Tribal Scars


By Ousmane Sembene

In the evenings we all go to Mane’s place, where we drink mint tea and discuss all sorts of subjects, even though we know very little about them. But recently we neglected the major problems such as the ex-Belgian Congo, the trouble in the Mali Federation, the Algerian War and the next UN meeting—even women, a subject which normally takes up about a quarter of our time. The reason was that Saer, who is usually so stolid and serious, had raised the question, ‘Why do we have tribal scars?’

(I should add that Saer is half Burkinabé, half Senegalese; but he has no tribal scars.)

Although not all of us have such scars on our faces, I have never heard such an impassioned discussion, such a torrent of words, in all the time we have been meeting together at Mane’s. To hear us, anyone would have thought that the future of the whole continent of Africa was at stake. Every evening for weeks the most fantastic and unexpected explanations were put forward. Some of us went to neighboring villages and even farther afield to consult the elders and the griots, who are known as the ‘encyclopedias’ of the region, in an endeavor to penetrate to its depths this mystery, which seemed buried in the distant past.

Saer was able to prove that all the explanations were wrong.

Someone said vehemently that ‘it was a mark of nobility’; another that ‘it was a sign of bondage’. A third declared that ‘It was decorative—there was a tribe which would not accept a man or a woman unless they had these distinctive marks on the face and body.’ One joker told us with a straight face that: ‘Once upon a time, a rich African chief sent his son to be educated in Europe. The chief’s son was a child when he went away, and when he returned he was a man. So he was educated, an intellectual, let us say. He looked down on the tribal traditions and customs. His father was annoyed by this, and wondered how to bring him back into the royal fold. He consulted his chief counselor. And one morning, out on the square and in front of the people, the son’s face was marked with cuts.’

No one believed that story, and the teller was reluctantly obliged to abandon it.

Someone else said: ‘I went to the French Institute and hunted around in books, but found nothing. However, I learned that the wives of the gentlemen in high places are having these marks removed from their faces; they go to Europe to consult plastic surgeons. For the new rules for African beauty disdain the old standards of the country; the women are becoming Americanized. It’s the spreading influence of the “darkies” of Fifth Avenue, New York. And as the trend develops, tribal scars lose their meaning and importance and are bound to disappear.’

We talked about their diversity, too; about the variety even within one tribe. Cuts were made on the body as well as on the face. This led someone to ask: ‘If these tribal scars were signs of nobility, or of high or low caste, why aren’t they ever seen in the Americas?’

‘Ah, we’re getting somewhere at last!’ exclaimed Saer, who obviously knew the right answer to his original question, or thought he did.

‘Tell us then. We give up,’ we all cried.

‘All right,’ said Saer. He waited while the man on duty brought in glasses of hot tea and passed them round. The room became filled with the aroma of mint.

‘So we’ve got around to the Americas,’ Saer began. ‘Now, none of the authoritative writers on slavery and the slave trade has ever mentioned tribal scars, so far as I know. In South America, where fetishism and witchcraft as practiced by slaves still survive to this day, no tribal scars have ever been seen. Neither do Negroes living in the Caribbean have them, nor in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic nor anywhere else. So we come back to Black Africa before the slave trade, to the time of the old Ghana Empire, the Mali and the Gao Empires, and the cities and kingdoms of the Hausa, Bournou, Benin, Mossi and so on. Now, not one of the travelers who visited those places and wrote about them mentions this practice of tribal scars. So where did it originate?’

By now everyone had stopped sipping hot tea; they were all listening attentively.

‘If we study the history of the slave trade objectively we find that the dealers sought blacks who were strong and healthy and without blemish. We find too, among other things, that in the markets here in Africa and on arrival overseas the slave was inspected, weighed and evaluated like an animal. No one was inclined to buy merchandise which had any blemish or imperfection, apart from a small mark which was the stamp of the slave-trader; but nothing else was tolerated on the body of the beast. For there was also the preparation of the slave for the auction market; he was washed and polished—whitened, as they said then—which raised the price. How, then, did these scars originate?’

