visibly inebriated.
Three well-built young men wearing only thongs dance to music that is barely audible over the cheers of the women. The women paw at their naked bodies. Every so often, an impressed woman will tuck in a note in one of the men’s thongs.
No, this is not a strip joint; it is a hen party being hosted for a woman who is set to walk down the aisle in a week’s time. Under ordinary circumstances, a hen party is an opportunity for the bride to learn about the intricacies of marriage from women who
have been there. But not this one. Tonight, sex toys and lingerie litter the room, evidence of the discussion that the woman were having earlier in the night.
Because of the assumption that Kenya is a conservative country, one might imagine that this bridal shower is the exception. It isn’t.
This exact scene, according to Nairobi-based sexologist Maurice Matheka, is replicated in at least six out of 10 hen parties happening in urban Kenya today.
Also known as the bachelorette party, the hen party isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. It is a rite of passage that has been in existence for centuries.
About a century ago, Kenyans spoke openly about sex. While pre-marital sex was taboo in some places, sexual issues were openly tackled. The traditional version of a hen party involved various forms of sex education for a young woman of marriageable age. This would last anything from a few weeks to months or even years.
Each tribe had their way of doing this: As part of their initiation, Kikuyu women went through a ceremony known as gwiko where both boys and girls were trained on how to control their sexual urges.
This sense of delayed gratification became the basis not just for their marital interactions, but also in the wealth acquisition process. After circumcision, Kalenjin girls had to live in a secluded hut for a period of two years where they were fed nutritious foods
and taught on the art of being good mothers and wives. Amongst the Giriama, once a girl was considered ripe for marriage, she was taken in by a paternal aunt known as somo and taught the art of seduction, cooking and everything in between.
Then came Christianity. By the early 1940s, and under missionary guidance, sex had become a taboo topic. This created a vacuum of information that could only be filled by peers. A need to fill this vacuum brought about the bridal showers of the 80s and
90s that addressed the marriage institution from a Christian point of view. Bridal showers were tame affairs, very much like what Faith Muriithi, the founder of Famu Bridal Showers, hosts. Faith bases her instructions on Bible verses culled from the book of
Proverbs, chapter 31.
“I emphasise the fact that our bodies are temples of God, and I discourage women from bringing various ungodly altars into their marriages, like sex toys,” she says.
PRESENT-DAY SEX AUNTS
Things seem to have changed in the past decade or so. Perhaps because of the pressing need to talk candidly about sex and marriage, the bridal shower industry has seen the emergence of the present-day sex ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’.
This is a person who considers herself a sexologist (whether by training or self-labelling), and is paid to speak at the hen parties. Each can earn anything between Sh20,000 to Sh100,000 per session depending on the topics covered, and whether there are any
demonstrations. Interestingly, these sex instructors do not always have the experience of being married.
Maurice Matheka, a Nairobi-based sexologist with over 15 years’ experience, equates today’s hen party to a crash course on everything woman. Because there isn’t time to learn all the cooking and beadmaking lessons that took women weeks to learn in the
past, women exchange cookbooks other forms of self-help books at hen parties.
Also, focus has shifted from learning ways to please future husbands, to finding ways to be fulfiled women. “When I talk at hen parties, I teach women about themselves – how to relate with their own kind. I get them to understand their own sexuality,” Matheka says.
Then there is the contemporary sex aunt who still takes the traditional approach to the topic of marriage and sex. Still, her teaching isn’t focused on how to be a good wife but on how a woman can love herself. “You can’t share from an empty cup,” says
Christine Muhati, a Mombasa based senga (female sex educator).
Christine hosts traditional themed hen parties, but you won’t find strippers or alcohol at her events. She reckons that women can only love their partners and children if they love themselves first, so she teaches them this. Her sex talks revolve around how a
woman can ensure that she is fulfilled sexually, and how she should alter her diet to ensure a high libido.
QUEST FOR EQUALITY?
The stag party, which is the male version of the hen party, is traditionally assumed to be a raunchy affair. Seeing as this is a man’s ‘last night of freedom’, the strippers, prostitutes and copious alcohol consumption are assumed to be par for the course. Are modern women trying to catch up with their future husbands?
Peter Kuriah, the co-founder of Rare Bliss, a Nairobi-based events planning company that also covers hen parties, agrees with this theory.
“A decade ago, a hen party was just a group of women getting together, each with a role to play to make the party successful. Now though, they can pay for all of it so it is just about having a good time and having someone else serve them. They can pay for strippers and even pole dancing lessons,” he says.
Vickie Mua who has attended three hen parties including her own, says the modern hen party is an eye-opening experience.
“Women openly shared their sexual experiences, secrets and preferences,” she says. She took home quite a bit in regard to personal sexual fulfilment, feminine hygiene, nutrition, empowerment and personal financial management and investment away from
the marriage. However, she reckons that teaching women to stash money away from their husbands is not a very positive thing to do. “It means that you are going into marriage with the expectation that it will fail,” she says.
“Women are being taught not to be fully invested in their marriages.”
Doris, a 33-year-old auditor with a regional firm, is not a great supporter of hen parties. She is still reeling from one she attended in December. “There was a lot of alcohol, and the women came with lingerie and sex toys to gift the bride-to-be. But what got
to me was the male strippers: There were four of them. Things escalated very fast. I saw married women, some of whom I had a lot of respect for, making out with strippers. The whole thing just seemed to bring out the worst in them.
After seeing that, I can’t look at them the same,” she says.
The whole concept of the bridal shower, she shares, isn’t inherently bad. But she feels that the tone of todays’ hen party needs to be taken down a few notches. “If you do not pay attention to the people that are on the guest list, you could end up ruining
friendships or even the imminent marriage,” she says.
Maurice Matheka, the sexologist, agrees that (especially) when there is alcohol involved, things can sometimes go overboard. He, however, disagrees that the women who attend hen parties are to blame for it.
“Strippers are supposed to be a form of entertainment for the night, and there is nothing wrong with that. Things get out of hand because of the society’s attitude towards the woman’s sexuality. If she was allowed to express her sexuality in marriage, and to live as opposed to just existing, then she wouldn’t be overly-excited by a stripper,” he argues.
How a Kenyan woman is prepared for marriage in Kenya has clearly changed over the years. Or has it just gone back to the way it used to be? You be the judge.