Scarification in the Congo region

Woman and wooden figure with keloids, DR Congo

[b]Above:[/b] Photographer unknown, courtesy of Allen F. Roberts and the Central Archives of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa), Rome.[br][b]Below:[/b] Collected and donated by Sheffield Airey Neave in 1909; 1909.29.1Above: Photographer unknown, courtesy of Allen F. Roberts and the Central Archives of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa), Rome.
Below: Collected and donated by Sheffield Airey Neave in 1909; 1909.29.1
Some of the most complex scarification patterns are found in the Congo basin and the neighbouring areas. This photograph, taken around the turn of the 20th century, shows a young woman of the Tabwa or Luba, Bantu-speaking peoples living on the south-western shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Among the Luba, scarification and hair-styling are used by both sexes as ways of encoding memory about a person's history and their place in society. As the memory grows with age, more 'information' is added. The shape and colour of one's coiffure for example can be altered to signify changes in marital and occupational status. In this sense, the body becomes a book; the skin is a text both to be written and to be read by others. Indeed, the original Tabwa verb 'to scarify' (kulemba) has been adopted to mean 'to write' since the introduction of literacy.

Like many Bantu-speaking peoples Tabwa philosophy is based on duality – elemental oppositions such as light and dark, left and right, hot and cold, male and female, good and evil. The Tabwa word mulalambo refers to certain lines that define the symmetry of the universe into these neat halves. The Milky Way for example is known as mulalambo because it 'splits the sky in two'. Similarly the human body is thought to be split down the middle by a mulalambo, marked beneath the skin by the spine and on the skin by the line that often appears during pregnancy running between the navel and the pubic region ('linea nigra'). The girl in the photograph had matching 'tears' (impolo) scarred under each eye, intended to brighten the smile, and the patterns of cicatrices on her back can clearly be seen curving away from the spine in a symmetrical fashion.

Only Luba women, who bear children, are deemed strong enough to hold powerful spirits and the knowledge they bestow. Therefore the female body must be perfected aesthetically – through scarification, waistbands, shells, and hair ornaments, and so on – before it can serve as a receptacle for a spirit. This concept is echoed in the application of geometric designs (also known as 'scarification') to large pots, as a way of both decorating them and rendering them able to receive the spiritual energies invoked in ceremonial rites. The woman decides which designs she will wear dependent on fashion and the information she wishes to convey. Separate elements such as singular or clustered triangles, stars, lozenges, lines and ovoids act as morphemes – linguistic units of meaning – that can be combined in countless ways to create different messages.

The scarification of a woman's body is equally appealing to men as to the spirits because the scars have a tactile, sensuous appeal. They also imply that she will be able to withstand the pain of childbirth, marking her out as a potential partner. The sculpted wooden figure shown here expresses the fundamental principles of power embodiment (the hairstyle encircling the head like a halo, an ethereal expression, and the hands raised in devotion to the spirit). Yet allusions to the maternal and the earthly are also visible in the localised nature of scarification around the navel. Such markings were common among many matrilineal societies in Africa (such as the Hemba of the DR Congo and the Nuba of Sudan) to emphasise and protect the navel as the threshold between oneself, one's mother and one's own lineage.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England