We could find no answer. His historical survey had deepened the mystery for us.

‘Go on, Saer, you tell us,’ we said, more eager than ever to hear his story of the origin of tribal scars.

And this is what he told us:

The slave-ship African had been anchored in the bay for days, waiting for a full load before sailing for the Slave States. There were already more than fifty black men and thirty Negro women down in the hold. The captain’s agents were scouring the country for supplies. On this particular day only a few of the crew were on board; with the captain and the doctor, they were all in the latter’s cabin. Their conversation could be heard on deck.

Amoo bent lower and glanced back at the men who were following him. He was a strong, vigorous man with rippling muscles, fit for any manual work. He gripped his axe firmly in one hand and felt his long cutlass with the other, then crept stealthily forward. More armed men dropped lithely over the side onto the ship, one after the other. Momutu, their leader, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a blue uniform with red facings, and high black boots, signaled with his musket to surround the ship. The ship’s watchman had appeared from nowhere and tried to escape by jumping into the sea. But the blacks who had remained in the canoes seized him and speared him to death.

Fighting had broken out aboard the African. One of the crew tried to get to close quarters with the leading attackers and was struck down. The captain and the remaining men shut themselves in the doctor’s cabin. Momutu and his band, armed with muskets and cutlasses, besieged the cabin, firing at it now and again. Meanwhile the vessel was being looted. As the shots rang out, the attackers increased in number; canoes left the shore, glided across the water to the African, and returned laden with goods.

Momutu called his lieutenants to him—four big fellows armed to the teeth. ‘Start freeing the prisoners and get them out of the hold.’

‘What about him?’ asked his second-in-command, nodding towards Amoo who was standing near the hatchway.

‘We’ll see about him later,’ replied Momutu. ‘He’s looking for his daughter. Get the hold open—and don’t give any arms to the local men. Take the lot!’

The air was heavy with the smell of powder and sweat. Amoo was already battering away at the hatch-covers, and eventually they were broken open with axes and a ram.

Down in the stinking hold the men lay chained together by their ankles. As soon as they had heard the firing they had begun shouting partly with joy, partly from fright. From between-decks, where the women were, came terrified cries. Among all this noise, Amoo could make out his daughter’s voice. Sweat pouring from him, he hacked at the panels with all his strength.

‘Hey, brother, over here!’ a man called to him. ‘You’re in a hurry to find your daughter?’

‘Yes,’ he answered, his eyes glittering with impatience.

After many hours of hard work the hold was wide open and Momutu’s men had brought up the captives and lined them up on deck, where the ship’s cargo for barter had been gathered together: barrels of spirits, boxes of knives, crates containing glassware, silks, umbrellas and cloth. Amoo had found his daughter, Iome, and the two were standing a little apart from the rest. Amoo knew very well that Momutu had rescued the captives only in order to sell them again. It was he who had lured the African’s captain into the bay.

‘Now we’re going ashore,’ Momutu told them. ‘I warn you that you are my prisoners. If anyone tries to escape or to kill himself, I’ll take the man next in the line and cut him to pieces.’

The sun was sinking towards the horizon and the bay had become a silvery, shimmering sheet of water; the line of trees along the shore stood out darkly. Momutu’s men began to put the takings into canoes and take it ashore. Momutu, as undisputed leader, directed operations and gave orders. Some of his men still stood on guard outside the cabin, reminding those inside of their presence by discharging their muskets at the door every few minutes. When the ship had been cleared, Momutu lit a long fuse that ran to two kegs of gunpowder. The captain, finding that all was quiet, started to make his way up top; as he reached the deck, a ball from a musket hit him full in the chest. The last canoes pulled away from the ship, and when they were half way to the shore the explosions began; then the African blew up and sank.

By the time everything had been taken ashore it was quite dark. The prisoners were herded together and a guard set over them, although their hands and feet were still tied. Throughout the night their whisperings and sobs could be heard, punctuated now and then by the sharp crack of a whip. Some distance away, Momutu and his aides were reckoning up their haul, drinking quantities of spirits under the starry sky as they found how well they had done for themselves.

