[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]’ll admit it. Despite having lived here for 27 months now, when I found myself kneeling in the dirt, looking with not an insignificant amount of guilt at the bloody body of a chicken splayed on a voodoo shrine, as a traditional healer doused me (and the chicken) with water he had just blessed, I was rather surprised. The fact of the matter is, when my three friends and I decided to get scarification we knew very little about it except that another volunteer had been to this same healer and hadn’t suffered a debilitating infection. Good enough for me! Bring on the razorblades!

Scarification is an ancient practice in Benin, and one that can serve many cultural, social, medicinal, ritual, and symbolic roles. For the most part, the scars are indicative of your ethnic group or place of birth. Three vertical scars on each cheek are common in the south, whereas a row of very small scars across the neck or forehead is more likely to be seen in the north. The scars are often given very early in life, as a means of symbolically protecting the child from evil spirits, sickness, and misfortune. But the technique of scarification is also invoked later in life for healing purposes. Traditional healers, who may also be voodoo priests, will burn a special blend of herbs, plants, animal feathers, and other materials and rub the ash into small superficial cuts in the skin of the afflicted – often on the part of the body that seems to be causing the malaise. It is becoming less common, and some consider it to be a “backwards” and “primitive” practice.

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Our adventure began with the purchase of individually wrapped (sterile) razorblades and a live animal sacrifice in the grand marché in Parakou, a large city in the Borgou department. Another volunteer had given us basic directions to the traditional healer’s home, and we found that many moto-taxi drivers were also aware of this particular healer, who lives near a primary school beyond the outskirts of Parakou – down dusty, rutted paths bordered by scrub dyed red by drifting particles of dried terre rouge, in a land where shade is scarce and dust reigns supreme. A hand-painted sign on the side of the road pointed us in the direction of a small cluster of mud brick homes, where we found an old, impeccably dressed man sitting on a mat protected by some precious shade. The healer, perhaps? All but one of us live in other regions of Benin, so our exchange with this wizened local authority was painfully limited. A passerby saved us, pausing in his work to sit for a while as our translator. The majority of the dialogue was greetings – the healer seemed in no hurry to get down to business and instead asked about the health of other volunteers who had come to him. We presented our chicken to him and eventually, with no explanation, stood and followed him to another part of the concession. There, several women abandoned the shaded refuge of their homes to welcome us and benevolently laugh at our fumbled greetings and obliviousness. The traditional healer bade us remove our shoes and beckoned us into a small, open courtyard space, surrounded by a chest-high mud wall. Inside we knelt before a voodoo shrine, which consisted of three small, sculpted, earthen mounds protected by a simple sheet of tin roofing. With the chicken lying across one of the stones, defeated and now complacent, the healer recited several incantations as he poured water onto the stones. Our translator explained that he was thanking the gods for this moment, this animal, our health, our presence, and their presence. Our bowed heads received a small trickle of water from the same gourd that had blessed the shrine, and we stood to walk back to the tree where the healer had greeted us. We each took our turn sitting on a low stool before him as he made six delicate incisions in our backs and rubbed a fine black powder into the cuts. We took photos and marveled at the lack of pain – I wouldn’t have known he had done anything at all were it not for the stream of commentary coming from the others with me. We stood, giddy and proud, took several photographs with the men, women, and children who had gather to watch these white strangers co-opt their tradition, and then grabbed our cumbersome white helmets and set off to find moto-taxis which would return us the world as we once knew it. The road was still dusty, the sun brilliant.

For the volunteer, scars serve as a souvenir and memento, the same way we also buy meter upon meter of local fabric and equal excess of our village’s local brew, not to mention tapestries from Bohicon, leather from Natitingou, or Peuhl accessories from Parakou. It is challenging and perhaps delusional to try to condense complexities of any experience into a physical totem, but it is important to us nonetheless and by the end of our two years we have a hoard of memories to squeeze into our carry-ons. These scars are embedded in us. We bear them on our shoulders with the sweat and dirt and sunburns. And perhaps with this protection we’ll face our future endeavors with a brazen confidence, impervious to defeat, or at least the thought of it.