Bodily scarification, as both an essential art form and means of social stratification, is embedded into the sinews of many sub-Saharan African societies. Amongst the Igbo ethnic group, bodily scarification serves numerous important functions in society. Primarily, as is common in many parts of the Igbo-speaking world, facial and bodily scarification were traditionally used as forms of medicine.
At birth, young children would be scarred either on their faces, arms, or bodies with markings that would drive away ogbanje, or evil spirits, and protect them from other malignant spiritual forces that might cause misbehavior or illness. Dibia, or native doctors, often administered markings on the skin and faces of their spiritually-troubled patients as a last resort, since it was (and still is) believed that disfiguring the patient’s face would render its body unrecognizable to the evil spirit causing its illness, thus curing the person. In the olden days of inter-communal warfare and the slave trade, it was also common for families to make incisions on the faces and bodies of their children for purposes of identification, in the event that they were kidnapped or lost.
The use of scarification to identify class and rank is restricted almost entirely to the Agbaja and Nri-Awka regions of Igboland (which are now parts of modern-day Enugu and Anambra), where noblemen and noblewomen, such as the young woman in the photograph, who belonged to various titled societies, were administered a special brand of facial scarification known as ‘igbu ichi’. Ichi markings were expensive, extremely painful, and required specialized facial artistry to administer. Upon conferral of these markings, which symbolized the toil, struggle and achievements of one’s life, the bearer would officially be recognized as a prominent individual within the community. This practice is in decline, as today ichi markings can only be found on elderly men and women.#igbohistory