Momutu sent for Amoo to join them.

‘You’ll have a drink with us, won’t you?’ said Momutu when Amoo approached with his sleeping daughter on his back (but they only appeared as dim shadows).

‘I must be going. I live a long way off and the coast isn’t a safe place now. I’ve been working for you for two months,' said Amoo, refusing a drink.

‘Is it true that you killed your wife rather than let her be taken prisoner by slave-traders?’ asked one of the men, reeking of alcohol.


‘And you’ve risked your life more than once to save your daughter?’

‘She’s my daughter! I’ve seen all my family sold into slavery one after another, and taken away into the unknown. I’ve grown up with fear, fleeing with my tribe so as not to be made a slave. In my tribe there are no slaves, we’re all equal.’

‘That’s because you don’t live on the coast,’ put in a man, which made Momutu roar with laughter. ‘Go on, have a drink! You’re a great fighter. I saw how you cut down that sailor. You’re good with an axe.’

‘Stay with me. You’re tough and you know what you want,’ said Momutu, passing the keg of spirits to him. Amoo politely declined a drink. ‘This is our work,’ Momutu went on. ‘We scour the grasslands, take prisoners and sell them to the whites. Some captains know me, but I entice others to this bay and some of my men lure the crew off the ship. Then we loot the ship and get the prisoners back again. We kill any whites left on board. It’s easy work, and we win all round. I’ve given you back your daughter. She’s a fine piece and worth several iron bars.’

(Until the seventeenth century on the west coast of Africa slaves were paid for with strings of cowrie shells as well as with cheap goods; later, iron bars took the place of cowries. It is known that elsewhere in other markets iron bars have always been the medium of exchange.)

‘It’s true that I’ve killed men,’ said Amoo, ‘but never to take prisoners and sell them as slaves. That’s your work, but it isn’t mine. I want to get back to my village.’

‘He’s an odd fellow. He thinks of nothing but his village, his wife and his daughter.’

Amoo could only see the whites of their eyes. He knew that these men would not think twice of seizing himself and his daughter and selling them to the first slave-trader they encountered. He was not made in their evil mold.

‘I wanted to set off tonight.’

‘No,’ snapped Momutu. The alcohol was beginning to take effect, but he controlled himself and softened his voice. ‘We’ll be in another fight soon. Some of my men have gone with the remaining whites to collect prisoners. We must capture them. Then you’ll be free to go.’

‘I’m going to get her to lie down and have some sleep. She’s had a bad time,’ said Amoo, moving away with his daughter.

‘Has she had something to eat?’

‘We’ve both eaten well. I’ll be awake early.’

The two disappeared into the night; but a shadowy figure followed them.

‘He’s a fine, strong fellow. Worth four kegs.’

‘More than that,’ added another. ‘He’d fetch several iron bars and some other stuff as well.’

‘Don’t rush it! After the fight tomorrow we’ll seize him and his daughter too. She’s worth a good bit. We mustn’t let them get away. There aren’t many of that kind to be found along the coast now.’

A soothing coolness was coming in from the sea. Night pressed close, under a starry sky. Now and then a scream of pain rose sharply, followed by another crack of the whip. Amoo had settled down with Iome some distance away from the others. His eyes were alert, though his face looked sleepy. During the dozen fights he had taken part in to redeem his daughter, Momutu had been able to judge his qualities, his great strength and supple body. Three times three moons ago, slave-hunters had raided Amoo’s village and carried off all the able-bodied people. He had escaped their clutches because that day he had been out in the bush. His mother-in-law, who had been rejected because of her elephantiasis, had told him the whole story.

When he had recovered his daughter from the slave-ship, his tears had flowed freely. Firmly holding the girl’s wrist and clutching the bloodstained axe in his other hand, his heart had beat fast. Iome, who was nine or ten years old, had wept too.

He had tried to soothe away her fears. ‘We’re going back to the village. You mustn’t cry, but you must do what I tell you. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, father.’

‘Don’t cry any more. It’s all over now! I’m here with you.’

