If you sat any random pick of Africans down and went round the room asking them about their views on scarification, you are guaranteed to get a mix of reactions. While some would laud the beauty embodied in the outcomes, some others will cast it out as old and outdated. Whichever one of this group of people you are, it is inarguable that scarification was once a huge part of our culture.
Involving the custom of placing superficial incisions on a person’s skin making use of stones, glass or knives that result in permanent body decoration, scarification communicates a myriad of cultural expressions.
For those who may be blatantly opposed to the idea, a little consideration about where scarification stemmed from may offer a healthier view of it, if for nothing else but an appreciation of history and people who still carry the marks of that history. The most common reason for scarification in the past and even now in places where the practice still persists is tribal. The scars are like an identity card, giving a picture of which tribe a person belongs to or what region they come from, to those who know how to read them.
The inter-tribal conflicts which were commonplace in the past necessitated them. The marks helped warriors to distinguish between members of their own tribe to avoid killing them since we did not don uniforms or hats in those days. Even after battles, bodies were able to be sorted and properly buried because of these marks. Scarification also helped some tribes avoid the yoke of slavery, because the slave-traders viewed unscarred faces as a sign of good health, and so did not seize tribesmen with facial scars. Some other reasons from different cultures for scarification include:
- Distinguishing those who believe in certain Gods
- To honor gods and thank them for favors
- The Atacora district of north-western Benin has young women asking to be scarified with puuwari (from waama puuku meaning belly and warii meaning writing) when in love, to alert their relatives on their readiness to be married
With rapid urbanization, infusion of new religions and knowledge of diseases such as HIV, the culture of scarification is fazing out, although it is still a very big deal in some tribes. For the most part these days, we don complete western clothing which also does not encourage the ritual since most of it will be covered up anyway. All these hindrances may prove too much for this dying culture and in a number of years, we may only be able to see pictures of these marks as more and more parents refuse to have their children undergo the process.
One thing is for sure; scarification is not for the lighthearted. Those marks, beautiful as some of them may be, do not miraculously appear. Deep cuts with razors or glass and different substances from clay to citrus added to the resulting wounds to slow down the process of healing, and produce more defined marks, make for a scary prospect that will appeal to only the bravest or forced on the unfortunately voiceless.