The history of scarification in Africa

In the past, a woman or man would have scarification marks that will distinguish her/him from anyone else, tell her/his rank in society, family, clan, and tribe, and symbolize her beauty or strength. In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. True, some may hate that, but this was a mark of pride, not shame. In most African cultures, it was a major aesthetic and cultural component as can be seen on sculptures in museums around the world. Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits. Lastly, in Africa like in Polynesia, scarification is more visible on darker skinned people than say, tattoos.

There are aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles. Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person’s autobiography on the surface of the body to the world.[

Tribe members unwilling to participate in scarification were generally not included in the group’s activities. According to anthropologist Grace Harris, group members lacking the normal characteristics consistent of the group are not considered as acquiring the full standings as agents in their society, they would also lack the capacity for meaningful behavior, such as greeting, commanding, and stating. Therefore, scarification can transform partial tribe members into normal states entirely accepted by the group. Scarification a form of language not readily expressed, except through extensive and intricate greetings, gives the ability to communicate fully which is a key element for being considered as a normal member of the group.

Scarification is practiced for many different reasons depending on which part of Africa you come from and the cultural beliefs of your tribe. Below are a number of reasons why scarification was/is practoiced in different parts of the African Continent:

  • Scarification is usually more visible on darker skinned people than tattoos.
  • Endorphins can be released in the scarification process that can induce a euphoric state.
  • Scarring on the abdomen of women in many tribes is used to denote a willingness to be a mother. Her ability to tolerate the pain of scarring was an indication of her emotional maturity and readiness to bear children.
  • Scarification can be used for healing a patient changing them from a less desired state to a more desired state. It may help a patient go from victim to survivor. What is relevant to society varies from culture to culture. These individuals pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin.
  • Most people in certain regions of Africa who have “markings” can be identified as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group. Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana who use the markings are the Gonjas, Nanumbas, Dagombas, Frafras, and Mamprusis.
  • Some groups in Northern Ghana like the Dagomba use scarification to treat certain ailments such as convulsions, measles, pneumonia, stomach pains, and so on. It is believed that these sicknesses originate in the blood, so the skin is cut by a traditional healer and powder or potion is then applied to the wound so that it may travel directly to the bloodstream.

As painful as Scarification is, this practice is one performed on children as well. Once they reach a certain age (basically from baby to toddler), they are marked usually on their faces to mark a new part of their life.

Scarification amongst women

Karo woman with extensive decorative scarification. Omo Delta, Ethiopia, Africa.

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 that scars stay sensitive for many years and give erotic sensation in both men and women when touched or stroked.

Scarification amongst Men 

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.Ncertain significance

Scarification today

Today, the art of scarification is changing in Africa, and can mostly be spotted on elders. Mostly because of fears of HIV transmission via blades, and also because of the shame encountered. It is a culture which was once loved and is now despised. Ironically, people in western societies go under the knife to perfect their bodies; they prefer to hide their scars (it is also not on their faces)! Moreover, with the advent of identification cards, the need for scarification has also reduced.

For more on scarification in African cultures, check out and RandAfricanArt which have amazing images of scarification in Africa, and these articles on the Huffington PostNational Geographic, and Lars Krutak‘s article on the Bétamarribé people of Benin.

Also read more on the evolution of scarification

In Benin, painful cutting and scarring of the skin leaves interesting patterns that signify adulthood.
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