And there in the cradle of the night, Iome lay asleep with her head on her father’s thigh. Amoo unslung his axe and placed it close at hand. Sitting with his back against a tree, his whole attention was concentrated on the immediate surroundings. At the slightest rustle, his hand went out to grasp his weapon. He dozed a little from time to time.

Even before a dim gleam had lighted the east, Momutu roused his men. Some of them were ordered to take the prisoners and the loot to a safe place. Amoo and Iome kept out of the way. The girl had deep-set eyes and was tall for her age; her hair was parted in the middle and drawn into two plaits which hung down to her shoulders. She clung to her father’s side; she had seen her former companions from the slave-ship, and although she may not have known the fate in store for them, the sound of the whips left her in no doubt as to their present state.

‘They’ll wait for us farther on,’ said Momutu, coming across to Amoo. ‘We mustn’t let ourselves be surprised by the whites’ scouting party. Why are you keeping your child with you? You could have left her with one of my men.’

‘I’d rather keep her with me. She’s very frightened,’ answered Amoo, watching the prisoners and escort moving off.

‘She’s a beautiful girl.’


‘As beautiful as her mother?’

‘Not quite.’

Momutu turned away and got the rest of his men, about thirty, on the move. They marched in single file. Momutu was well known among slave-traders, and none of them trusted him. He had previously acted as an agent for some of the traders, then had become a ‘master of language’ (interpreter), moving between the forts and camps where the captured Negroes were held.

They marched all that morning, with Amoo and his daughter following in the rear. When Iome was tired, her father carried her on his back. He was well aware that a watch was being kept on him. The men ahead of him were coarse, sorry-looking creatures; they looked ridiculous, trailing their long muskets. They began to leave the grasslands behind and soon were among tall trees where flocks of vultures perched. No one spoke. All that could be heard was the chattering of birds and now and again a distant, echoing howling. Then they reached the forest, humid and hostile, and Momutu called a halt; he dispersed his men and told them to rest.

‘Are you tired, brother?’ one of them asked Amoo. ‘And what about her?’

Iome raised her thick-lashed eyes towards the man, then looked at her father.

‘She’s a bit tired,’ said Amoo, looking round for a resting-place. He saw a fallen trunk at the foot of a tree and took Iome to it. The man set to keep watch on them remained a little distance away.

Momutu had a few sweet potatoes distributed to the men, and when this meager meal was over he went to see Amoo.

‘How’s your daughter?’

‘She’s asleep,’ said Amoo, who was carving a doll out of a piece of wood.

‘She’s a strong girl,’ said Momutu, sitting down beside him and taking off his broad-brimmed hat. His big black boots were all muddy. ‘We’ll have a rest and wait for them here. They’re bound to come this way.’

Amoo was more and more on his guard. He nodded, but kept his eyes on Iome in between working at the piece of wood, which was gradually taking shape.

‘After that you’ll be free to go. Do you really want to go back to your village?’


‘But you haven’t anybody left there,’ said Momutu, and without waiting for Amoo to reply went on, ‘I once had a village, too, on the edge of a forest. My mother and father lived there, many relatives—a whole clan! We had meat to eat and sometimes fish. But over the years, the village declined. There was no end to the lamentations. Ever since I was born I’d heard nothing but screams, seen mad flights into the bush or the forest. You go into the forest, and you die from some disease; you stay in the open, and you’re captured to be sold into slavery. What was I to do? Well, I made my choice. I’d rather be with the hunters than the hunted.’

Amoo, too, knew that such was life. You were never safe, never sure of seeing the next day dawn. But what he did not understand was the use made of the men and women who were taken away. It was said that the whites used their skins for making boots.

They talked for a long time, or rather Momutu talked without stopping. He boasted of his exploits and his drinking bouts. As Amoo listened, he became more and more puzzled about Momutu’s character. He was like some petty warlord, wielding power by force and constraint. Eventually, after what seemed a very long time to Amoo, a man came to warn the chief that the whites were approaching. Momutu gave his orders—kill them all, and hold their prisoners. In an instant the forest fell silent; only the neutral voice of the wind could be heard.

