Facial Scarification in Nigeria Today

According to history, facial scarification (facial marks) were very peculiar to some parts of Africa for different reasons and purposes. There seem to be among countries in Africa, a universal culture of facial marks that predates colonialism. In Sudan and Ethiopia for example, facial marks were considered a rite of passage for males transitioning from childhood into adulthood. In other parts, facial marks were marked on for spiritual reasons, to beautify the body or to identify and distinguish between and within ethnic groups.

Facial scarification occurs when the body is incised then applied with a dry or wet potent over the incision till it eventually becomes a scar.  In Nigeria, these marks can be traced back to the precolonial days with each major tribe sharing similar purpose to facial scarification. It was, and still remains to some minuscule parts of the country, one of the many customs of the people to distinguish freeborn, royal families and slaves and also considered by some as a form of beautification to the body.

The Igbo facial marks are called Ichi and are common to the people of Akwa and Agwu. The Ichi is inscribed in two patterns: the Ndri and Agbaja and both indicate that the wearer has passed initiation into the highest society of men called the Ozo.  Among the Hausas and Yoruba, facial marks were worn to establish the lineage of the wearer as a form of identification and also for spiritual purposes. The Hausa marks are generally called Zani and are categorized in different patterns which include the bille, a side stroke, kalangu, a side tattoo, pashin goshi, a straight stroke on the side, yam ba(i)ki which are lines of three to nine at the side of the mouth, among others. The Yoruba facial scarification include abaja, gombo (or keke), ture, mande, among others. The Abaja are a set of three or four parallel and horizontal lines on each cheek which can either be single or done in duplicates with each line ranging from half-an-inch to one inch long. The Gombo consists of four or five perpendicular and horizontal lines placed at an angle on each cheek and occupies the whole space between the outer portion of the ear and the cheek bone. A variation can include an additional three small perpendicular lines placed on the horizontal lines on both cheeks. When the lines are bold the mark is termed Keke and when the lines are fine and faint it is termed Gombo. The Keke or Gombo are common marks of the Qyo and Egbado tribe.

Common among the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and some other ethnicities in Nigeria are marks given to children to keep them alive to ward off evil spirits of the ogbanje (in Igbo) and abiku (in Yoruba). The scars typically can appear on any part of the body. The abiku child is branded as on who dies before puberty and are reborn over and over again to torment the parents. The Yorubas believe than an abiku child belongs to a ‘cult’ in the world of the unborn and if a child is scarred, the child would be renounced and rejected by the members of the cult.

There is a long trajectory of history that has stretched from the pre-colonial days to this present day. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the facial marks were a necessary means to identify kidnapped family members and today a group of people of Oyotunji Village, a Yoruba community in South Carolina regard facial marks as part of their cultural heritage and they serve the purpose of identification. However, a large number of Nigerians consider scarification barbaric and primitive making this custom gradually going into extinction. Over the years, there have been international campaigns, awareness and outright condemnation of scarification. Some Yoruba states even criminalise the incision of tribal marks. The Oyo, Ekiti and Osun state’s Child Right Law imposes a fine or jail time or both for anyone who incises the skin.

Most of the people still hold dear to their indigenous traditions, customs and culture given the high proliferation of Christianity and Islam in Nigeria. Though tattoos have replaced scarification as a form of  body art, there are still people who bear facial marks for the purpose of identity and spiritual purposes in this contemporary time, holding on to their intrinsic socio-cultural beliefs. Due to this reason, the custom of scarification cannot go into extinction. For one, scarification is still considered as the most effective cure for abiku phenomenon. Again, irrespective of the outcries and campaigns against this act, some Nigerian still consider it as a custom that should not die away.