Menstrual Traditions in West Africa

In Menstruation as a Verbal Taboo among the Akan of Ghana, K. Agyekum (2002) breaks down how language, mainly euphemisms, are used to talk about Menstruation among the Akan in Ghana. Agyekum describes Menstruation as an ammodin, or an “unmentionable”, and gives a comprehensive list of the words and phrases used when discussing Menstruation.

According to Agyekum, “the use of euphemisms that portray the negative aspects of menstruation makes Akan women feel bad and suppressed and somewhat elevates the status of men. In contrast, the “positive” euphemisms reflect the role and value of women in the society. The effect of language and utterances may be determined by the power, status, rank, age, and gender of the participants in the communicative encounter and by the distance and differences between them.

Agyekum K. (2002). Menstruation as a Verbal Taboo among the Akan of Ghana. Journal of Anthropological Research, 58(3), 367–387.

In Sex, fertility and Menstruation among the Beng of the Ivory Coast, Alma Gottlieb (1982) focuses on notions of Menstruation that do not place women in a lower status due to the perception of being unclean because they are bleeding. Rather, Gottlieb shows how menstrual pollution among the Beng occurs when “human fertility when is removed from its proper place- and how, rather than debasing women, menstruation serves to give added value to a major aspect of women’s labour – that of cooking.

Gottlieb’s work shows that Menstruation is not viewed as predominantly negative. There are only three outlined activities that menstruating women cannot participate in. These include not setting foot in the forest for any reason other than to defaecate, not touching a corpse, and lastly, a man may not eat food cooked by his wife while she is menstruating. Except for these three taboos, menstruating women among the Beng of Ivory Coast are free to participate in all other activities during their periods, including sexual activities.

Gottlieb, A. (1982). Sex, fertility and menstruation among the Beng of the Ivory Coast: a symbolic analysis. Africa, 52(04), 34–47.

In Heavenly Bodies: Menses, Moon, and Rituals of License among the Temne of Sierra Leone, Frederick Lamp (1988) links the lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle of  Temne women. Lamp highlights how important rituals, like the initiation of girls into womanhood, deliberately occur with specific moon phases. This is also true for ceremonies where boys are initiated into manhood. Both ceremonies for boys and girls were observed by Lamp to occur during different yet specific phases of the moon.

Lamp’s work only briefly focuses on the taboos that affect menstruating women.

Lamp, F. (1988). Heavenly Bodies: Menses, Moon, and Rituals of License among the Temne of Sierra Leone. In A. Gottlieb & T. Buckley (Eds.), Blood Magic. Univ of California Press.

Compliment Lamp (1988), Gottlieb (1982), and Agyekum (2002), with this essay from NPR, about societies where Menstruation is not treated with disgust.

Brink, S. (2015, August 11). Some Cultures Treat Menstruation With Respect. NPR.Org.