Monday, July 27, 2009

Facial Scars

The faces of many here in Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso are scarred; scars that distinguish one's tribal association and sometimes even social rank. The placement, number, and length of the scars each have significance. The scars are often below or beside the eyes, and some even run the entire length of the face from hairline to chin. A particular scar in Burkina Faso that falls from the corner of the eye is meant to show that this person cried alot as a child.

The scars are given at a young age, and are made to heal in such a way that the scars are more visible. While visiting a particularly remote village in the sahel of Burkina Faso (arriving on camel), I noticed a child who had dozens of short scars across her forehead- apparently the scarring resulted from a blood letting that is thought to remedy some problem she had in her head. Here this scarring, both for medicinal and tribal purposes, and female circumcision is done by the same woman and with the same knife. HIV/AIDS could easily be transmitted.

We learned that scarring and female circumcision was made illegal in Burkina in the last decade. And yet today there are children, even babies, who are visibly scarred (and who knows how many with their genitals mutilated). If a woman is caught performing female circumcision she is thrown in jail. The legal situation isnt all that clear though, because apparently the government has had some leniency with scars made strictly for tribal purposes- they arent ready to stop tradition.

But scarring for beautification is not accepted by the law. One woman had what looked like a basic leaf etched into both cheeks, others have the area around their mouthes covered in short repeated lines. This is beautiful, and not necessarily a sign of tribe affiliation.

Back in Benin we talked with friends in Cotonou- why are some and yet others not scarred? They explained that the tradition lives strongly in the rural areas, and is gradually loosing ground in the cities. Some young parents do not want to scar the faces of their children, and deal with pressure and trouble when returning to their family's village with their unscarred children.

Can you imagine having your social rank boldly, and permanently, etched into your face?


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