Tribal Marks

Two Zulu maidens (circa 1910), one with tribal marks on her stomach
Two Zulu maidens (circa 1910), one with tribal marks on her stomach

It’s strange how you can see something countless times without really registering what it is or what it means. I must have seen thousands of Zulu people over the years with scars on their faces, and while I’m sure at some point I’ve wondered why the marks are there, I don’t think that I’ve ever had an actual conversation about it.

Sadly there isn’t much information available online about Zulu tribal marks, but from what I can gather Zulus mark their faces and bodies for one of a handful of reasons, with the most popular being ethnic identification. The cuts, generally made on the face, will show the person as belonging to a specific tribe or clan. Even within a single tribe, people will have marks that differentiate them from people from a different lineage or village.  Where a person is marked (cheeks, forehead, temple, under the chin etc), and the way in which the marks are made (vertical lines, horizontal, both vertical and horizontal, slanted lines) all help to identify the person as belonging to one group or another.

Zulus also scar their bodies as a form of protection. In our meeting last week one of the fieldworkers showed me small scars on her wrists that her parents had made when she was a child to protect her from evil. The scars are made with a blade and then muti is inserted into the wound to provide protection.

Scarification is also sometimes viewed as a test of courage. The process of scarring is quite painful, and requires great personal strength to get through the procedure without crying out in pain.

The online gallery of African art, Ezakwantu, has a fascinating collection of photos of tribal marks from around the world. Unfortunately it has now closed.

The Ulwazi Programme has also written on the topic of Zulu tribal marks. Click here to read the article.

Photograph courtesy of Trip Down Memory Lane.

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