As humans, we innately look for ways to integrate ourselves into a common group. From piercings to tattoos to the clothes on our back to our very beliefs, we are in constant search for connection, and hopefully, a group we can call our own. It is through these actions, decisions and manners of self presentation that we factor into society.
For the Dinka people of southern Sudan, scarring one’s body is not only a way to find your clan in society- it is a full-blown right of passage. The ritual is performed on both boys and girls. The scarring patterns tell a story of personal bravery in the face of extreme pain, as well as where a particular individual belongs. The belonging sought in this sense is one of clan ties: different patterns are associated with different clans. Along with clan ties, scars can also signify physical beauty, namely in female individuals. As an added bonus to females, various scars from their forehead to their liver areas can be regarded as symbols of fertility, good health, eye sight and an increased resistance to headaches. A symbolic and interpretive anthropologist would argue that these scars are the direct result of learned clan traditions. Passed down through the years, from old to new, the symbolic scarring defines the Dinka people. When Clifford Geertz wrote of “webs of significance” defining man’s construction of culture, he argued that the given cultural laws were not scientific, but rather purposed for a “search of meaning”. With the Dinka scars representative of clans and well as being a direct product of culture, the symbols bring the various peoples together through a perceived sense of physical belonging.
Along with a significant symbolic meaning, these practices and rituals can be related to structural-functionalism. Frontier structural-functionalist Radcliffe-Brown suggested that the individual was “irrelevant and replaceable”. In Dinka culture, individuals who show no emotion (wincing, crying, screaming, etc.) are seen as worthy members of the group. They have passed from their adolescence to adult hood, quite literally by the razor’s edge. They now fill a man’s roles and responsibilities in the group, as proven by this test of courage. Alternatively, if the participant breaks this silence, they find themselves losing “a great deal of face” in the community. These individuals find themselves having their responsibilities given to tougher, braver persons. The brave find a pivotal role in society. The weak do not find this same recognition. From this comes the structure and function of the tribe, as decided by strength and courage.
Though painful and bloody the scars of the Dinka are multi-faceted. From beauty to courage to health, from clan ties and a sense of shared belonging, the brutal cuts bring about a great deal of symbolic meaning as well as a physical show of the structure and function to befall these individuals.