Alum stone for sale at Yaoundé's Moloko market.
Alum stone, which has astringent properties, is used throughout the world to make cosmetics, in particular deodorant and aftershave. But in Cameroon and several other African countries, it is sought after for another reason: traditional beliefs hold that it can restore a woman’s virginity.
Alum stone can be found on market stalls all over Cameroon, from the capital to the most remote regions. The price for one rock starts at about 100 CFA francs, the equivalent of 15 euro cents. For one kilo, the price is 1,500 CFA francs, or 2,20 euros.

“In some communities, there is a lot of pressure on women to be virgins until marriage”

Ndangue Liliane Josiane Rose is one of our Observers in Yaoundé, where she is studying journalism. She investigated the ways in which alum stone is used in Cameroon.
Alum stone has different names in different regions. In the West, it’s called “wothi”, but on the coast, it’s called “loba”, which means “God’s thunder”. Women crush it into powder and mix it with water; sometimes, they add a bit of lemon juice or honey. They then use the concoction to clean their private parts, as the stone’s powder kills bacteria. But this mixture also provokes a momentary contraction of the vagina, which can give the appearance of virginity to a woman who has already had sexual relations.
Alum stone is most often used for this purpose in the northern regions of Cameroon, as well as in some parts of Nigeria. It’s commonly used by Hausa people [one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa]. In areas where the majority of the population is Muslim, there is a lot of pressure on women to be virgins until their wedding night. If a woman is not a virgin, she runs the risk of being shunned by her husband, and the other women in her family will also be looked down upon.
In other regions, alum stone is used by prostitutes. They use it to clean themselves, but also because they believe it improves the quality of sex.

“This technique should absolutely not be used”

Doctor Joseph is a gynecologist in Yaoundé. In 2010, he worked in a clinic in northern Cameroon where he treated women suffering from health issues stemming from their use of alum stone.
This so-called virginity is very short-lived, and sometimes the stone has no effect at all. However, its effects on a woman’s health are catastrophic.
In general, women should not put any products in their vaginas, since vaginas have a self-cleaning mechanism. Alum stone destroys the vaginal flora that helps protect women from sexually transmitted diseases. Moreover, because the stone’s powder has the consistency of sand, it inevitably provokes irritations, which can lead to serious cases of vaginitis. Finally, if a woman uses alum stone regularly, it will cause the vagina walls to become rigid, and they can then tear when they give birth. This technique should absolutely not be used.
As doctors, the problem we face is that women often wait too long to get medical help, because doing this means conceding that they lied about their virginity.
This practice is not on the rise, which is why the authorities haven’t really tackled the problem, even though it causes real issues and there is a dire lack of information about it.
A stall at a Mokolo market in Yaoundé. All photos in this article were taken by our Observer Liliane Josiane Ndangue.