6 Most Extreme Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

Body Modification has always been an integral part of African culture. It is widely performed for a variety of reasons in many African societies, and a plethora of historical and current forms of modifications exists.

6 Most Extreme Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

Body Modification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit messages about one’s identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles.

[WARNING: This list contains disturbing pictures.]

While body modifications can be something as easy as an ear-piercing or a simple mark on the face, some cultures have taken it a step further. The 6 examples below are truly some of the most Extreme examples of cultural body modification in Africa.

1. Female Genital Mutilation

6 Most Extreme Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

While most people around the world consider female genital mutilation to be barbaric, that hasn’t stopped it from being carried out on an estimated 200 million women living in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers. In many settings, health care providers also perform FGM due to the belief that the procedure is safer when medicalized.

The reasons for the practice are complex, but most practice it because of the belief that it is a religious requirement. While some believe that there are medical benefits to it.

The practice involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoral hood, clitoral glans, inner & outer labia, and the vulva’s closure, leaving a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.

FGM is still very much alive in Africa, but the rate of girls under the age of 14 who undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in the continent has seen a “huge and significant decline” over nearly three decades, according to a new analysis by bmj.

2. Lip Plates

Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

It’s very common in some parts of Africa to see people placing large disks made from clay or wood into a pierced lower lip until a large lip plate can be worn.

The Mursi and Surma people who inhabit the lower Omo River valley begin the excrutiatingly painfull process (The girl has her bottom teeth removed to make space for a lip plate) of lip stretching about six to 12 months before marriage. This is usually around the age of 15 to 18 when the lip is first pierced. At this time, a wooden peg is inserted.

Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

Over time, the peg is replaced by larger pegs, and eventually, a plate is inserted into the hole. The size of the plate depends on any of several factors, though the largest one ever recorded, in 2014, measured 23.4″ (59.5 cm) in circumference and 7.6″ (19.5 cm) wide.

3. Teeth Sharpening

Teeth Sharpening Cultural Body Modification in Africa

The teeth sharpening culture is most popular among the Makonde people in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique, the majority of ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some tribes in the Central African Republic, the Bemba of Zambia, and the Yao of Malawi and parts of Zambia.

Teeth sharpening was done for various reasons among these tribes. For some, the ritual was done to initiate young boys and girls who had reached puberty into adulthood. For these people, it was done during the adulthood rites of passage mainly because at that age they would be able to endure the pain to show that they were indeed ready for adulthood this was mainly among tribes in Congo and the Central African Republic and Gabon.

For other tribes, the teeth sharpening ritual was a general part of their custom and any person belonging to such a tribe was expected to have sharpened teeth at an expected age. In parts of Sudan, where indigenous tribes existed, the teeth sharpening ritual was also done for spiritual protection especially when one was seeking spiritual strength or chosen as a spiritual leader.

Other reasons for the teeth sharpening trend is for men to look like animals such as the crocodile as a sign of masculinity.

4. Scarification

Scarification Cultural Body Modification in Africa

Scarification involves the deliberate cutting, branding, scratching, or etching of patterns into the skin ergo creating permanent scars in the desired pattern.

Scarification could be done as a rite of passage, for religious reasons, or for social reasons.

Scarred designs mark important moments in a person’s life, including puberty and childbirth. Some designs, such as the raised dots across the foreheads of the Shilluk in the Sudan, indicate a person’s tribal heritage.

Cultural Body Modifications in Africa

There are numerous cultures worldwide, and throughout history, that have utilized some form of scarification for various reasons. But it is most commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa, and East Africa, including the Gonja, Tiv, and Maasai people.

Archeologists, people who study the physical remains of past cultures, have uncovered ancient African statues that depict humans with scar patterns similar to those seen on modern tribal members, leading them to believe that the practice is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

5. Gum Blackening

Gum Blackening Culture in Africa

For some of the women of Senegal, West Africa, dark tattooed gums are believed to be more attractive. The tattoo accentuates the teeth, making the women’s smiles brighter and more prominent. This painful custom of beautification is also believed to boost dental health and eliminate bad breath.

Gum Blackening Culture in Senegal

Tattooed black gums are especially popular in small towns and villages. There, the women practice this ancient tradition to achieve a smile that is considered to be more attractive. However, the process is really painful. The procedure was not well known internationally until 2012, when a video emerged showing a woman called Mariéme undergoing the process.

YouTube video

Gum tattooing in Senegal is typically done to women who need help to attract men.

To get a dark tattooed gum, a black mixture, obtained by burning oil and Shea butter is generously applied to the gums, then a needle-like instrument is repeatedly poked into the gums. This painful process is repeated, until black mixture seeps into the gum.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.


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