The wail of 6-week-old Quari Babaola cut through the air like the blade that had just sliced through his chin.
His mother Kafilat shuddered but kept a determined grip on the tiny limbs as a traditional healer smeared the cuts on her baby’s hands, feet, back and chest with a sticky black paste of ground-up charcoal and chanted incantations to stop the oozing blood.
“Marks will help him to be part of the family . . . all the family used to do it,” the 28-year-old said in her native Yoruba, as a queue of mothers cradling querulous infants nodded their agreement.
The women here say traditional scarification has healing powers and is an important part of their tribal identity.
Originally used both medicinally and to identify friends and foes in times of war, many Nigerians believe it offers precious continuity in a rapidly changing world. But Dr. Tolu Fakeye, head of the government’s traditional medicine development program, says urbanization and education are gradually eroding the practice.
Scarification is no barrier to success in most of Africa. It is a tradition in all three of Nigeria’s major tribes and President Olusegun Obasanjo has faint parallel lines scoring his cheeks. But the once universal practice is gradually declining. None of the president’s children bear their father’s marks. No statistics are kept, but a quick walk around most of Nigeria’s major cities will show many smooth young faces next to scarred and wrinkled ones.
Still, in a country of 140 million, with one of the highest population growth rates in the world, there are plenty of new babies to keep traditional doctors like Razak Ahmed busy. Known locally as an Oola, he is part healer, part tattooist and part keeper of tribal traditions. He knows all 14 women waiting to see him today and his family has performed the ceremonies for generations.
Ahmed has made some concessions to modernization, such as adding a splash of antiseptic from a plastic bottle of Dettol to the plastic bowl of water used to wash his knives and insisting that mothers return with their infants for a checkup. Fakeye says the government has begun to register traditional doctors and encourage them to sterilize their instruments and perform noninvasive techniques, but Ahmed says that he has had little contact with the Ministry of Health.
Although circumcision—which he performs for both boys and girls—remains popular, there is slightly less call for tribal marks, he says. These days it is more about fashion than providing an instant visual history, he believes, pointing out parents with elaborately carved faces who have opted for a simple dash-dash known as a minus sign across the cheeks for their children.
“It makes the face beautiful . . . they cannot stop it, it is our culture,” he explains.
Quari’s mother says his teeth will grow in painlessly after his chin was cut. Another of Ahmed’s customers requests that he cut her wrist and smear on the black paste before he circumcises her son, believing that she can take the pain of her child upon herself.