The long file of black prisoners came into view, led by four Europeans each armed with two pistols and a musket. The prisoners, men and women, were joined together by a wooden yoke bolted round the neck and attached to the man in front and the one behind. Three more Europeans brought up the rear, and a fourth, probably ill, was being carried in a stretcher by four natives.

A sudden burst of firing from up in the trees echoed long and far. This was followed by screams and confused fighting. Amoo took advantage to fell the man guarding him and, taking his daughter by the hand, slipped away into the forest.

They crossed streams and rivers, penetrating ever deeper into the forest but heading always to the south-east. Amoo’s knife and axe had never been so useful as during this time. They traveled chiefly at night, never in broad daylight, avoiding all human contact.

Three weeks later they arrived at the village—about thirty huts huddled together between the bush and the source of a river. There were few inhabitants about at that hour of the day; besides, having been frequently drained of its virile members, the village was sparsely populated. When Amoo and Iome reached the threshold of his mother-in-law’s hut, the old woman limped out and her cries drew other people, many of them feeble. They were terrified at first, but stood uttering exclamations of joy and surprise when they saw Amoo and Iome. Tears and questions mingled as they crowded round. Iome’s grandmother gathered her up and took her into the hut like a most precious possession, and the girl replied to her questions between floods of tears.

The elders sent for Amoo to have a talk and tell them of his adventures.

‘All my life, and since before my father’s life,’ said one of the oldest present, ‘the whole country has lived in the fear of being captured and sold to the whites. The whites are barbarians.’

‘Will it ever end?’ queried another. ‘I have seen all my children carried off, and I can’t remember how many times we have moved the village. We can’t go any farther into the forest . . . there are the wild beasts, diseases . . .’

‘I’d rather face wild beasts than slave-hunters,’ said a third man. ‘Five or six rains ago, we felt safe here. But we aren’t any longer. There’s a slave camp only three-and-a-half days’ march from the village.’

They fell silent; their wrinkled, worn and worried faces bore the mark of their epoch. They discussed the necessity to move once again. Some were in favor, others pointed out the danger of living in the heart of the forest without water, the lack of strong men, and the family graves that would have to be abandoned. The patriarch, who had the flat head and thick neck of a degenerate, proposed that they should spend the winter where they were but send a group to seek another suitable site. It would be sheer madness to leave without having first discovered and prepared a place to go to. There were also the customary sacrifices to be made. Finally, all the men agreed on this course of action. During the short time they would remain there, they would increase cultivation and hold all the cattle in common, keeping the herd in an enclosure. The patriarch was of the opinion that the old women could be used to keep a watch on the village.

The return of Amoo and Iome had put new life into them. They started working communally, clearing and weeding the ground and mending the fences. The men set off for work together and returned together. The women busied themselves too; some did the cooking while others kept a look-out for any surprise visit by ‘procurers’. (Procurers were native agents, recognizable by their uniform in the colors of the nation they worked for; they were commonly called ‘slave-hunters’.) No one looked in the direction of the sea without a feeling of apprehension.

The rains came, and the fertile, bountiful earth gave life to the seeds that had been sown. Although the villagers went about their work with no visible sign of worry or fear, they were always on the alert for an attack, knowing it was bound to come sooner or later.

Amoo shared his hut with Iome and always slept with a weapon close at hand. Even a harmless gust of wind sent the girl into a panic. Amoo put his whole heart into his work; Iome, by general agreement, was allowed to rest as much as possible, and she gradually recovered from her ordeal. Her black cheeks shone again, tiny folds formed round her neck and her flat little breasts began to fill out.

Days and weeks slipped by peacefully. The narrow, cultivated strips of land, wrenched from the grip of nature after long struggles, were giving promise of a good harvest. The cassava plants were in bud; the people were beginning to get in stocks of palm-oil, butter, beans and honey, in fact everything they would need in the new village. The prospecting party returned, having discovered an excellent site at the foot of the mountains but above the grasslands, and not far from a running stream. The soil was good, there was plenty of pasture, and the children would be safe from the ‘procurers’.

