The S Word

06/26/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2012

My friend Saratu and I were seated on my couch engrossed in one of our random linear conversations.

This time around, we were both gushing about our newfound love for Taiye Selasi, the photographer and author whose fiction debut The Sex Lives of African Girls made Granta's "F Word" issue.

We found ourselves on the subject of sex again and Saratu shared a story about sitting amidst a few young girls and how shocked she was at one of the girl's casual reveal of having had her fourth abortion. My friend said she didn't realize how fast she assumed the role of a sex educator, as she proceeded onto a long piece of rhetoric about contraception and family planning, to the girls' amusement. I, on the other hand, slipped into a boisterous laughter at the reenacted look of horror that covered Saratu's face.

It all reminded me of the copious amounts of mysterious deaths we heard about in secondary school courtesy of the infamous "hanger abortion," a procedure where girls would straighten out wire clothing hangers and use the sharp tip to puncture the neck of the womb 'til its contents bled out.

At age 13, my schools idea of sex education was to haul in almost all five hundred or so of us into the dining hall to watch a Christian movie about a lady who had sex, got pregnant and nearly lost her life during an abortion. But aided by the appalling graphics, angels brought her back to life whilst her soul was on its way to hell. While some of us slept through the three-hour episode, others laughed throughout.

Growing up, there was a doctor who lived on my street and I recall numerous young girls always present at the compound, but who would later disappear into the annex of the house. To my surprise, I learned a few years later that they were all having abortions in the backyard. Then there was the clinic down the street where the doctor once attempted a seven month old termination and the fetus survived. After a few months of goodwill donations from the estate residents, the last we heard, someone had adopted the baby.

Saratu wondered why I hadn't brought up this conversation to be discussed with my audience on the radio.

A few weeks prior, I asked our listening audience when they thought it was the right time for their children to date, or at least introduce them to a person they were romantically involved with. To no surprise, there seemed an overwhelming consensus that the only appropriate time would be after their children had graduated from university, as dating and romantic involvements seemed too much a distraction. A valid opinion, of course, but while still attempting to make a case for nature with respect to puberty and adolescence, one caller went as far as saying that attraction amongst young people of that age was of the devil. So after that experience, I asked Saratu where on earth I would garner the courage to instigate any dialogue about contraception and family planning amongst unmarried youths without being tagged the demon encouraging promiscuity.

The truth, they say, is a very bitter pill to swallow. The reason I say this is because for both the culturally and religiously conservative parent, talking about contraception with ones child or children is accepting that there is a high possibility that they might be having sex, and that is something that most parents in these parts are not ready to come to terms with. Contrary to popular opinion, sex workers aren't the only ones having sex and aren't the only ones that need protecting. If we could put our projected values, beliefs and prejudices aside, we would realize that young people are having sex, and even that much younger people are becoming hyper-sexualized.

The question now shouldn't really be if we should talk about sex to the extent of discussing contraception but, rather, when is the right time and age to talk about it?

The conversation between Saratu and myself had nothing to do with pro-life or pro- choice because, depending on what side of the ideological or religious fence you stand, those arguments will always stay the same, forever having their own valid reasoning. Our concern is safety, a guaranteed physical, emotional and psychological kind of safety.

It was about access to information, knowledge and dialogue that encourages young people to make informed and responsible choices. It was about proper protection that is facilitated by primary care givers and a health sector that understands that sex education goes beyond reducing maternal mortality.

It is about an understanding that the issues we are experiencing will not be solved by throwing out scriptural passages that condemn you to hell for the sin of fornication.

Our conversation was about a community's lack of openness with the realities of sex and sexual health, and the dangers of its denial that produces young adults on their fifth abortions about to have the next.

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