Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 285th good thing about Lagos: Scarification is out of fashion

At the lecture at the museum this morning, we learned about scarification in Edo State. The capital of Edo State is Benin City, which has a rich culture of sculpture and bronze casting. They had a couple of masks on display which show a variety of markings.

It's kind of hard to see in the first photo, but there are vertical pegs above the eyebrows to indicate scarification markings.

These markings are called Iwu.  The practice of Iwu goes back 5 1/2 centuries.  It is said that the Oba (king) at that time designed the markings and declared that everyone should wear them as a badge of identification.  Every adolescent was supposed to be marked.  Not to have markings was a proof of "foreignness."  Young people were marked before they were married.  It was done individually, not in a communal ceremony.  In this culture, babies were circumcised, but the scarification was done as a young adult, except in the case of royalty.  There is an adage that "royal children see blood once in life," so they are both circumcised and marked when they are young adults.  Sometimes being royal is not a fun thing.

The scarification is not just done on the face, but there are markings vertically down the torso.  Men have 7 marks on their torso and women have 16.  These are long marks with proscribed positions and names.  It does not look fun to have this done!

The Iwu surgeon is called the Osiwu.  To learn his craft, he has served an apprenticeship that lasts over 7 years.  The job is dominated by males, but a female can also serve as an Osiwu.  The tradition of Iwu began to die out over 50 years ago during the colonial era.  There are still groups of people in remote locations who practice Iwu, but it is more unusual today.

I do still see some people with facial scarification.  I had heard that during the Civil War in Nigeria in the '60's that mothers would have their babies marked to make them easier to identify should they be separated.  But I do see some children with facial scarification and I think among some people the marks are more there for beautification rather than identification.  There was a museum staff member who stood up in the sharing/Q&A time after the lecture who pointed out the marks on his face and said that they were there because he was sick as a child and they cut the marks in his face to let out the bad blood.  So he added that sometimes scarification is done for a curative purpose.

I'm sure to some people that scarification is no different than the tattooing or body piercing more common in Western societies.   But I personally would prefer a less permanent method of decorating my body.  And for identifying with a group, I'll go for a group T-shirt any day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My wife had facial scarification - I really liked it. So - sorry, not everyone thinks alike