Having an evening walk with my nine year old niece last week, a look of shock appeared on her face seeing a middle-aged man probably a Masai with face full of scars.
“Uncle, what happened to that man? Was he attacked by a gator?” “No, those are tribal scars.” “What are tribal scars?” The kid inquired.
Scarification is a special African form of body art that involves ‘scarring’ the skin to give it a raised mark, although today it is practiced less, it still exists in Africa and other parts of the world.
How it is performed
Scarification was performed in various ways depending on the purpose and tribe. A sharp object (sometimes a stone or coconut shell) was pressed and dragged across the fresh in patterns or designs leaving behind cuts, then some dark pigment such as charcoal or other acerbic plant juice were rubbed into the wound to make permanent blisters, others used fish-hooks to pull the skin and then slice it with a sharp object. Once the wound was inflicted they were further inflamed by rubbing ash and other substances into it, these cuts when healed form heavy raised scars.
Being that most Africans are dark skinned, using ink and needles or stamps to create colorful tattoos was ineffective.
Unlike in the America and other parts of the world where you choose any tattoo you want, where you want it and it’s yours in minutes, in Africa that wasn’t the case, these scars had historical or cultural significance.
Although most women would do anything including facing a plastic surgeons knife to remove or conceal a scar on their faces, in some African countries many women looked at these facial scars as marks of beauty and family pride
In some tribes whenever a woman gave birth to a son, a small mark was put on her face. Scarifying especially on the stomachs was a sign of fertility and willingness to bear children. People believed if a woman was capable of enduring the scarring pain then she was all geared up for the childbirth pains. It was also a desirable quality in a future wife, a welcome gesture from girl to woman-hood too.
Men found them attractive and they claim raised scars stay sensitive for many years and give erotic sensation in both men and women when touched or stroked.
Scarification was a sign of strength, courage and bravery. This procedure is understandably painful and took long to heal, so going under it without howling was a brave thing, and crying would be embarrassing yourself and your family. The more scars one had the more respected one was in one’s culture.
Spirituality played a major role. Africans believed in the presence of sprits, good and evil. Facial ‘scarring’ was used to make the person less desirable to the spirit of death.
Some used ‘scarification’ to mark significant moments in their lives, like the birth of a child, loss of a loved one or anything else that has left a mark on their lives or changed the course of life.
There are also those you can compare to army ranks, one had to earn them, those for warriors, bravest of the brave, or the one who killed a predator.
Next time you see a man with tribal scars across his face, know they have a certain significance.