I have been revisiting an article that I read last semester Boundaries of Beauty: Tattooed Secrets of Women’s History in Magude District, Southern Mozambique, by Heidi Gengenbach. When I was at home over Winter Break, I asked my mum if she knew about this tattooing tradition. To my surprise she said that she had seen women cutting their skin when she was a little girl. However, the practice had now died and it was no longer common at all. She also mentioned that this tradition was not necessarily part of our family tradition, but that she had seen other people in Chipinge with tattoos. This is very interesting to me because my family is from Chipinge, Zimbabwe. This region borders Mozambique. In fact to this day, some families will migrate a few miles, back and forth from Zimbabwe to Mozambique when crops fail and money is lacking. It therefore would not be entirely surprising to find a few older ladies with the same sort of tattoos that Gengenbach writes about.
I am very interested in these tattoos because of what they meant for women. These tattoos were etched onto women’s bodies, by women and for women. Unlike in other parts of Africa, the women in Mozambique endured the pain of getting their skin carved away in order to beautify themselves. I learnt that this was not something that was forced, instead young girls chose to adorn their skin this way and would run off to get tattoos without notifying their parents.
Earlier colonial observers came up with incorrect assumptions in regards to these tattoos. Some thought that the marks signified family ties or ethnic lines, yet the designs were often unique and were a reflection of a particular trend. They also depended on the skill of the tattooer. Others believed that women endured them primarily to enhance sexual stimulation for the husbands, but this was not correct. The women were tattooed to gain a particular sense of womanhood and beauty. They would often show off their tattooes at the river amongst themselves, and bonds would be made between tattoo artist and the women.
I really like the idea of women coming together and displaying their marks. I like the idea of women communicating in a free way, away from male dominance or the complexity that male relationship can bring. As women, we all (should) congregate as a way of freeing ourselves for a little while. Women need each other, and every girl needs a girl friend. I think that the way in which we share and bond differs from culture to culture.
Reading this article reminded me of my aunts in Zimbabwe. They come together in different ways in order show their marks. Not beautifying marks like the tattooes in Mozambique, but emotional marks. Many of them remain in abusive relationships but manage to cope in amazing ways.
I am thinking of making clay torsos with scarification marks to represent my aunts.