Here is a book like none you will have read before. It draws on interviews conducted over six years by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah – a Ghanaian feminist activist and award-winning blogger – with more than 30 black and Afro-descendant contributors from across the African continent and its global diaspora in Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.
It both documents and legitimises the desires and sexuality of African women, beyond every conceivable stereotype, in three sections: self-discovery, freedom and healing – and if the first two feel more substantial than the third, that reflects real life, just as at the heart of it all is the desire for freedom to be oneself. No topic is off limits as these conversations reveal and explore similarities and differences, about questioning societal norms, religious edicts, confronting the trauma of sexual abuse and searching for new narratives and identities on the path towards wholeness.
The women speak openly and invariably for the first time about their experiences of sex and relationships as they seek to claim individual agency, however that expresses itself. They share emotion-filled stories with honesty, addressing everyday personal dramas within the wider context in which self-worth and confidence are affected by racism and patriarchy, with revolution in the streets and revolution in the sheets being two sides of the same coin.
The quest for self-discovery may involve a literal journey, moving to another country for the sake of love, or an exploration of the unfamiliar. Bravery and vulnerability are apparent in equal measures. Growing up as the offspring of monogamous parents can be tough preparation for the challenge of being one of several wives. Heterosexuality and celibacy are just two of a vast range of options. While one participant is “pansexual, polyamorous and kinky”, others identify as bisexual, transexual, queer, or simply “a work-in-progress sexually free woman”.
With sensitivity, this book has facilitated astonishing breaking of silences. The ending may not be “and they lived happily ever after”, but if the conversations have proved therapeutic for those involved, that is its own reward. One piece ends with the observation: “I’ve learnt to ask myself every day: Are you happy today? And if the answer is no I make a change.”
Sekyiamah has delivered an extraordinarily dynamic work, true to her own precept that “Freedom is a constant state of being … that we need to nurture and protect. Freedom is a safe home that one can return to over and over again.”
• The Sex Lives of African Women is published by Dialogue (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.