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Thomas Lewton

The joy of kunyaza: women’s pleasure comes first in Rwanda

Rwanda
Sexual Politics
Long read

‘Sex is for the woman. This is because the man has to please her and put her body in a certain state. Her pleasure is the most important thing,’ says Felix, a 68-year-old man with a slight frame, sitting in his home in Nyanza, a town in Rwanda’s Southern Province. A painting of Jesus peers down at us. We can hear his wife pottering around outside.

For those familiar with Rwanda’s gender politics, Felix’s words are not surprising. The country is an anomaly in East Africa; in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, Rwanda ranked fifth out of 144 countries, beaten only by Nordic countries. The 1994 genocide, in which the majority killed were men, encouraged President Paul Kagame to put women’s empowerment at the forefront of policy. The country now has more female parliamentarians than any country in the world, one of the highest rates of female labour force participation, and has passed laws granting gender equal land rights and three months paid maternity leave for women.

The practice of kunyaza turns most Western – and African – conceptions of sex and gender politics on their head

But the source of Felix’s seemingly progressive beliefs about women’s sexual pleasure pre-dates Kagame by hundreds of years. Our conversation is not about policy or the post-genocide recovery but kunyaza – a traditional Rwandan sexual practice that puts the country’s gender relations in a different light.

The founding myth of kunyaza comes from Nyanza, although different theories circulate in other countries in the Great Lakes, where the practice exists on a smaller scale. Nyanza was once the capital of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Rwanda; home to the Royal Palace of the monarchy, which is now a museum. For generations, the men in Felix’s family served the kings as dancers and poets. Felix too is a traditional dancer and choreographer, alongside his daily work as a farmer.

‘Sex is for the woman. Her pleasure is the most important thing,’ says Felix, 68. Video by Thomas Lewton

According to a myth passed down from generation to generation, during the third dynasty of the Rwandan monarchy the queen’s husband went away to war. Left unsatisfied by his absence, she instructed one of her royal guards to have sex with her. The guard was nervous, so when he went to obey his order his body trembled against her – his penis shook against her clitoris and labia, rather than penetrating. This made the queen ejaculate for the first time. Upon his return, the queen asked her husband to perform this act on her. The ritualistic practice which helps women achieve kunyaza – crudely known in the West as squirting – was born.

The queen’s myth is revealing and, in many ways, surprising – at least from a Western perspective, where the idea of female ejaculation remains shrouded in mystery. The queen proves herself to have needs which she finds a way of satisfying, demonstrating sexual independence and control over her body. Though this is much more common today, there are still many women around the world who do not have, or do not feel that they have, these freedoms.

Kunyaza is a Rwandan sexual practice centred around the female orgasm. Illustration by Charity Atukunda
Kunyaza is a Rwandan sexual practice centred around the female orgasm. Illustration by Charity Atukunda

The last taboo

The practice of kunyaza turns most Western – and African – conceptions of sex and gender politics on their head.

Tabloid newspapers and radio talk shows in East Africa are full of segments about what makes a ‘good wife’ and the importance of women pleasing men, in and outside the bedroom. And in Western culture, where sex tends to be centred on the pleasure of a man, female ejaculation is taboo. In 2014, the British Board of Film Classification joined Australia in banning female ejaculation in porn, supposedly on the grounds that it also outlawed urolagnia (people urinating on each other for sexual pleasure) and it is difficult to tell the two apart.

Female ejaculation is not a rare phenomenon. A recent UK survey found that almost 40 per cent of the 1,250 women surveyed had ejaculated fluid at the moment of climaxing. Rwandans interviewed for this story said it’s fairly rare to find women who cannot achieve kunyaza – they are called mukagatare, a derogatory name in Kinyarwanda meaning ‘rock-woman’. In Sacred Water (2016), a documentary about the practice, sexologist Vestine Dusabe estimates 80 or 90 percent of Rwandan women ‘have water’. What matters is the man’s ability to make it happen.

Dominance or subjugation?

‘It was expected of me as a man,’ explains Felix, the sound of his cows mooing in the background.

Traditionally, the ability to make a woman ejaculate is a central feature of Rwandan masculinity – which in other ways does not differ from stereotypical toxic norms such as appearing tough, unemotional, demonstrating dominance over women, and fulfilling the role of protector.

‘If a man couldn’t do it, the families would get together and discuss the matter. They would take back the girl and give you back the cow you bought as a dowry, because you are a weak man,’ Felix says.

He then spoke of a wedding night tradition where the woman is expected to resist the advances of the man – in some cases the ensuing struggle would even cause the new wife’s bones to break. ‘It’s the woman’s responsibility to respect the man,’ says Felix, matter-of-factly. ‘The man is the president of the house, he has the last word on anything.’

