Piko in Paje – ancient Swahili lady lessons on pleasure and pain

by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein on February 17, 2011

“Siri ya mtungi aijuae kata.”

The secret of the water pitcher is only known by its ladle.

— Swahili proverb

Where did you learn about sex ? I mean, not just about sex, but about pleasure? My sex education happened haphazardly in hotel lobbies during Bar Mitzvah time-outs, when we’d lounge on couches after sweaty dancing to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” There I heard secrets about the funky stuff people do with each other, but as a prude, nerdy thirteen-year-old, I was still so far from getting it on with anyone. And as for learning how to “please” anyone, our hotel-lobby sex talk never got that far.

It’s taken me a year in Zanzibar to realize that Swahili women, for centuries, have been schooled on the ways of sex and pleasure through formal sex mentorship between women. When a girl gets her period and/or right before her wedding, she either seeks out or is assigned a somo, an older woman who teaches her everything about sex, the body, and pleasure. She also learns about hygiene and beauty, cooking and cleaning, sensual massage & sexual health, orgasmic pleasure & mutual desire.

A young woman is taken to the home of her somo for seven days of these incense-infused lady lessons. Apparently the role of the somo was once assigned to an enslaved woman whose job was to teach her master’s children. Today, it’s a woman-to-woman thing, revealing siri za mambo ya ndani — private inner secrets — to one another behind closed doors.

Sometimes, the somo decides to provide an ultimate sex education by escorting her student to an unyago, a ritual erotic drumming and dancing ceremony performed in the company of other young women sequestered off in a secret spot.  A highly secretive practice, the dance is a series of sensual gestures and simulated sex acts, all in close relationship to the rhythm of ngoma, the drum. The ceremony lasts at least a full day up to three months. Legendary Queen of Taarab, Bi Kidude, is most famous for this kind of music, and I started learning more about unaygo through a growing love for her ancient, bellowing voice.

Why did it take me so long to hear about this secret sex school underground ? It might be because unyago is the one of the only traditionally African practices still alive on a predominantly Muslim island, and needless to say, some do not approve of its highly sexualized content. One friend tells me that unyago is dying because young women dismiss it as “old-school” and irrelevant. Still, there’s a whole spectrum of lessons on being a real woman that are fully embraced and get woven into the daily life of Zanzibari women, one of them being the fine art of henna & piko.

I’m a big fan of henna & piko designs, especially the bibi harusi (bridal) style, which resembles hand-painted, intricate black lace with orange accents on your feet, legs, hands, and arms. If you’re really getting married, I’ve heard they even paint your inner thighs, back, or chest. The whole idea is to feel sexy and attractive. Henna’s that natural paint made from crushed leaves & oils and the history of henna is ancient. Piko is actually Chinese black-hair dye powder mixed with water, a newer phenomenon, a bit toxic, but still a favourite look in Zanzibar. I’m sometimes prone to acidic burns on my legs from piko, but I love the dark black inky look, and bear the pain.

A few weekends ago, I headed to Paje, a small village on the eastern coast, to visit the henna painter Mshauri (meaning, “one who advises”). When I asked around to find the best painter in Paje, all fingers pointed to Mshauri’s house. That day, our two-hour appointment turned into an all-day lady jam. I was warmly welcomed and invited to eat delicious coconut-stewed Swahili food cooked by her sassy daughter Taulat, who loves worshiping Filipino soap opera stars and wearing sunglasses.

After lunch, Mshauri took me into her bedroom and dumped out a bag of sexy shangaa (“belly beads”) worn by Swahili women at the hips to allure men in bed. Mshauri makes these beads when she’s not painting piko and henna for new brides. I’m told there are three kinds of erotic shangaa: 1) red, to signify a woman has her period, 2) white, meaning all fresh & clean, ready to go, and 3) multi-coloured, to add spice and enticement to jump start a low-libido.

After selecting some new shangaa, we finally got started on the piko & henna, which took forever to paint, and then another round of forever to dry. We started at three o’clock and didn’t finish until nine, when the sky was pitch black and bats started flying and screeching in circles. The whole afternoon, women and their babies causally strolled past the open door, curious to see what was going on inside. A few came into the house and chilled with us on the floor-mat while I was being painted.

At times, sitting still became excruciating. The higher up Mshauri painted on my arms and legs, the more impatient I grew, and realized that beautifying one’s self is full time work, a labour of love, in the hopes of being loved, and beautiful. The “bride” is held captive by the painter, totally at her mercy to make her attractive to the man who will be her husband.

To pass the time, I was Taulat’s live doll. She combed my hair a hundred ways, directed photo sessions, dressed me up like a Swahili woman with a properly tucked-in head scarf, taught me booty shaking moves (Nenda chini! Nenda chini! Get down! Get Down!), and in general got deliriously silly as the night wore on, strutting her stuff wearing borrowed sunglasses.

Okay, I’m not saying my day at Mshauri’s house was anything near what unyago ceremonies must be like, but it was an all-out lady festival — the energy, dizzyingly vibrant. I love knowing that women who appear completely reserved in public bloom bombastically behind closed-doors.

That night, while wrapping my freshly painted legs and arms in kanga cloth so that I could sleep without staining the sheets, I was grateful for the full embrace of my Swahili women friends. Though I don’t have an official somo here, I’m learning everyday to savour the pleasures of mafuta ya nazi and henna, piko and oudi, vibrant kanga and shangaa, the echoes of Def Leppard’s pour some sugar on me blaring faintly now in the background of my sexual consciousness.

Like any good student, I’m learning through practice.

Piko & Henna Designs by Mshauri, Paje

Piko Design Details by Mshauri

Posey February 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Thoroughly enjoyed the article. All of it! Mshauri’s art, intricately interwoven. Thank you for sharing.

Amanda February 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Thanks for reading! I will let Mshauri know her incredible talent was appreciated. She’s a brilliant artist, happy to share. All the best!

khadijah June 23, 2015 at 2:35 am

i love swahili life

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