Tribal Markings, a Dying African Art Form

“Scarification.” If I’m being honest, I’ve always hated that word. To me, it’s a bad and almost disrespectful way to describe the beautiful and ancient ritual of tribal markings. These markings are done in pride, not shame. They’re seen as attractive and have historical or cultural significance.  

In Senegal, tribal markings are common, but not on every woman you see. They are a dying art form, which I see even in my own family. My grandmother and mother have them, but I do not.  Older generations tend to have the markings over younger generations. My grandmother was the very first woman in my life who I knew with tribal markings. She had four facial marks, as did each of her sisters. And like my own mother, who has markings on her chest, they all wore them proudly. It never occurred to me that there was something different about the practice until I came to the United States.

Having marks is similar to a woman putting on makeup to enhance her natural beauty or to Westerners getting tattoos that have a special meaning to them. Tattoos, like tribal markings, show that the wearer belongs to a group or have a certain style. While they are not a tradition that my generation of Wolof women have carried on, I still find them remarkably beautiful.

I get a lot of questions about what the markings mean, and the answer is that they mean different things to different tribes. They’re traditionally a sign of heritage, beauty or courage, but they also can mark important life milestones — anything that has had a significant impact on the person or changed the course of their life. Tribal markings are a way to distinguish the wearer and create a sense of identity, which is something all cultures have in some form. The simple fact is, all humans have a desire to be an accepted part of a community, no matter where they’re from or how it’s represented.

***Image courtesy of Joana Choumali.