African Scarification

A good friend claims that my writing was different while I was in Kenya. Sharper, more precise. She echoes a friend who claimed being in Kenya in late 2008 transformed my style for the better. I do not have the distance from myself to assess these evaluations. Perhaps it is that while in the States I play academic and in Kenya I play poet-writer. Certainly, my reading habits don’t change. I read as much scholarly work as I do trash in both locations. Though my friends do: lamentably, I have almost no non-academic friends in the States. In Kenya, I am always getting caught up in other projects, other worlds, other possibilities. There it is easier to be removed from the obsessive concerns of the academy—I relish them, but they feed all my bad obsessive habits.

I do not know that I am more “relaxed” in Kenya. Again, I am too close to myself to assess that, but I do know a different kind of psychic labor takes place. Kenya does not require as much labor. I need not remember my race, for instance, in a way that being in the States makes it impossible to forget. In Kenya, I melt more easily into conversations. I understand the dance steps without having to practice them in the mirror. Even though I don’t dance.

All of this is a prelude to an overdue promissory note: at the end of last year, I had pledged to write something on the “African’s scars and complexes,” a phrase I take from Fanon. I cannot write about complexes—I leave that to those who theorize the psyche—but I have been thinking about scars, hence my constant references to keloids in my writing over the past year. Fanon means psychic scars, of course, but one (too-clever?) reading of Bersani’s The Freudian Body would suggest that the entire psychic structure is nothing but scar tissue. I have suggested in other posts that being in the States takes a lot of psychic work—that sense of exhaustion is not simply allergies.

As Fanon is so attuned to embodiment, it might be worth beginning from ritual scarification as it translates (and fails to translate) into colonial modernity. Pictures of Mama Ngina (one of Kenyatta’s wives) suggest that she had ritual scars as a young woman; her entrance into a certain kind of African cosmopolitanism required that they “disappear.” Take this as an aside or as a point of departure. What might it mean to “disappear” scars? Do they ever truly disappear?

Ritual scarification is used to beautify and to heal. To write about the “African’s scars” requires that one read histories of scarification, that one engage with the aesthetics and politics of scarification. One cannot accept the givens of a western-based bio- or psycho-medicine. Or, rather, one accepts them as part of an ensemble of positions and practices, as one set of options.

My thinking on scarification has been influenced by Simon Ndirangu’s A History of Nursing in Kenya (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1982). In a section on “Minor Surgery,” he writes,

Children who suffered from abdominal pain and persistent indigestion were referred to the elders specialized in minor surgical operations. When a child was taken to the elder scarification was carried out on the lower part of the abdomen. . . . [A] suction apparatus made from animal horn which was cut off at the top, perforated at the blind end and beeswax put over the hole and pierced to allow for suction . . . Blood was sucked from the wound. The Kikuyu people thought that the blood which was removed was impure and that is why the child was suffering. The child got cured.

A man who suffered from persistent headache which was not responding to herbal treatment was subjected to the same treatment but scarification was carried out on the forehead and then suction followed. This also effected a cure.

This method was used by many tribes for a variety of diseases. For example, headaches, pneumonia and pleurisy. In most cases this treatment was combined with witchcraft and the sufferers were made to believe that small frogs, lizards or cocks, etc., were removed and were seen as blood clots. This was attributed to their enemies. They got cured after that. (12)

I have many questions: why use the term “scarification” for what sound like incisions? Were different patterns of scars used to effect cures? What kind of evidence did these scars provide? How did they function as bodily archives? What does it mean to insist that all these procedures “cured” sufferers? Why use the term “sufferer” as opposed to patient?

In a 1956 article on beauty among the Tiv, Paul Bonahan claims,

One of the most important requisites for beauty is that a person be scarred (gber, literally ‘cut’). Akiga records a legend that Tiv were originally unmarked and took up scarification to distinguish themselves from other tribes. Tiv markings are very characteristic, but my informants denied that they were ‘tribal marks’ with which they were familiar among Ibo and Yoruba. Rather, scarification styles change from one generation to the next.

From the Annual Review of Anthropology, Enid Schildkrout notes, “[I]in eastern Nigeria, Igbo scarification denoted age, gender, and political authority.” The social meanings attached to scarification changed during colonial modernity as “government prohibitions and missionary interventions . . . generally caused scarification . . . to cease, diminish, or become a form of subversion.” Heidi Gegenbach describes the role of tattoos among women in Southern Mozambique:

Tattooing was valuable to women for two reasons. First, tinhlanga provided an idiom both for mediating androcentric social structures and for asserting female-centered networks of affiliation, whether in the private spaces of friendship, the uneven playing field of patrilineal kinship, or the high-stakes realm of colonial race relations. In the waves of crisis and conflict that swept the region after 1800, women used their skin to map a social world in which boundaries of belonging were rooted less in ascribed familial or ethnic identity than in shared feminine culture, bodily experience, and geographic place. Under the mounting pressures of the twentieth century, “blood ties” forged through tattooing—more flexible and inclusive than those dictated by birth or marriage—became an important resource for women in need.

Second, tinhlanga offered women a bold yet “secret” (xihundla) voice for telling history, a silent yet visible language for commenting on social change—for a strictly female audience—in a context where oral traditions did not take women’s perspectives into account, and where women were often not supposed to put their feelings into words. The secrecy of tattooing took on dangerously subversive implications during the colonial period, as colonizers strove to implant “civilization” and commodity capitalism in part by forcing women to adorn their bodies in “white” (xilungu) ways. But if colonizers insisted that what women did to their skin was a mark of “civilization’s” progress, women insisted in turn that they could use their bodies to define identity themselves, not by shrugging off “white” standards of beauty but by renegotiating—through tinhlanga—the frontier between “white” and “black” (xilandin) ways, incorporating colonial things into what they continued to call a “traditional” practice.

As these long quotations should indicate, I have yet to process the rich scholarship on aesthetic scarification, even as I suspect it might be impossible and perhaps counterproductive to distinguish between healing and beautifying scarification in any rigorous way.

What happens if one returns to Fanon’s scarred Africans with these histories? How do these material and psychic scars from scarification (as healing and aesthetic) encounter and otherwise engage with the psychic scars Fanon wonders about? How do ritually-created and legible scars function in the post-WWII period within which Fanon writes, in which the war scar lacks legibility or, rather, accrues value in ways that are distinct from earlier histories of scarification? (I oversimplify here, but not, I think, too much.)

Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers helps to provide a partial answer. In it, young Gikuyu men return from WWI psychically damaged. They are unable to discuss their experiences and act like zombies—unresponsive to those they left. It turns out that they were forced to bury the dead as part of their duties and were never allowed to purify themselves ritually. Saturated with impurity, thahu, they consider themselves thahu. A new configuration of scar emerges in Red Strangers that approaches what, I think, Fanon might mean. As far as I know, Huxley is the only writer to tackle traumatized Kenyan masculinities in the post-WWI period—please correct me if I am wrong. Much as I dislike her politics, Red Strangers is a phenomenal, understudied novel.

When I first thought about the “African’s scars” while reading Fanon, I did not know how to begin addressing the histories of those scars. My first instinct was to adapt the Afro-diasporic histories I know to African settings. But that felt too easy and somehow wrong. I hope that discussing the African’s scars as multiply created and multiply legible and illegible might nuance a discussion that is still to be held.