‘Inhumane’, ‘barbaric’, ‘atrocious’. You can hear many things about African facial tribal marks. I attended scarification rites twice in my clan in Ouidah, in the South of Benin. For me, knowing more about the rituals around tribal marking begun like a journey into my own family traditions.
Facial scarring remains widely used across Africa to differentiate ethnic groups. It is also part of a complex web of mystical beliefs and religious practices. The facial scars are often done at an early age. Nowadays, many consider it child abuse. Recently, some laws in Nigeria tried to ban tribal scarification, without being able to eradicate it.
My grand father had the distinctive marks of the Houeda ethnic group. Two parallel scars on the cheeks, temple and forehead. He died before I got a chance to know him, but in a way he is the one who opened the doors to some our most intimate family rituals.
To understand more about facial marks I also had to look for answers outside my clan. So I left the Atlantic coast and the small dusty town of Ouidah, to go and meet with some of the people of the Otamari tribe. In the North of Benin, I found an Otamari farmer who was strongly against this tradition, while an educated executive explained his children would absolutely have to bear the marks. It shows this practice can’t be reduced to the brand of a backward rural Africa, and is an argument in an ongoing debate around the universal issue of identity.
My grand-father was progressive, and him and my grand mother were a mixed-race marriage, so my father never received the ethnic marks of our clan. I am not sure I would have been comfortable travelling the world with my ethnic identity flagged on my face. But not because it is barbaric, atrocious, or inhumane. No. With all I have seen, I know and feel it is a little more complicated than that.
Digital photography. Benin, Oct 2012 - Nov 2014 - © Laeïla Adjovi