Growing Up Sexually





Index AfricaNigeria Kanuri


Featured: Badjju, Nupe, Hausa, Kadara, Kagoro, Efik, Tiv, Kanuri, Ijaw/ Ijo, Bini, Marghi, Jekri, Lala, Kofjar, Ibibio, Woodabe Fulani, Borroro Fulani, Ibo[ Afikpo Igbo, Asaba Ibo], Rukuba, Irigwe, Yakoe, Igbira, Igala, Orri, Dakarkaki



The Kanuri share Islamic conceptions on sex. On male formal sexarche, Cohen (1967:p160)[1] remarks: “Young boys generally obtain their first sexual experience in their mid to late teenage period from divorced women who are often older than themselves”. However, considerable protosexuality is noted:


“Sometimes play takes in both sexes and is more complex than simple imitation […]. Thus for several days a large group of young children from the age of five through ten may organize a “wedding”. The “bride” and “groom” are chosen as are the various kindred, the best man, the leading woman, etc. Care is taken to practice as many of the details of the adult virgin wedding ceremony as they can manage including even a mock impregnation, in this case with a small doll. Wedding foods in miniature are passed around to the adults who accept the mock food with a show of seriousness although they may comment on or question some detail of the ceremony carried out mistakenly or omitted by the children. Adults expressed satisfaction with this type of play and remarked on its instructive value for the children. Such play is related to an even more complex form called mai-mai, which is no longer practiced in Bornu. In playing mai-mai the young children in a village put on a pageant. They chose a king, nobles, servants, slaves, wives, gave titles to everyone, and behaved for several days in the guise of these socio-political roles. Mock battles were fought, slaves taken and justice meted out in a mock court. Seniority was established by age and consent. The organization was temporary like the “wedding” and disbanded after a few days. During periods when adults are out of the compound, away at a market, or working in the fields during the growing season, children often play house. The group gets together and appoints “fathers”, “wives”, and “children”. The little children may actually cook for their “husbands” on such occasions and the couples go into a hut in the compound where sexual play is carried on. They are, however, soon called back to the larger group where it has been declared “morning” by another child who has announced the “morning prayers” signifying that night has passed. Boys are aware that such play should stop when they can ejaculate. From then on they are men; sex is a serious affair and unmarried girls are illegitimate objects of sexual intercourse. However such prepubescent sex derived from playing “house” is widespread, or to paraphrase one young informant, “Everyone does such things when they are young” ”[2].


“The typical adolescent male has his first sexual experiences with a woman older than himself. However, when he decides to marry he usually tries to find a woman of roughly his own or of a junior age group” (Cohen, 1960)[3]. Cohen also speaks of the following:


“Several upper class informants spoke of the traditional practice of giving young concubines to upper class boys at their circumcision, so that they might have a female of their own in order to learn about sexual intercourse. Because of the waning of the slave population numerically this practice seems to be dying out, (only one case of a male who had been raised in this way of the younger, 20 to 30 years ago, generation was recorded)”.


On marriage, Cohen (p161-2) states:


“By the end of childhood, as the Kanuri define it (which means somewhere between the ages of nine to thirteen), the sex roles and many of their accompanying behaviours have been established. From this period onward the development towards adult status is sharply differentiated for males and females. Somewhere around puberty a young girl is given in virgin marriage by her father or the person who has been designated as having the power of marriage dispensation over her. Male informants feel that it is better if a girl is married before she menstruates and claim that religion prescribes this as the best kind of first marriage for a girl. Exceptions are, of course, quite common and not regarded as very bad as long as the girl is a “virgin” (i.e. proven so on her wedding night). When she marries for the first time a girl does not automatically change her status. She is still considered a fero gana (a small girl) just as she was before marriage, and for some little time continues to wear her hair in the young girl style. As one informant put it: She knows nothing, she copulates yes, but takes no interest in such things, there is no pleasure in it for her. When she bleeds, then she is kamu kura (a mature woman) and she knows everything and will take pleasure from sexual intercourse. When the first blood comes the girl will feel shame and tell no one, only her close friends, who will tell her mother. Her mother will come and gather together her friends and relatives (female) and cook food and give sada’a(offerings to the poor)”.


“Some informants believe it is proper for a girl to marry before her first menstruation so she may learn to become a woman in the household of her husband. Certainly there is general agreement that all girls should be married as soon after the onset of puberty as possible” (Cohen, 1971)[4].













Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Cohen, R. (1967) The Kanuri of Bornu. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc.

[2] Cohen noted this play in 1960: “Sometimes imitative play is more organized. A large group of children between the age of six to ten may organize a “wedding”. One of the young boys is the groom and a bride is chosen, as are inlaws, best man, lead woman, etc. Every detail of the adult virgin marriage ceremony is carried out, even to a mock impregnation, in this case a small doll. The wedding foods, in miniature, are passed around to the proper people, who accept the mock food with a show of seriousness. Adults thought this play was instructive and remarked that it was a good way for the children to learn the customs of the people” (p61).

[3] Cohen, R. (1960) The Structure of Kanuri Society. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms

[4] Cohen, R. (1971) Dominance and Defiance: A Study of Marital Instability in an Islamic African Society. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association