Scarification in Africa has been a practice for centuries, and probably millennia, and while it is a dying art today, it still tells a story of tradition and belonging for the wearer. The skin is pricked and cut, sometimes hundreds of times, to form stunning patterns of scar tissue, raised off the skin like braille. And it is a story of sorts, read by fellow countrymen, telling the tale of you and your ancestors, showing that you belong to a genetic line that stretches past human memory. It is practiced by many groups in West Africa, as well as in Ethiopia and elsewhere. In order to create a raised effect, clay or ash is often packed into the wound, or different substances like citrus juice are used on it to irritate the would and prolong healing. The more raised and puffy a scar is, the longer it has taken to heal and probably the more pain the wearer was in during the healing process. It is often done on children and on young women, depending on the tribe involved. I admit, when I watched the short film below documenting the photographer Jean-Michel Clajot’s travels to Benin to photograph scarification ceremonies, I found it difficult to watch small children, close to my own daughter’s age, held down and cut while they spat and writhed in pain. Despite my discomfort, I find the products of it the most striking body modifications I have ever seen, and it imparts a majesty to the person wearing the scars, a testament to their history and to the pain they endured. Below find some beautiful images of scarification, as well as a fascinating article about scarification practices in Africa.
The principal reason for scarification is tribal. It tells us about the person who bears the scars, such as which tribe they belong to and the region they come from, as long as we know how to “read” them.
Driven by inter-tribal conflicts, the tribal dimension of these scars became widespread in Benin during the eighteenth century. These indelible markings enabled warriors to distinguish members of their own tribe and so avoid killing them. As they didn’t wear uniforms or hats, the scars were the only way of telling friends from enemies. The scarifications also enabled them to sort corpses after a battle, so as to give members of their tribe the correct traditional funeral rites.
The scarifications 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. This is why people without facial scars are considered by their fellow countrymen today to be the descendants of slaves, immigrants or refugees.
Tribal scarification is usually done before a child reaches adolescence, and children generally have the same scarifications as their father’s tribe. In north-western Benin, the Daassaba tribe’s scarifications run across each cheek, from the nostrils to under the chin. Other tribes are denoted by more or fewer scarifications across the temples, the forehead or the nose.