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Scarification… Harmful tradition that dies hard


Incision. Photo: AsNaija

In ancient Europe, scarification was used to mark and identify slaves. In Africa, it is widely performed as a cultural activity.

In Nigeria, it was originally for identification and medication. Scarification involves a long and painful process where the skin is cut or pierced with a sharp object or hot instrument, leaving scars on the affected area.

This ritual is performed by members of different ethnic groups in Nigeria and for similar and different reasons. While it is regarded as a ritual of identification in some parts, people from other parts perform it as a sacred tradition, which distinguishes special children from normal ones or an act of protective covering.


These acts of scarification are manifest as tribal markings, mutilation, and protective cuttings.

Efidan is one type of harmful, traditional incision carried out in Nigeria and it translates as cutting. This tradition is still used in some rural areas of Nigeria. For these tribes, cutting is a part of adolescent tradition. Parents cut their children during childhood or when they reach puberty as the tradition and custom of their tribe demands.

In Edo state of Nigeria, an ancient scarification tradition, which is still practised till date, is referred to as ude. The tradition here holds that children, who suffer strange illnesses at infancy, are marked with these ritual incisions to cure them from the ailment and ward off future attacks.

The pattern usually has several tiny cuts in the abdominal region, back and face. It has been medically discovered that what the Edo refer to as ude is the effect of sickle cell anaemia but the people continue to employ these crude means of treatment.

In the traditional Yoruba society, every child is born into patrilineal kindred (idile baba), which shares a particular tribal mark. These marks, which are usually facial, are worn by each child born into the extended family and it assigns the child full kindred membership rights.

Members, who do not bear or carry these tribal marks, are not considered as full-fledged elements of the Yoruba community. They would also not be respected, greeted accordingly or regarded as their age or social contributions require.

Each tribe has different incision patterns, which appear in varying sizes and shapes on different locations on the face or body – breast, arm, lap, buttocks, back, shoulder, or arm, but they are usually on the face.

In some parts of South Western Nigeria, twins are regarded as very special children and are traditionally revered as such. Incisions are made on them at a certain age for different reasons. Some believe that such incisions coupled with certain rituals serve to protect them from perceived evil.

These ancient traditional rites and customs, which the people consider important, are preserved with the intent of ensuring their continuity.

These rituals have always been culturally relative with diverse root explanations and spiritual significance. They are not ordinary acts or performances; they are not for entertainment or beautification purposes. They are sacred and are treated as such. Incantations and other spiritual rites are a part of what heralds these traditions.

The processes involved are not left to be carried out by people who have not been initiated into special groups or cults mandated to carry out these functions. The incision makers are sometimes members of renowned families who are from the lineage of incision markers.

Scarifications which primary functions are for the identification of a person’s tribe, family background or patrilineal heritage, protection, or social strata, are also said to bear the function of keeping mischievous children (abiku -Yoruba or ogbaje -Igbo) alive. The abiku child is believed to be a child, who dies before puberty and is reborn over and over again to torture the parents.

The Yoruba believe that an abiku child belongs to a ‘cult’ in the underworld and the scars would make him/her face rejection from the members of the cult if they decide to return.

Similar tradition is practiced by the Igbo who occupy the Eastern region of Nigeria. They refer to these ‘special’ children as ogbanje and deem it necessary to make incisions on the body of any child perceived to be an ogbanje due to incessant cases of strange illness.

THERE is, however, some irony in the perpetration of these sacred traditions. Whereas, these acts are thought to be acts of protection and preservation, the dangers which the process and after-effects pose on the victims and the society at large surpass the supposed good intents.

These cuttings are made by people who know nothing about medicine and their crude and unhygienic methods lead to blood loss and even death. They do not take care to administer any form of analgesic to reduce pains in the patients.

The instruments for cutting are not sterilised properly, which can lead to the contraction of a variety of diseases like hepatitis B, tetanus and HIV. Scarification causes psychological trauma and social stigma later in the child during adulthood.

The victims are usually left with trauma and psychological bouts to battle with all their lives.

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