In one sense, then, kunyaza is not necessarily an emancipatory feminist practice; it can sit comfortably with male control over the woman’s body. Yet, during sex, Rwandan women lie back to enjoy an experience which prioritizes their pleasure – not that of the so-called president of the house. Here lies a tension between the centrality placed on men executing the practice, and the fact that its ultimate aim is the woman’s pleasure. In this push-and-pull between the genders, control slips between the two.

Marie-Josee, 78, has been a potter all her life, a profession typical of her ethnic group – the long-marginalized Batwa people. Despite being visually impaired, she has a permanent twinkle in her eye. At the mention of kunyaza, Marie-Josee’s eyes shine even brighter and she roars with laughter.

‘When I got married and my husband did it for the first time, it was an epiphany,’ says Marie-Josee, 78. Video by Thomas Lewton.

‘When I got married and my husband did it for the first time, it was an epiphany,’ she says, clapping her skin-cracked hands together in delight. ‘He was very good at it, right until the day he died.’

As we sit on some grass up a hill, away from the prying eyes and ears of her fellow villagers, Marie-Josee explains that it depends on the man’s skills. ‘If he’s really good it’s going to look like somebody has been taking a shower. But if it doesn’t happen the woman might go and find some other man. I had friends who did this if their husband didn’t give them water.’

Between city and country

Gogo, a 38-year-old market-seller in Kigali, stands with a friend on a balcony overlooking the daily bustle. ‘Kunyaza is very important because the man likes it,’ she says, explaining how it is important that she maintains the practice to make sure her husband doesn’t go elsewhere.

She goes on to put the onus on the woman to achieve kunyaza: ‘If a man can’t do it then it is the woman’s job to teach him. But if a woman cannot do it then she is dry, which is a problem.’

We’re self-taught, basing sex mostly on what we see in Western porn, and you don’t see much kunyaza there

For Gogo, it was her grandmother who told her about kunyaza: ‘she said that there are two types of men. Those that please the woman, and those that don’t.’ Having older female relatives imparting sexual advice on girls and women before marriage is typical in traditional Rwandan families.

But for wealthier young city types with Wifi and smartphones, there is a new source of sex education: pornography.

‘If you learn about sex by getting drunk with your grandparents, you’re more prone to practice kunyaza,’ says Jean, 26, an engineer who asked for his real name not to be used. ‘In the middle classes no one has time for that. Dad’s working, mum’s working, so you’ve just got TV and the internet. We’re self-taught, basing sex mostly on what we see in Western porn, and you don’t see much kunyaza there,’ he laughs.

Ironically, while gender equal policies backed by the West are reeled out – annual funding from USAID to Rwanda increased from about $48 million to over $128 million between 2004 and 2016 – the overarching influence of Western porn and popular culture, which is so often focused on the needs of men and toxic gender norms, is simultaneously making sex in Rwanda less equal.

Digging into a breakfast burger at a cafe in central Kigali – ‘Sorry, I need to cure my hangover’ – he and his friends even use the term ‘squirting’ (instead of kunyaza or ‘water’) as part of their Americanized English vocabulary. He says that kunyaza doesn’t always fit in with modern city life.

‘Before, people waited for marriage to have sex, and there was the tradition of a girl meeting your aunt to talk about sexuality before the wedding,’ he says, adding that because of this the practice is more common for married couples.

Some practices were discarded because the missionaries thought they were dirty, that it was a sin to the Christian god to keep practicing kunyaza, all because the white men didn’t know about it

‘But nowadays people are more promiscuous. And I’m not going to tell my dad, “Oh I wanna have sex with this girl what should I do,” or whatever. He probably thinks I’m still a virgin,’ Jean grins.

He explains that while he practices kunyaza on his sexual partners and loves it, it’s not a deal breaker – though he knows that if he marries a traditional Rwandan woman it will be expected. He also says that because it is a long, ritualistic practice, he reserves it for women he really likes or is in a longer relationship with, adding that ‘our families are still very conservative so you sneak out to have sex when you’re growing up. It’s got to be a quick thing, outside the club or in a car.’

His friend Manzi, 22, a media student and dancer, tries kunyaza most times he has sex – though he’s not always successful. ‘It is my priority to pleasure the woman, I come after,’ he says.

'I feel like a lion or a king. I feel proud, like I’m in the clouds. I made that happen' - Manzi, 22. Photo by Thomas Lewton
‘I feel like a lion or a king. I feel proud, like I’m in the clouds. I made that happen,’ says Manzi, 22. Photo by Thomas Lewton

‘I enjoy it so much if she releases, the energy she lets off. It’s magical. I feel like a lion or a king. I feel proud, like I’m in the clouds. I made that happen,’ he says, full of youthful energy.