Everyone was very pleased with the prospect. The patriarch named the day for departure, and the feeling of safety in the near future led to a relaxation of precautions. Fires, previously forbidden during the hours of darkness for fear of betraying the village, now glowed at night; laughter rang out, and children dared to wander out of sight of their parents, for the adults were thinking only of the departure. They could count the days now. In the council hut there were discussions on which was the favorable sign for the move. Each and everyone was attending to the household gods, the totems and the family graves.

Yet it was not a sacred day, but one like any other. The sun was shining brightly, the tender green leaves of the trees were rustling in the wind, the clouds frolicked in the sky, the hummingbirds were gaily seeking food, and the monkeys especially were frolicking in the trees. The whole village was enjoying this glorious day, the kind that can tempt a traveler to stay awhile, a long while.

And it happened on that particular day! On that day the ‘procurers’ suddenly appeared. The frightened animals instinctively fled madly into the forest; men, women and children gave terrified screams on hearing the firing and scattered in panic, having but one thought, to flee to the only retreat open to them—the forest.

Amoo, grasping his axe, pushed Iome and her grandmother before him. But the old, handicapped woman could make only slow progress. They had fled between the huts and the enclosure and gained the edge of the village, and then Amoo had come face to face with one of Momutu’s lieutenants. Amoo was the quicker, and struck him down. But now a whole pack was in pursuit.

Amoo went deeper into the forest, where the thick undergrowth and overhanging branches made progress even slower. Still, if Amoo had been alone, he could have escaped. But he could not abandon his child. He thought of his wife. He had killed her so that she should not be taken. His mother-in-law reminded him of his wife. To abandon the old woman would be abandoning his wife. Time and again, the old woman stopped to get her breath; her thick leg was becoming ever weightier to drag along. Amoo helped her as best he could, while Iome stuck to his side, not saying a word.

An idea came to Amoo. He stopped, took Iome gently by the chin and gazed at her for a long time, for what seemed an eternity. His eyes filled with tears.

‘Mother,’ he said, ‘we can’t go any farther. Ahead, there’s death for all three of us. Behind, there’s slavery for Iome and me.’

‘I can’t go a step farther,’ said the old woman, taking her granddaughter by the hand. She raised a distraught face to Amoo.

‘Mother, Iome can escape them. You both can. Your skin is no longer any use, the whites can’t make boots with it.’

‘But if Iome’s left alone, she’ll die. And what about you?’

‘You go free. What happens to me is my affair.’

‘You’re not going to kill us?’ exclaimed the woman.

‘No, mother. But I know what to do so that Iome stays free. I must do it quickly. They’re getting near, I can hear their voices.’

A thunderbolt seemed to burst in his head and the ground to slip away from him. He took a grip on himself, seized his knife and went to a particular bush (the Wolof call it Bantamare; its leaves have antiseptic properties), wrenched off a handful of the large leaves and returned to the other two, who had been watching him wonderingly.

His eyes blurred with tears as he looked at his daughter. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Iome.’

‘You’re not going to kill her as you did her mother?’ exclaimed his mother-in-law again.

‘No. Iome, this is going to hurt, but you’ll never be a slave. Do you understand?’

The child’s only answer was to stare at the blade of the knife. She remembered the slave-ship and the bloodstained axe.

Swiftly, Amoo gripped the girl between his strong legs and began making cuts all over her body. The child’s cries rang through the—forest; she screamed till she had no voice left. Amoo just had time to finish before the slave-hunters seized him. He had wrapped the leaves all round the girl. With the other captured villagers, Amoo was taken down to the coast. Iome returned to the village with her grandmother, and thanks to the old woman’s knowledge of herbs Iome’s body soon healed; but she still bore the scars.

Months later, the slave-hunters returned to the village; they captured Iome but let her go again. She was worth nothing, because of the blemishes on her body.

The news spread for miles around. People came from the remotest villages to consult the grandmother. And over the years and the centuries a diversity of scars appeared on the bodies of our ancestors.

And that is how our ancestors came to have tribal scars. They refused to be slaves.