Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tribal marks and other fun scars

Since I've been in Ghana I've noticed that a lot of people have scars on their faces. Usually one to three small ones beneath the left eye. I finally asked someone about it today. Apparently, if children have convulsions the parents take them to the priest (witch doctor) and he cuts their face and rubs in this black powder, which is just the ash from a certain type of leaf they burned. They do the same thing if you have headaches, but it's a cut in the forehead and a different kind of leaf.

A lot of the other scars are tribal marks, mostly from people in the north I believe. Two of the new kids at the orphanage (the first orphanage I went to) have all sorts of tribal scarring on their bellies. One of them is like a sunburst around the bellybutton. I took pictures. After I took pictures of the 2 year old another boy lifted his shirt to show me his scars and wanted me to take pictures. Very strange.


Jenna said...

Those pictures will be some of my favorite to look at!

Kristin said...

That's crazy! I wonder how often babies have "convulsions" there and what are they? And what a weird way to treat them.


Brie said...

Weird, maybe a febrile seizure or other kinds of seizures?

ChrisS said...

You know, when you don't post and you don't email, I get worried about you. Is everything ok?
You know, I probably wouldn't ever complain about another headache if that's how they get treated. : )

Ellen said...

Kelli - what interesting experiences you're having. Bizzare - It's amazing that modern medicine hasn't gotten further, huh? Did you hear that Jaimie R is going to Richmond VA Spanish speaking for her mission?

You're almost home! Yea.

Brooke said...

very weird! I gripe and complain about my kids docs but at least they are not cutting their faces open and smearing strange things on them, guess I should consider myself lucky!!!

Anonymous said...

Tribal marks are exactly what they name stand for. They are signature for a particular tribe, a good way to distinguish one tribe from another. It has no medicinal purpose.

I come from Togo, West Africa, next to Ghana and I have 2 * 5, i.e. 10 tribal marks that indicates my tribal identity which is Peda. The Peda tribe originated from old "Benin empire" before the Atlantic slave trade.

Depending on who you talk to, you will get various versions of the origin of tribal marks.

The story goes like this ... Africa and especially, West Africa has been badly decimated by the Atlantic slave trade.

The Ethnic leaders at the time became concerned about the speed at which their people were being taken away, so they had to find a way to identify their people for life so that where ever they may be taken to, they may never be lost. The scars are for life so when these people are taken away, they will recognise each and where they came from.

After the end of the slave trade, the tradition has carried on and is done all across Africa whether you come from costal part or the continent part, but the meaning is the same: it is a tribal signature.

I had my 10 tribal marks when I was 7 years old. It is during a ritual ceremony. A group of children around the same age are gathered together in a tribal shrine by the tribal leaders. Their faces are marked with wet ashes to make the position of the marks precise. Then a very sharp knife is used to cut in the marked position accurately. The knife is so sharp that you don't feel you are being cut. You don't even see the blood because, as you said in your post, a black power is put in the wound to stop any bleeding and make the wound heal very quickly.

I came to England in the early 1990s and have lived in London for a number of years. A number of times, I would come across other Africans who would speak to me in Yoruba which is one of the languages in Nigeria. Some people would speak to me in Fon which is a language spoken in Republic of Benin. I simply tell them I do not understand. But one day in Brixton market (London), a man called me "My brother" in Ewe, which is my language. It was shocking. The man is from Togo and we had a chat. He recognised me because of the tribal marks.

The reason these people speak to me in different languages, is that, my tribe, Peda, spans across the whole of West Africa, from Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and so on. So when people see my face, they know I must come from their country.

When I went to university in London in 1993, my girl friend at the time asked me to do a plastic surgery to remove my tribal marks because she was ashamed of them. It was disturbing because she is from Ghana and as you have discovered yourself, tribal marks are in Ghana too. I refused to do anything to my face because my tribal marks are part of my ethnic and cultural identity.

However, I became so conscious I could not get a job after University because of that. One day I went to a mock interview which was recorded on a video camera. I saw the film afterwards and felt very uncomfortable seeing my "butchered" face and how it may appear to a potential employer.

I discussed my concern with the lady who did the mock interview and she confessed to me that she found my tribal mark attractive and not repulsive. Since that day, I never felt negative about my tribal marks. They are part of me and I will die with them. Some samples:

(1) Fifi Rafiatou, artist from Togo ( and She has 6 tribal marks, 3 on each cheek.
(2) Palété WAWA also from Togo has the 10 tribal marks (2 on each cheek, 2 on the forehead, 2 on each side) like myself but you cannot see them because they are very small: or