THE YEAR IS 1680, and massive surf is pounding the beach shore at the bustling African slave port of Ouidah. A fleet of European ships waits offshore for thousands of newly captured slaves that have just been sold at the auction block under the “Tree of Forgetting.” Having been branded, chained, and gagged by their new owners, the captives are ordered to circle the Tree several times to erase any and all memories of their homelands, families, and previous identities. An overseer cracks his whip, and each slave is led into the darkness of a cramped holding cell near the beach that for many will be their last memory of Africa.
Between 1680 and 1880, this scene played itself out almost every day in Ouidah, the capital of Africa’s “Slave Coast.” The voyage from Africa to the Americas was called the “Middle Passage” and on average approximately 15% of the human cargo died en route. A typical crossing lasted somewhere between one to three months – depending on weather, currents, and wind – and over the course of its long history, some one million African slaves passed through Ouidah on their way to plantations in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the southern United States.
Today, however, Ouidah is a bustling tourist town on the southern coast of the country of Benin. Although echoes of its notorious past still remain in the crumbling walls of colonial-era buildings that dot the landscape, other monuments and reminders pay homage and give respect to those men, women, and children whose lives were permanently altered by the slave trade. Some of these are voodoo statues that are believed to welcome home the souls of dead slaves returning to their ancestral homeland.
BENIN: THE BIRTHPLACE OF VOODOO
Originating in different indigenous African traditions, voodoo religion was brought to the New World by slaves from Benin. Its main features are rituals and blood sacrifices accompanied by singing and dancing. People place themselves under the protection of a certain deity, and they “lend” their body to this deity during rituals. Anyone wishing to be accepted into a voodoo cult as a full member (vodunsi) must spend a certain period of isolation in a shrine dedicated to one of the many voodoo deities. Here they undergo ritual purification and follow a strict diet where many kinds of foods are tabooed. Under the supervision of a priest, the initiate is believed to suffer a ritual death and is eventually reborn.
If you ask anyone in Ouidah, they’ll say that the most famous voodoo cult here is that of the god Dan (also called Da or Dangbe), who is the bringer of life and fertility. His earthly messenger is the python, and for hundreds of years many of the people of Ouidah have worshipped the python and an ancient iroko tree in the center of town where it is believed that the spirit of Dan can pass between the worlds of the living and dead. Next to this tree is the sacred Python Temple (“Temple des Pythons”) that houses dozens of royal pythons which members of the cult honor with sets of facial scars that are supposed to represent its fangs.
Voodoo, like many other African religions, is based on the concept of animism. All animistic religions in Africa share a fundamental belief that spirits are everywhere (rocks, trees, piece of grass, an animal, etc.) and are an integral part of a natural force that embodies everyone and everything. These spirits can be highly unpredictable and must be handled very carefully with attendant rituals, prayers, and sacrifices; otherwise, they might bring sickness, suffering, or even death.
Although there are multiple deities and lesser gods in voodoo, not to mention spirits or other forms that aid a Supreme Being who is the controller of life, other tribal groups in Benin place more emphasis on the powers of ancestral spirits to control human destiny and the surrounding world. One group, the Bétamarribé whom I lived with in northwest Benin, say that the spirits of their ancestors are most important because: “they live among us, they protect the people, and they can speak to our Gods.”
THE BÉTAMARRIBÉ: “THE REAL ARCHITECTS OF THE EARTH”
Benin, formerly called Dahomey during the slave era, pokes its long finger of land from the Atlantic Ocean north towards Burkina Faso. Wedged between the countries of Togo and Nigeria, it is nearly 900 miles long and only 400 miles at its widest point. With some 50 tribal groups living within its borders, Benin is a treasury of geographic, cultural, and ethnic diversity. And since the dawn of time a composite ensemble of peoples, languages and customs has taken root here including incredible forms of body scarification.
The Bétamarribé people who live in the Atakora Mountains near the town of Natitingou are no exception to this rule, and are known throughout Benin as the “Masters of Scarification.” But they are also renowned for building unique castle-like homes called tatas that protected them from marauding slave traders in the past.
Not surprisingly, the word Bétamarribé translates to the “real architects of the earth” indicating not only their skill in building tatas out of natural materials like adobe, but also their prowess in agriculture. Interestingly, the agricultural furrows the Bétamarribé cut into the earth are symbolically related to the delicate facial and body scars cut into the skins of Bétamarribé women. Similar markings called ikerii (“the house’s scars”) were also applied to the interior and exterior walls of the tatas, and all of these signs, whether cut into the earth, the house, or human skin, were associated with the Bétamarribé goddess Butan who ruled the earth, the underworld, and who controlled human and agricultural fertility.
A grid, a series of vertical lines, and sets of superimposed Vs are patterns common to both women’s scarification and house marking. These patterns suggest plant growth, an important metaphor for both house and family well-being and fertility. In some Bétamarribé areas, however, house markings are also called fedotumwafe (also fedofe) and are said to allude to the scales of the crocodile. This may further indicate the marks’ role in house protection, because the crocodile is seen as a guardian – much like a dog – and is closely identified with the earth goddess Butan.
