Investigation: The 'sexual drug' that has seduced Senegalese women

Photo taken by Rosa M. (not her real name), a woman who lives in the Sédhiou region who uses this powder.
Photo taken by Rosa M. (not her real name), a woman who lives in the Sédhiou region who uses this powder.

In Senegal, some women have taken to inserting a powder — known locally as “tobacco” — into their vaginas as a way to bring about pleasure or to soothe aches and pains. This substance is produced and sold underground, with no regulation. Does this powder have negative health effects on its users, who are becoming more and more numerous?

A man living in Sédhiou, a region in southwestern Senegal, contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team to tell us about the powder, which he said was being used by local women to “satisfy their sexual desires and to provide relief for aches and pains”. He added that the powder was extremely popular and that some women were using it like “a drug”.

FRANCE 24 contacted two women from the region who regularly use this substance to find out more about its effects.

"The first time I put the powder directly in my vagina, it made me dizzy and start to throw up"

Rosa M. (not her real name) is 42 years old:

I first heard about this powder six years ago. I was speaking with a woman who said that she put it in her vagina when she had a bad headache and it worked.

A few months later, I decided to try it myself, just out of curiosity. I had a cut on my foot and I was told that putting some of this powder on it would help it heal. The wound disappeared five days later.

Another time, I was really tired, and I was advised to put it directly in my vagina. It made me dizzy and I started to throw up. After about 30 minutes of suffering, I rinsed off my vagina with water and started feeling better. However, the next day, I noticed that my skin was irritated where I had put the powder.

I still use the powder to relieve pain, but I don’t put it in my vagina anymore, even though that’s how most people use it.

Before, the women who bought this powder used it for sexual pleasure when their husbands were travelling. Now, it’s becoming more and more popular and women are using it all the time. Some of them have started needing it to feel good — it’s like a cigarette.

Most users put a pinch of this powder on the skin around their vulvas to feel the effects. (Photo taken by Rosa M..)

"When I use this powder, I feel like I’m drunk"

Cynthia R. (not her real name) is 40 years old. She also uses this “tobacco” to treat cuts and to provide pain relief.

It’s pleasant to use this powder — it makes me feel like I’m drunk. About 30 minutes after using it, I fall asleep. And when I wake up, I feel good.

However, the first time I put the powder in my vagina, I had terrible diarrhoea and threw up all day. I think that happens when you aren’t used to it.

The powder seems to provoke a wide-range of reactions — while some users report that this drug makes them feel pleasantly drunk or provides relief from pain, others say it causes dizziness, vomiting, diarrhoea and skin irritations. While neither of the women interviewed said that they felt sexual pleasure after putting the “tobacco” in their vaginas, that seems to be the case for other users.

“After about 15 minutes, sexual desire takes over the woman’s body and she feels an immense sensation of pleasure as if she were straddling a man,” states an article about the mysterious powder published in the Senegalese newspaper, Le Populaire.

Sold on the border with Guinea-Bissau

The women interviewed by the FRANCE 24 Observers said that they purchased small bags of powder for 100 CFA francs [equivalent to roughly 15 euro cents]. As this powder is bought and sold on the informal economy (with vendors often selling it out of their own homes), there is no regulation of the trade or the substance itself. This “tobacco” currently exists in a legal limbo — it has been neither banned by the authorities nor authorised.

The powder is sold in small bags. (The first three photos were taken by Rosa M. and the fourth was taken by Seydou Tamba Cisse.)

Both Cynthia and Rosa M. told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that some people buy the powder in Kandiénou – a village near the border with Guinea-Bissau – and then make a profit selling it for higher prices elsewhere. Several locals said that the powder is manufactured in Kandiénou.

Bakary Konte is a journalist in Sédhiou, the capital of the region.

The “tobacco” is produced in several different villages, on both sides of the border. Some women buy it to sell it in bigger cities like Sédhiou and Ziguinchor [Editor’s note: Ziguinchor is a town located about 100 kilometres to the west of Sédhiou], or even in Dakar.

Even though use of this powder seems to be concentrated in the southwest of the country, there are more and more users in the Senegalese capital, according to the article published in the daily newspaper Le Populaire. In Dakar, the powder is much more expensive.

More and more people are using this powder in Senegal (Photo taken by Rosa M.)

Unknown composition

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to several people who had no idea what was in this powder, like Cynthia R. As its production isn’t regulated, the composition probably varies depending on who makes it. The fact that users have reported a wide range of effects and side effects also supports this theory. Only one thing is certain: the powder does contain tobacco leaves, as well as other natural products including roots and leaves.

According to journalist Bakary Konte, people make the powder by drying the roots of the tangora tree, grinding the roots into a powder and then roasting it in a large iron pot alongside tobacco leaves. Another resident of Sédhiou, Ousmane Demba, says that he saw a woman making the powder. She used the shells of the fruit from baobab trees, a product that he thought was shea oil and some kind of chemical product. Another local claimed that the powder was made using the same chemicals often used to make traditional lye soap.

"This powder is toxic and could lead to cervical cancer"

Whatever the composition of this powder, it is worrying for healthcare professionals. Eva B. (not her real name) is a Senegalese gynaecologist.

I first heard about this powder when I examined a woman from Guinea-Bissau in October 2015. Since then, I’ve had many other patients admit to me that they use it. All of these women had urinary or vaginal infections. Some even had sores on their vulvas because the powder is toxic and causes itching and irritation.

That said, not all users experience dizziness and diarrhoea. But whatever the side effects, all users are putting their life in danger. They are increasing the risk of developing cervical cancer.

What worries me is that, even when I explain the risks to them, most of these women keep using it. [Editor’s note: numerous people contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers said the powder was addictive and the some women had trouble experiencing sexual pleasure without it.]

In order to know more about the composition of this product, we recently sent samples for testing to the Pasteur Institute in Dakar. We are waiting for the results.

Journalist Bakary Konte filmed this woman, a local from Sédhiou who used to use the substance. In the video, she describes the risks associated with using the powder, which range from cervical cancer to loss of normal sexual desire and dependence on the substance. She also addresses the belief that this substance could also help women suffering from infertility. She advises them to seek help from a medical professional instead. 

“Code names” used for this powder

Cynthia R. and Rosa M. both told the FRANCE 24 Observers that they have never mentioned using this powder to their husbands.

“I always use it secretly,” said Cynthia R., even if she says she speaks about it openly with other women.

In order to avoid prying questions from their husbands, women who use this powder have come up with wide range of code names, including "kandiénou" (the name of one of the villages where it is made), "pill", "drink", "milk" and "secret".

"The fact that women are using this powder in secret highlights the communication problems that exist in certain marriages. Some women aren’t sexually satisfied by their husbands so they start using the powder instead of talking to their husbands about it,” said Aminatou Sar, a resident of Dakar who works with the Reproduction Health Supplies Coalition. "That said, if this powder allows female users to pleasure themselves, then that’s a good thing because, here, almost all of the aphrodisiacs are made for men.”

Seydou Tamba Cisse, El Hadji Kande, Bakary Konte and Ousmane Demba all contributed to this investigation.