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Published On: Tue, Jun 17th, 2014

Connecting people with their ancestors through tribal marks

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Tribal-markBy Laeila Adjovi, Benin

Body marking has been used for centuries in parts of Africa to indicate a person’s tribal heritage. It’s becoming less common but some people still want to carry the marks of their ancestors. This article contains images which some might find disturbing.

In the town of Ouidah in southern Benin, a voodoo ritual is about to take place following two days of celebration.

The Houeda ethnic group is one of a number in Benin which believes that scarring children – usually on their face – will connect them with their ancestors

The children are given new names, their hair is shaved and they are taken to a convent where an oracle helps them to communicate with previous generations.

“This is part of our tradition and it is very important to me,” says Genevieve Boko whose six-month-old daughter Marina and nephews Luc and Hospice, aged 10 and 12, are all about to undergo scarification or marking on their bodies. Ash is used to mark the place where the incisions are to be made and then it takes a few seconds to make the cuts. “My friends asked me if it hurt and if I cried and I said ‘No’,” says Luc afterwards. “Before, when I walked in the street with my big brother who has the scars, people would not believe he is my brother. Now I am happy because we look the same.”

Since her husband died, Gamba Dahoui has carried out all the local scarifications – she cleans the incisions with medicinal plants and gin. Charcoal is also put on the wounds to help them heal.

Dahoui always uses the same knife, ignoring official advice to use new sterile blades for each person, to avoid the risk of transmitting blood-borne infections such as tetanus and HIV.

But scarring is becoming less popular. An increasing number of families take part in just the first stage of the ceremony, stopping before the incisions are made.

It’s the same in other parts of the country where each ethnic group has its own distinct scarring patterns.

“With my scars, I am identified everywhere I go,” says Fleury Yoro, who comes from Atacora in the north of the country. “If I had the choice I would not have wanted to be scarred like this.”

When he studied in Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, he says he was often mocked because of his scars. Some people “did not want anyone to think they could be friends with such a savage,” he says.

Others have different reasons for deciding not to pass the scars on to younger generations. Sinkeni Ntcha stopped after his first three children “because of Aids,” he says. “Blades have to be changed each time but the chiefs refused.”

For him, a member of the Otomari people, the marks are “useless”. Traditional culture can be expressed in other ways, he says, through language, dances, initiation ceremonies and architecture.

Many Otomari people still opt for scarring, including some young women who may have cuts on their backs and stomachs when they reach puberty to “show your courage,” says Edith (pictured above). The patterns are often similar to the designs on the walls of local buildings.

While Genevieve Boko’s daughter Marina (below) was six months old when she received the marks – babies in some areas of Benin undergo the process a week after they are born.

In neighbouring Nigeria, concerns about the rights of young people have led to some states passing a law that bans the practice on all children.

But this is not a move that would be welcomed by everyone in Benin. “We are not violating children’s rights, we are just showing the children where they are from and what they will go through in life,” says Telesphore Sekou Nassikou, chief editor at a radio station in Natitingou in the north-west of the country. For him, the scars convey a message: “Beware, there is pain in this world, and you will feel pain in your life. But the pain will stop, if you can endure.”



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