“I can’t express to you how happy I am,” says an unnamed Hausa woman as her newborn is taken to a scarification artist who will give him permanent markings on his face. “It fills me with joy to know that my son will have these cultural marks. These marks are part of our culture and heritage which have been passed down by our forefathers.” It is a scene in Marked, a 20-minute Netflix documentary that examines the once-popular art of scarification found in many parts of Nigeria. Written, produced, and directed by Nadine Ibrahim, it was inspired by the Kaduna-born filmmaker’s experiences growing up around her aunt who had tribal markings on her face and all over her body.
Scarification, the art of branding the skin as a means of body modification, remains a sacred practice in several cultures. Dating as far back as the 1500s, its significance varies across tribes, ranging from beauty to spirituality to identity to social status.
It is usually done using needles sterilized with disinfectants and heat. The artist cuts into the flesh in whatever pattern the parents want the final design to look like. Afterwards, the artist applies herbal medicines and powdered coal on the cuts to reduce the pain, stop the bleeding, speed up the healing process, and give the healed cuts a dark appearance.
In 2017, Senator Dino Melaye presented a bill for the “Prohibition of Facial Mutilation: Offences, Prosecution and Punishment of Offenders” before the National Assembly.
Marked spotlights the perspectives of different people who got these scars in their infancy, emphasizing their experiences in their adulthood. This way, it presents arguments from both sides of the debate—between those who regret it and those who are thankful for it—and gives deeper insights into the complexities of the practice.
For some, the markings give one a form of beauty that cannot be achieved any other way. “When we were younger, we would see different markings on people’s bodies,” Hussieni Idris from Borno says with unconcealed excitement. “We would get them so people would admire us, too. At events sometimes, we take off our shirts to showcase our marks so people can see just how handsome we are.”
For Idayat Ganiyat, however, it is a different story. As a child, Idayat used to faint a lot, worrying her parents. She was taken to an herbalist who said she was cursed and needed to be marked. She was then marked on her face and all over her body to ward off spiritual attacks.
But attitudes toward the practice are increasingly negative these days and it is not difficult to see why. The existence of new standards of beauty, religion, urbanization, legal repression, and conversations around consent have contributed to its waning popularity.
According to Mohammadu Babaye Saidu, a 95-year-old artist who has marked over 1,000 people, all that is needed is the consent of the parents, as the children are often too young to agree. But without the consent of the people to whom the marks are given, there are ethical questions.
Some of these children grow up to resent it, as in the case of Halima Taofik who says she had trouble making friends because of her marks; even her siblings bullied her for them. Temilola Adeyemi also talks about a make-up artist who came to her sister’s wedding and was upset that the marks on her face would ruin the aesthetic. It made Temilola, who was to be the chief bridesmaid, consider skipping the wedding ceremony altogether at the very last minute.
But the unpleasantness sometimes goes beyond verbal abuse to threatening livelihoods: according to Adetutu Alabi, a model who would later be profiled by the BBC and Vice, she lost a job opportunity because the employer wanted her to conceal her marks so as not to scare off clients. She could not do that, of course.
Apart from these personal experiences, systemic factors like religion and colonialism influenced changing attitudes. “When you live in a village, education is not common,” says Habiba. “But these days, we are more enlightened and we’ve been taught that our marking practice is not good and is haram. That is why we don’t give our children these marks anymore. If there was a way for me to remove them today, I would.”
Not everybody is sold on the supposed spiritual benefits it gives against illnesses, either. According to twins Taiwo Alade and Kehinde Koride, “None of our children are marked. If they fall sick, we just take them to the hospital because we are devout Christians. And they get healed unlike when we were given the marks.”
However, there are people with markings who have accepted what cannot be changed. “I personally have grown to live with it, not that I love it but I just take the best out of it as it gives me my own peculiarity,” says Titi Olanrewaju, a woman from Oyo State. “Everybody remembers my face. It is like no other face and I go with it with a swagger.”
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.