The sharp razor blades must cut deep into Esther’s facial skin and her little sister’s, their father had insisted in 1997.
“I remember my dad insisted on getting a new set of razor blades because we had to be given protective scars,” Esther said.
She was only four at the time, and her sister was two. They had just lost their mother. And like most people in southwest Nigeria, their father believed the kids must be cut with razor blades on their faces to protect them from seeing their mother’s spirit or to keep her spirit from taking (killing) them so they could be with her spiritually since she loved them dearly while alive.
Esther is now 26, but the pain and trauma she experienced as the blade cut through her skin to leave two vertical lines on each of her cheeks remain fresh with her 22 years after.
Now, she hates oppressive cultural practices like face marking, common among her Yoruba ethnic group of southwest Nigeria.
“I didn’t get an answer then as to why this practice was being upheld. He [my father] insisted on the new blades because the same instrument could be most times used for a lot of people, not caring about hygiene or exposure to infections,” she said.
“I’m older now and still don’t understand why.”
This long, painful process of cutting people with sharp objects or a hot instrument to leave them with scars on the face or other body parts is called scarification.
In ancient Europe, scars were used to identify captured slaves. During the 1700s, when enslaved Africans were being shipped from Africa to Europe through the Bight of Benin, they were given marks on their bodies.
Later, these slaves’ lives came to be depicted by the markings. These marks revealed their identities, ethnicity, religious affiliation, life events, accomplishments, and social status.
In Nigeria, it is more of a cultural practice among ethnic groups for many reasons, ranging from tribal identification to distinguishing normal children from special ones, to “protecting” kids against spiritual forces, and as rites of passage from childhood to adolescence.
Often called tribal marks here, they come in different shapes and sizes on different body parts. While some marks are temporary and fade off with time, others are bold, deep, and permanent and stare you in the face like an angry mob.
Marks as rights to inheritance
When communal wars were common in southwestern Nigeria, scarification in the form of tribal markings was their compass home after being scattered abroad or exiled from their homes owing to the severity of the war.
These markings served a unifying purpose for the Yoruba people, among whom different patrilineal families share particular tribal facial markings they call “Idile baba”, with each child born into that extended family given the marks.
Marked children are often given access to all the rights and privileges or “full kindred membership”. Those without the marks were not regarded as full members of the Yoruba community and so denied the respect and greetings their social and age grade position would naturally demand.
However, some Yorubas mark children suspected of belonging to a spiritual cult that allows children to keep dying and returning to life through a new human body. They call such children “Abiku”, a similitude to the “Ogbanje” child of the Igbo tribe in the southeast, who also cut children believed to have reincarnated.
For the Igbos and Yoruba who cut kids believed to be reincarnated, the procedure is supposed to end the child’s recurring death and returning action.
But besides the Yorubas and the Igbos, several Nigerian ethnic groups bear marks. Among the Edo people and other parts of the country’s south-south region, children who suffer “strange” illnesses in infancy are marked with several incisions ignorantly believed to cure them from the ailment, including sickle cell anaemia. These are usually done around the abdominal region, the face or the back.
Twins are not left out. They are hallowed and handled as unique in some parts of Nigeria, where they are scarred chiefly to protect them from assumed future evil.
But while most people are coerced to get scarred, particularly in climes where it is based on culture or tradition, for some individuals, the process of scarification might be voluntary.
And it is not limited to Nigeria and Africa; it is also a practice among Polynesian and Native American societies.
Although these practices are held sacred in some places and upheld as a means of protection and healing, the dangers during and after the process often negate this very reasoning.
Besides for identification, most other reasons for scarification are based on superstition. People who carry out the procedure have no medical experience. They operate mostly under an unhygienic atmosphere using unsterilised instruments that, besides inflicting instant pains, could expose victims to diseases like hepatitis B, tetanus, disfigurement, HIV, and other infectious diseases.
The procedure could also lead to loss of blood and eventual death. In the long run, the victims are usually left to battle psychological trauma and societal stigmatization because no one really wants their facial disfigured for the rest of their existence.