Female Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Tabwa artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, scarification. Photo courtesy of the White Fathers’ Archives, Rome.

Scarification and other operations to perfect the body often begin during girls' initiation. In the past scarification was much more elaborate in many African societies than now, but some forms are still practiced. Configuring the skin with scarification maps anatomy and makes the body a surface to be “read” by the gaze of others. Memory is inscribed upon the surface of the body through scarification, and the person emerges from such readings (Roberts and Roberts 1996). For Baule in Côte d'Ivoire scarification is a “mark of civilization” that differentiates people from “raw nature” (Vogel 1988). Nuba girls in Sudan receive scarification as a “beauty necessity” signaling “reproductive capacities” (Faris 1988). Beauty is not innate, then, but must be created, or at least enhanced. The scarification of this young, turn-of-the-twentieth-century Tabwa woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo tells of her fecundity and promise through a reading that was esoteric and may have been erotic as well.