The Bétamarribé choose to build their tatas on the old house foundations of a previous family member. Such sites are preferred because the agricultural fields surrounding these areas have been fertilized for generations, and because the Bétamarribé believe that they are free of dangerous powers – specifically the underworld spirits called bulo – that cause nightmares, illness, and misfortune.
Of course, ancient and sacred house sites only became free of evil spirits after hundreds, if not thousands, of sacrifices had been made to the ancestors. Small conical mounds of earth outside the main door and inside the cooking area are topped with feathers or scrap iron from the blacksmith, and bear sacrificial marks (streaks of blood, kaolin, splattered eggs) that protect the house and ward off sickness. Also by the front entrance and inside the tata are protective fetishes and strange garlands of bones, mummified bird heads, animal skulls (monkeys, baboons, cattle), or feathers smeared with sacrificial substances. Sacrifices made on four mud cones behind the house are performed to make it rain, to help the sick or facilitate a birth, as well as to protect the house or members of the household from evil spirits.
SCARMASTERS OF THE BÉTAMARRIBÉ
Bétamarribé scarmasters (odouti) can be male or female and the profession is usually passed down from a parent to a child who is willing to learn the complexities and dangers of working with blades and human skin. When a boy or girl reaches two or three years of age, an intricate series of lines are cut into their faces with an iron tool made by the blacksmith. The elders say that a child without these markings is not “human” and if they don’t receive the cuts, or if the child dies before he or she is able to receive their tribal markings, they are not buried in the village cemetery because they are “not Bétamarribé” in the eyes of the ancestors.
My friend Robért, who like me is 37 years old, said that he didn’t receive his facial cuts called yenongale until he was nine years old, which is rare by Bétamarribé standards. He explained that whenever a visiting scarist came to his village (once a year) he was always sick so he had to wait. Over the years he witnessed the skin-cutting of many babies and he told his parents that he didn’t want to go through with it. But his parents knew that he would encounter a lot of trouble finding a wife and that he would not be formally initiated into tribe if he was not scarred. So when the legendary scarmaster N’dah Yerime came to town from Koaba twenty-eight years ago, Robért was forcibly held down by his uncle, brother, and father while the scarmaster’s iron tool carved open his face. All the while, Robért screamed profanities at the scarmaster and threatened that he was going to beat him when his work was completed!
When Bétamarribé children receive their first cuts, the experience is certainly not for the faint of heart: writhing bodies, piercing screams, and rivers of blood that enter every conceivable orifice. The amount of blood that flows is unbelievable and when a child begins gurgling on the pools that enter his or her trembling mouth, it’s almost too much to bear!
I witnessed the scarifications of four Bétamarribé children in two villages. But before the cutting began, the scarmaster divines which pattern will be cut into the face by casting a set of five cowrie shells into a ceramic pot filled with water.
Depending on how the cowries land (face up or down), this oracle tells the scarist which pattern should be cut into the skin. Typically three or four major patterns with variations are followed, but this depends on the artist’s repertoire and mastery of specific designs. Sometimes a piece of charcoal is also placed in the divining pot for purification. It is said that the spirit of the child controls the way the shells will fall.
Once the divination ceremony has been completed, a bed of broad leafed plants is placed on the ground where the children will be cut. Then, two women seated on their haunches face each other; one of them supports and steadies the body of the infant with her two arms; the second steadies the head with her two hands. A third person holds down the legs by grasping the child’s ankles.
The eyes of the children are relatively well protected from the razor sharp cutting tool called the teponte. Armed with what looks like an oversized iron arrowhead, the scarmaster M’batinin, who learned the art from her mother, always started her incisions on the temples. These designs resemble a horizontal series of Vs >>>> called tadobata that lead to the corner of the eyes. Above and below these marks, two or more long perpendicular lines named itiomtioni are cut that run down the cheek (actually, these are comprised of short cuts that are connected together to give the impression of a long line). By this point, the blood is really flowing and M’batinin washes the face of the baby with water from the divination pot, since the blood begins to coagulate quickly and clings to the child’s facial skin impeding the scarmaster’s progress. Next, the nasal regions and upper lips are marked with parallel vertical lines. In some Bétamarribé regions of Togo, the nose and ears are also pierced at this time. Lastly, the forehead is scarred with three or four large Vs that zigzag from one side to the other. The visual effect that results is a pattern so delicate that it is only visible in proper light.
Now that the cutting is over, the child’s facial orifices are thoroughly cleaned and cleared with another pot of water. The scarmaster utters a prayer to the spirits of the ancestors and says: “Oh, our ancestors today I present to you the child to whom the incisions have been made – please, take it under your protection and let it be in good health.” Shea butter, which is used as an anti-inflammatory across West Africa, is then applied to the wounds with a chicken feather, and the baby is taken in the arms of its mother or grandmother to dry its wounds in the sun. In a final ritual action, the scarmaster spits charcoal on the cuts “to keep away evil spirits” and promote healing. Shea butter possesses a similar magic, and the Bétamarribé say that it will repel any spirits of the underworld (bulo) that might have been attracted by the flowing blood.
