Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Custom of Scarification in West Africa

Over the years, as we've read and looked at different books, videos and websites, we have occasionally come across images of people from West Africa with marks on their faces - these marks, as we've come to learn, are from ritual scarification. 

Though the practice is dying, this is an age old custom. There are many reasons for the custom, depending on the ethnic group, family and individuals. Since each ethnic group has its own distinct patterns, they are a means of identification - and within certain ethnic groups, the markings may differ to identify social classes and even families. Scarification is also considered by some to be a means of ensuring a connection with and protection from one's ancestors, with the hope that this will bring good health and safety in one's life.

These photos were taken in the early 1940s. I've included them in order to show how different the markings can be from one person to another, though I don't know what these varying markings means (tribe? social class? family?)
Source: John Atherton (CC) Adapted into a collage

Typically a rural practice, it's usually considered a formal initiation into a community. It's usually performed on children - sometimes as young as infants - though the age depends on the cultural practices of the area, when a proper practitioner is available, and the child's health at the time of availability. Some children undergo scarification during puberty rites.

The Houeda ethnic group in Benin perform the scarring on children during a ritual to connect them with their ancestors. The children are given new names, their hair is shaved and then they are taken to an oracle to help them communicate with previous generations. It is becoming more common for parents to opt out of the scarring while having their children participate in the other aspects of the ritual.

These children are all from Benin, and the photographs were taken in 2009 & 2010. On the far left, this young girl is from the Fulani ethic group, and on the far right, the boy is from the Gourmanche ethnic group.
Photos Credited to: Dietmar Temps (CC) Adapted by cropping into a collage

These permanent body markings can be found on the face and/or the body. They are usually done with a knife or a hot iron. In some cases, such as with the Fulani tribe (see title image or young girl above, left), a natural dye is put in the wound to color the scar. In other cases, they are such fine marks that you only really see them up close. Some markings are so intricate and numerous, they are done over years.

Scarification is becoming much less common - in fact, its been called an "endangered" custom. Although to some, these markings continue to be a mark of cultural heritage and beauty, scarification can also be seen as a stigma. People with marks often find themselves ridiculed, taunted and even discriminated against, especially in larger urban areas. The practice is also decreasing because of the pain it inflicts and the growing knowledge by younger generations of the risk of infection. I've also read that some states in Nigeria have officially banned the practice on children. 

What are your thoughts?

If you'd like to read more, there's an interesting article on the Huffington Post about the stigma associated with scarification; and another article about it's cultural importance on Unseen Benin. Be careful if googling the subject, you might come across explicit images of the process. (The two links I   included do not show the process, though the latter has a video at the end with a warning that it's explicit - I took heed and didn't watch it)

Title image credited to Dietmar Temps (CC) Adapted with words overlay


  1. oh wow! I think to me safety come before tradition. Especially today when there are so many viruses that can wipe out a population...

    1. I know - it's hard to imagine being open to the risk. It is heartening to read that knowledge of infections is growing and encouraging informed decision making.

  2. What I find most interesting is that what one culture considers to be a passage of rite and even a feature of beauty, another culture would consider abuse. I make no judgement at all, just an observation. It makes me wonder if there is anything which would be culturally acceptable to us and yet some people of West African origin would consider abuse. Hmmm. Very interesting, thank you for broadening my horizons, Marie.

    1. I think that's an excellent observation.I'd like to think I make no judgement - I do find it incredibly interesting, and even beautiful at times- I really do cringe at the thought of the pain and risks associated with it. I have to say I'm glad to read that knowledge of the risk of infection is decreasing the practice (but on the same side, saddened that there's a stigma & discrimination that surrounds it).

  3. I have mixed feelings on the whole thing. Like Claire said what one culture believes is beautiful another considers abuse. I'm personally glad that is not considered normal here because it looks painful to me, but I wonder how my attitude would change if I'd grown up there.

    1. I'm so very glad it isn't a custom we practice - it's especially difficult to imagine practicing it on a child...


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