“Have you seen the Femidoms?” asked my travel mate. We were at Platjan border post, between Botswana and South Africa, returning from a road trip. “Nah,” I replied, “but I once saw Femi Kuti the Nigerian muso, you know, son of the famous Fela …” “Female condoms, you idiot,” he said, “right there, next to the male ones, in the big box that says For Free.”
I must confess I had only ever heard of female condoms, or Femidoms as some are branded, but never actually seen one or used one and certainly didn’t expect my first encounter to be at an unassuming little border post under an acacia tree along the banks of the Limpopo River.
It was also a bit embarrassing to have a man point out the free Femidoms. But to be fair, he’s a tour operator and comes through here once a month with Dutch and German groups, mainly women.
They take them as souvenirs, he says. I took the last two left in the free Femidom box. “The gals they like them,” said the Botswana border post official, stamping me out of Botswana with a resounding thump.
I have found out some interesting things about Femidoms since, even though mine lie sadly unused in the office drawer. Like the fact that you’re actually more likely to encounter one under an acacia tree in Africa than under a statue, say, in Europe or the United States.
I also found, with some delight, that African women seem to have subverted disdainful Western notions about the female condom and have instead popularised it and given it street cred.
Femidoms were pioneered in the United States in 1993 by the New York-based Female Health Company (FHC), but whereas they were slammed in the West, they have caught on in Third World areas with a high HIV prevalence, where men are traditionally recalcitrant in their own condom department.
Female condoms are distributed for free by Aids NGOs mainly in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ghana, parts of Southern Africa and some Southeast Asian countries.
“Is that an amoeba between your legs?’’ ran a famous British newspaper headline slamming the Femidom’s debut. “It looks like a cross between a pair of diaphragms and a male condom that might have been used as a water bomb,” said another report.
European women complained that the Femidom was baggy and that it “squeaked” during use. They never really took off in Europe or the US and are pricy there and inconsistently available. In the streets of Senegal, however, it’s a different story.
The sisters there, apparently, have turned the squeak into a novelty. In some hot spots the female condom comes with a free bine bine bead necklace, worn around the hips and designed to complement the squeak erotically with its click. Mmm. Must be that old African rhythm thing.
It is also rumoured that Senegalese women boast that the Femidom is so large because their men are so large. In Colombo, Sri Lanka, sex workers use the Femidom as a sex toy, allowing the client to insert it — a special thrill because seeing or touching a vagina close up is still taboo there.
Prostitutes are apparently now charging more for sex with a female condom.
Zimbabwean women, too, are tantalising their men with female condoms. They say that when a man’s penis rubs up against the inside ring of the Femidom during sex, it causes a pleasant tickle that intensifies his orgasm.
In Zimbabwe a new word — katekenyedze — has been coined to describe this tickle. In the late 1990s, Mary Ann Leeper, president of the FHC, got a call from a woman named Daisy at the Zimbabwean health ministry who said she had a petition signed by 30 000 women wanting to bring the female condom to Zimbabwe.
According to one report, the FHC has since struck a deal with the World Health Organisation to sell the female condom at a discount to education programmes in more than 80 developing countries, mainly those hit hardest by Aids.
In South Africa local television has started screening advertisements for a female condom under the brand name Care at R5 for two.
Recently an as-yet unpublished study in South Africa found that 80% of men liked the female condom and the same percentage of women agreed.
The men said it didn’t reduce sensation as much as a male condom and the women said they could use it without male knowledge, insert it hours ahead of sex and it didn’t kill the moment of passion. It may be time, sisters, to check out the squeak and tickle.”