THE LANGUAGE OF BÉTAMARRIBÉ SKIN ART
Bétamarribé society is divided into distinct age grades. This system of grading organizes men and women into a fictitious family of “brothers” and “sisters” in which each person is identified for the remainder of their lives. These age sets delimit not only the types of work each person does, but also marriage and ritual prerogatives, dress, scar patterns, and for men, participation in the hunt and war.
Over the course of one’s lifetime, Bétamarribé individuals received sets of scars at distinct periods in the lifecycle. As noted, the first cuts (yenonyore) were made when a boy or girl reached the age of two or three. This ritual act was a ceremony of initiation into the community and at the same time marked the individual as a tribal member of the Bétamarribé.
When a child reached seven to twelve years of age, they were subjected to the operation of bedobandba; the effect of which are three to four bands of short diagonal scars that branch outwards from the navel. Girls also received a series of vertical cuts on their backs at this time. In some regions, this “belt” of scars was replaced by a series of vertical cuts that extended upwards from the navel.
In an attempt to further differentiate them from boys, Bétamarribé girls around the age of fifteen received ipediduaga or incisions on the lower part of their abdomen near the navel, ikaduaga near the kidneys, and ifônduaga designs on the buttocks. After having all of these traditional scars, the girl was considered to be an adult and was allowed to marry. But just before marriage, Bétamarribé women also received another set of scars on their shoulder blades. This pattern was enlarged once she became pregnant with her first child. One Bétamarribé woman I interviewed in Tampegre stated: “If you don’t get the full compliment of women’s scars, an evil curse will get you. But if you get the marks you will be safe.”
THE FUTURE OF BÉTAMARRIBÉ SCARIFICATION
During the colonial era, Bétamarribé men and women wore little else than their scars and they were known as the “naked people.” Traditionally women wore locally spun cotton or vegetable fiber cords around their waist. Adult men wore a simple penis sheath and an animal skin belt. But since the 1960s, Bétamarribé dress has become entirely Western and the elaborate scarification patterns that could be seen by all are now obscured by layers of clothing.
With the adoption of clothing, many Bétamarribé began to abandon those forms of scarification that were once worn on the body. For example, the intricate marks that men and women had cut into their chests, markings that signaled that they had reached marriageable age, are rarely seen today. And when they do appear they are usually found on the bodies of old men and women.
My friend and guide Télesphore, who left the village of Tampegre at the age of six to pursue an education in the city said, “They used to be marks of civilization, and if they were something savage, of course we wouldn’t do it. Scarification is something very important for us, especially those marks on our faces, because when you see me anywhere on the planet you know where I came from. You know I am Bétamarribé because this scar exists nowhere else on earth!”
When I asked him why he doesn’t wear the chest markings of his ancestors, Télesphore replied: “When I see others that have them, I think to myself that I would like some marks too. But I don’t need them living in the city because no one would see them underneath my clothes. These days, it’s only the facial scars that are important because everyone knows that only the Bétamarribé wear them.”
N’tcha, a young farmer and traditional dance instructor who never left Tampegre to pursue an education, decided during my stay in his village that he wanted to get his stomach scars. I watched him lay silently as M’Batinin spent one hour cutting over 3,000 slices into his skin; all of this taking place without even a flinch! After the cutting N’tcha told me: “Body scarring is not as common as it used to be because so many people wear clothing today. But those who decide to carry on this ancestral tradition really earn everyone’s respect. Because I teach many children the dances of our ancestors, I want to show the kids that it’s a tradition we need to keep forever. Moreover, I want to set an example for the children in my village so that they will follow in my footsteps. This is one of the main reasons why I will carry these marks on my chest, but I also want to pay homage to our ancestors who sacrificed their own skins so that they could become Bétamarribé. And now every time I dance, I will carry these marks with pride for all who watch me. People will certainly be happy to see me with these new scars!”
But many of the Bétamarribé elders I spoke with are deeply worried about the future of these indelible practices. 70-year-old Tepuri, who is N’tcha’s father, stated: “These scars are a sign of Bétamarribé culture. If you don’t do it, you won’t be recognized by the tribe or your ancestors when you die.” Yet as men and women are increasingly drawn to the cities for work and education, places where they can prove themselves as adults by earning money instead of being initiated with scars in the traditional Bétamarribé way, they are becoming dislocated from the traditions of their ancestors. And because scarification is ultimately connected to ancient initiation rituals aimed at pleasing the ancestral spirits, the concerns of the elders seem to be justified. But if N’tcha and the other young Bétamarribé men and women I met with body scars have anything to say about it, the future of this remarkable art form rests in good hands.
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