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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

sniffing the tobacco swahili style

An expression of affection that astonishes this Scottish mind. However, I make no moral judgement, because I don't think it's appropriate for me to do so.

It's a great little example from Diane Ackerman's 'A Natural History of Love'. She herself quotes 'In The Customs of the Swahili People' (1903), edited by J. W. T. Allen.

"When his grandmother or his aunt or another woman comes, a child one or two years old is told to show his love for his aunt, and he goes to her. Then she tells him to kiss her, and he does so. Then he is told by his mother to show his aunt his tobacco, and he lifts his clothes and shows her his penis. She tweaks the penis and sniffs and sneezes and says: "O, very strong tobacco." Then she says, "Hide your tobacco." If there are four or five women, they all sniff and are pleased and laugh a lot."

Does it still go on? It would surprise to find such things still going on, but again perhaps that's my western mind imagining these things to appear a little inappropriately sexualised (I'm not saying it is inappropriate, just that by western Christian and even secular morals it might seem that way) and that that influence might have affected the Swahili women in a way that has made them stop doing it.

Personally I think it's harmless, especially when one considers the other taboos Allen describes which show the Swahili being acutely conscious of sexual behaviour. Amongst other things they frown upon fathers and brothers kissing daughters and sisters after a certain age. That social taboo which I think could also be described as an 'emotional regime', and one that seems quite strict in keeping potentially inappropriate feelings restricted, even to the point of inhibiting demonstrations of feeling that we might consider perfectly normal.

One positive thing that may come out of the 'tobacco tweak' (my phrase, forgive me) is that it appears to demonstrate an non-threatening way for women to discuss male genitalia and by extension male sexuality. Having a familiarity with such a thing, especially through humour, can potentially help cut through any mystique surrounding sex and sexuality and empower the women involved. This can help positively influence the emotional regimes revolving around sexuality for heterosexual women.

Consider middle class Victorian women trapped in ignorance of their partners' bodies and the corseted emotions that sprang forth from such repression without any positive channels of social knowledge or emotional script to guide them. Would such a thing have happened if they had had more familiarity with their partners' anatomies?


One assumes the young boys are too young to consider such gentle teasing as emotionally scarring!

2 comments:

Abby Rogers said...

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scot in exile said...

a shameless plug abby! but the photos are lovely and remind me that it's time to post another one here.