The Orgasm that Created a Lake and Other Cultural Lessons.

Our time here has certainly brought with it many cultural lessons. Our Kinyarwanda teacher one day taught us the history of the word “abarubindi”. It technically means “eye glasses” but literally means “those which fell into the pot.” There’s a story, says our teacher, in which a Frenchman wearing eye glasses came across some local Rwandans taking (drinking) beer. Traditionally, beer was served in a single large pot called a “rubindi” and everyone drank their beer from a straw stuck into the same pot.

Granted, this is a pic from Kenya but the idea is the same.

So the local Rwandans offered the Frenchman some beer from the communal pot, as is polite, and the Frenchman tried to look into the pot to see what exactly they were drinking. His eye glasses fell in and as he leaned over the pot to look for them, his comrades said, “What fell into the rubindi, the pot?” And hence the word for eyeglasses was born—“those which fell into the pot”, abarubindi.

One of my favorite moments in Rwanda thus far was also full of cultural lessons, surprisingly about sex. As a sex edu teacher, I find this topic fascinating and have no qualms talking about sex, so be warned reading further 😉

The scene: I’m at a yoga retreat in Butare (4 hours from Kigali towards the southwest), sitting on top of a hill surrounded by rolling tea plantations and hills that disappear into the distance. The sun is shining, we started the day with several hours of great yoga, we’re surrounded by beautiful nature—we’re feeling good.

Tea plantations.
Not us but our pics weren’t as flattering (why would you only take pics of us while doing down dog with our butts in the air??)

I’m shelling peas with a group of fellow yogis, retreat staff, and yoga instructors—a good mix of foreigners and Rwandans, men and women. We have a huge pile of bean vines in front of us, ripped directly from the center’s garden plot, and the locals have taught the foreigners how to shell the peas that we’ll be eating for dinner. Relaxed by the simple, repetitive act, we begin the most candid conversation about sex I’ve had in Rwanda. It began with this story about Lake Kivu, the huge lake guarding Rwanda’s western border with Congo:

“Does anyone know the story of how Lake Kivu was formed? No? Well, long ago, the king and queen ruled this land. They were happy enough but the queen was never quite satisfied with their sex life. One day the king went off to war, leaving the queen alone. The queen gave into her curiosity and slept with one of her servants she’d had her eye on for awhile. To her surprise, the servant gave her the biggest orgasm she’d had in her entire life, so big that it created Lake Kivu.”

This was confusing to us westerners (how does an orgasm create enough liquid for a lake, even in a legend?) until we found out that female ejaculation is common and expected throughout Rwanda, at least according to this crew.

We found this quite interesting since Rwandan culture also has well-known proverbs stating that men have complete power over their wives and can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Yet somehow, this culture also has a prioritization of female orgasms. In fact, we were told that there’s a word in Kinyarwanda—“gifubwa”—that is used to describe the action of a woman finding another man to “finish” her if the first man has a consistent problem with pre-ejaculating. The exact translation of “gifubwa” is when you’re cooking and the electricity goes out yet the food still needs to be finished.

[Mind you, this is all word of mouth and could be 100% inaccurate so don’t quote me.]

We also found out that it’s much easier to use English or French when talking about sex than Kinyarwanda. There aren’t as many direct translations in Kinyarwanda for anatomy (like the word for a woman’s private parts is “agapipi”—sound it out to hear “pee pee”. “Aga” is added to make a word pejorative, like little or small. So the word in Kinyarwanda for a woman’s vulva is literally “that little place where pee comes out”). Also, Kinyarwanda is meant to be a more reserved, polite, traditional language—not to be used describing sexual acts—making it a difficult language to use when wanting to teach sex edu.

This was a revelation for my work in sex edu and helped me better understand some of the challenges teaching sexual and reproductive health (SRH) here in Rwanda.  I’m continuing my work developing an SRH program for MindLeaps and just had the first meeting a few weeks ago with parents of the youth participating in the pilot class. While I usually expect to be bombarded by questions and skepticism at these parent meetings (“Why are you teaching my kid about abortion?!” “Won’t giving comprehensive information about sex cause my child to go out and have sex?!”), this time, I was flooded with enthusiasm and gratitude. The parents are so pumped for their kids to be learning this stuff and even hope that they (the parents) will be able to learn some things too.

Related, I’m pleased to announce that I was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Alice Rowan Swanson fellowship, a grant for SIT alumni wanting to return to their host countries and implement a project ( now I’m funded to start this program, monitor its implementation, and design strategies to make it sustainable. Hooray!

Looking forward to starting the SRH class, celebrating birthdays in May, then having visits from Colin’s dad, my mom, and my aunt over the summer. Love to you all!

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Priscilla R. Ulin
Priscilla R. Ulin
2 years ago

Congratulations on the SIT grant!! Couldn’t be to a better teacher or more promising project!!!

Andrew Hendrickson
Andrew Hendrickson
2 years ago

The Inuit have multiple words for snow, and it’s a challenge to talk about sex in Kinyarwanda. . . language is an amazing thing, isn’t it?

Holly Hendrickson
Holly Hendrickson
2 years ago

This is amazing! You go, girl! Mom