When my hānai brother, who knew about my ongoing research on children’s scarification in Africa, sent through Nduka Orjinmo’s BBC Article, I read it with great excitement. I quickly appreciated the empirical style used in curating the stories and images of scarification bearers featured but noticed two gaping pieces of misinformation.
First, although the Federal Government has enacted a law banning the markings of children in Nigeria, it has not largely deterred the practice. There are still scarification practitioners claiming it is their culture and inherited occupation. There are also families affirming the importance of their children’s scarification for spiritual and identity reasons. The dwindling practices in Nigeria are more of a civilization effect and changing belief systems than the legislation banning it.
Second, the assertion that the people whose pictures are featured are the last generation of African scarification bearers of Nigerian descent is problematic. This claim cannot be further from the truth because toddlers and teenagers, especially from the southwest and the north, are still getting cut. These are millennials, and generation Z branded against their volition.
While I am open to scarification by choice for adults wearing them like tattoos, I find the continuous markings of children deeply disturbing because of the violation of their rights and agency. For instance, I was immunised for teething and abiku (born to die) spirit through scarification. I realised as an adult that both rituals were unnecessary. There are available herbal and other holistic treatments within the tradition, more effective than cutting.
Also, being branded an Abiku is a verdict I disagreed with, and this is something worth beaming the light of critical research on. Some children branded abiku are now adults refuting the label or reclaiming it. I am, however, contesting the latter without hijacking how individuals perceive themselves within an existing construct.
In A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt memoir of Prof. Toyin Falola, he hinted research had noted abiku phenomenon is common among children born with sickle cell anaemia. “Abiku” parents, making more babies, unbeknownst they are responsible for the sickle cell genes passed on to their “mischievous born to die” offspring.
Although the above explanation may not fully grasp the phenomenon, it is on to something fundamental. Branded abiku, I am neither sickle cell anaemic nor mischievously dying, but rather precocious and born to an anxious mother who had waited 17 years for a second child. Anything told to my mother from traditional altars to churches and mosques became the gospel truth. As a result, I was subjected to facial mutilation and exorcism alongside other shocking interventions out of fear.
The point of this rejoinder is to shed light on what many writers of traditional scarification are missing. Facial and body cuttings in Africa might have been reduced but have not ended, and we have an urgent duty to protect children from its continuation in Nigeria.
This story was originally submitted to BBC News, CiviDot and Dailytrust for publication.