Like his older counterpart Felix, making a woman ejaculate is central to feeling like a man. But it’s not just a case of him doing it to a passive woman who doesn’t mind either way, who just lies there in order to affirm his masculinity: ‘Women expect it. Sometimes they ask you for it. They say please, do it for me. They like it.’

A man in a nearby barber shop agrees, remembering the first time he did the practice: ‘We had sex and she taught me how it’s done, she grabbed my penis and the water came. That woman really impressed me.’

‘We had sex and she taught me how it’s done. That woman really impressed me.’ Men speak in a barbershop, Kigali. Video by Thomas Lewton

‘Western feminism’

Originally from Western Uganda, Simba, 37, is a herbal doctor who lives and works in Kigali. He feels strongly that the Westernization which pervades Rwandan society today has had an impact on sex and gender politics.

‘It goes back to colonial times. In order to control us the white people brought new ideas and new systems to Africans to derail our culture,’ he explains sitting in his office in Nyamirambo, a busy area known for its nightlife, unusually vibrant for quiet Kigali.

‘Some practices were actually discarded because the missionaries thought they were dirty, that it was a sin to the Christian god to keep practicing kunyaza, all because the white men didn’t know about it,’ he argues.

Simba makes it his business to explain ‘the African way of having sex’ to those who come to him, and makes his own herbal medicine which he says gives women more ‘water’. ‘When they come, some don’t even know about the clitoris. That lack of understanding and fear is because of these outside religions,’ he says, anger in his voice.

Yet Simba also believes that gender equality is another Western import. ‘We believe that men are superior,’ he says, looking me straight in the eye. ‘In our culture you must bow down to any man.’

A heady mix of religion, Westernization and prevailing local traditions make up people’s confused attitudes towards gender and sex. Illustration by Charity Atukunda
A heady mix of religion, Westernization and prevailing local traditions make up people’s confused attitudes towards gender and sex. Illustration by Charity Atukunda

Here we have another irony. Political leaders, funders and aid agencies from Europe and the US have supported Kagame’s gender progressive policies in Rwanda, yet this dynamic gives weight to the idea that equality between men and women is ‘un-African’. The country’s perceived gender equality did not emerge from home-grown women’s rights or feminist movements, but from policies influenced by outsiders – and implemented by a leader focused primarily on economic development.

And behind the impressive statistics, some research suggests Kagame’s gender policies have not trickled down, or translated from the workplace to home. Justine Uvuza, who worked for the Department of Gender after the genocide, wrote a PhD in 2014 based on confidential interviews with Rwanda’s female politicians. She argues that despite their public power, in the home these high flying women are still expected to fulfill traditional roles such as housework and childcare. Women may have more rights, but old fashioned ideas about femininity and masculinity continue to be upheld.

Post-genocide Rwanda is a country in flux, and a heady mix of religion, Westernization and prevailing local traditions make up people’s confused attitudes towards gender and sex. It could be argued that kunyaza is inherently a feminist practice – but while it operates under the patriarchy the reality is not so clear cut.

Old habits

At the top of a mountain in a remote part of Gakenke, Northern Province, this complex web of political and cultural influences haven’t had such an impact on the people who call this isolated paradise home. Or perhaps farmers Tharcisse and Tatinne, both 83, are just two of a kind.

‘Kunyaza is for the man and for the woman, because there is synchronization,’says Tharcisse, 83. Photo by Thomas Lewton
‘Kunyaza is for the man and for the woman, because there is synchronization,’ says Tharcisse, 83. Photo by Thomas Lewton

‘Kunyaza is for the man and for the woman, because there is synchronization,’ Tharcisse explains, in his faint voice, sat on a rock overlooking rolling green hills.

‘This is important in a relationship. It’s not about you ordering the other person what to do or using force or abusing a woman. I saw that when I was growing up but it doesn’t happen anymore. Those are very old mentalities. If you want to move and progress you have to build together.’

Tatinne agrees: ‘For example, weeding our land. We have sit together and decide together how we will do that.’

When I’ve finished the interview, Eric, our cheeky fixer, asks the peaceful old couple one final question. Tharcisse smiles.

‘We don’t do it anymore because we are not able,’ he says. ‘But we still cuddle.’

This story is part of Big Men, a European Journalism Centre project telling stories about men, masculinity and gender equality in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

Text by Alice McCool. Illustration by Charity Atukunda. Photo and video by Thomas Lewton.

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