"Tribal Scars"
A Ghanaian man bearing tribal scars.

"Tribal Scars" was written by Sembene Ousmane, from Senegal. It was first published in French in 1962. It was translated to English by Len Ortzen in 1974. "Tribal Scars" is a short story in which Ousmane presents a theory of how tribal scarring first began. It begins with a group of men sitting around a table drinking tea and discussing current affairs. When the subject of tribal scarring comes up, the table erupts into a melee of confusion with everyone wanting to add his opinion of how the practice first started. The story that is eventually accepted by all is that African tribes began scarring themselves so they would not be taken as slaves, and ever since then, tribal scarring has been a symbol of freedom.

About the Author

Sembene Ousmane (1923- ) was born in Senegal. He was a self-educated fisherman until the beginning of World War Two when he was drafted into the French Army. After the war, Sembene realized that if he wanted to pursue his writing career, he would be better off in France. Once there, he joined the French Communist party and worked as a docker while he wrote. He is best know for his strong political/social works. He often writes openly about Africa's cooperation during the slave trade and has had some of his works banned in Senegal.

If you are interested in reading more about Sembene Ousmane, visit our site on his book, Xala. This book explores the continuing effects of colonization on the African people.



What if Oroonoko's Tribe Practiced Tribal Scarring?

In, Oroonoko, Alpha Behn spends a lot of time discussing Oroonoko and Imoinda's beauty (See text page on Oroonoko). Her ideal of beauty, however, is based on the Eurocentric ideals of the western world. "The most famous Statuary cou'd not form the Figure of a Man more admirably turn'd from head to foot...His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His Mouth, the finest shap'd that could be seen...The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so noble, and exactly form'd, that, bating his Colour, there cou'd be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome" (13). Of course, Behn's characterization of Oroonoko and Imoinda was necessary to convince her Eurocentric audience that these characters were worth caring about (Brown). How receptive would Behn's audience have been if Oroonoko's tribe had practiced the method of tribal scarring that Sembene Ousmane portrays in his short story "Tribal Scars" (Ousmane)?

If Oroonoko's tribe had practiced tribal scarring, Aphra Behn would have had trouble convincing her readers that the African's were worth saving. The practice of tribal scarring would most likely have reinforced to her readers that Africans were savages and unlike Europeans in any way. This would not have helped Behn's cause to fight slavery. For the sake of her book and her cause, Behn had to create characters with European characteristics and behaviors.




Recurring Themes in Stories about Slavery

The following theme pages may further develop your understanding of post colonial literature as it relates to Sembene Ousmane's "Tribal Scars".


The question of assimilation is omnipresent in post colonial literature. How has being colonized affected the colonized? The colonizer? When is someone "assimilated" into a new culture? How do they influence the culture they are assimilated into?


The audience an author has in mind for a written work inevitably influences the way in which the author writes it. Here we will start to look at how authors' intentions can be discussed in relation to the audience they address.

Literary Influences

Books fit into the evolution and progression of a preexisting body of literature. Where do they fit? How have they been influenced by previous literature? How do they influence literature to come?


Many authors utilize written material to influence social and political currents. Here we will begin to look at different means of social change authors write about, and how they are differently portrayed.

Literary Style or Historical Fact

Here we will begin to examine how authors--James, Equiano, and Zinn in particular--combine techniques of historical documentation with literary styles, and the effect this has on the interpretation and impacts of their works.



These links are mostly about slavery or Africa in general. If you have any links that are directly relevant to tribal scarring, please e-mail me and I will include them. Thanks, Vicki

***Read the story of a modern-day survivor of slavery in the Sudan. Francis Bok is an escaped slave who gained his freedom just four years ago. He currently lives in Boston where he is a staff member for the American Antislavery Group.

***Images of Colonial Africa is a site that exhibits the photographs and commentary of Laura Neva Collins, a missionary to Kenya in the early 1900s. Captions of photographs, unless otherwise noted, are Laura's original observations. This site can help us to understand the thinking and perceptions of the missionaries that visited Africa.

**Slavery is not just something that happened in the past. Visit the American Antislavery Group to learn about slavery that is taking place in the world today.

**Read the 8-part article by the Calgary Sun, "Humanity for Sale", and many other articles available through the American Antislavery Group's site for articles and literature.




Teaching About Slavery

Visit our Education Theme Page for more information about teaching about slavery in general, theories of teaching history through literature and much more.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some things people do today to establish their identity? How do these practices compare to Ousmane's depiction of tribal scarring?

2. Do you feel that Ousmane's explanation of tribal scarring is accurate or do was he presenting this story in the form of a fable?

3. What is the real lesson to learn from this story?

Lesson Plans

1. Compare "Tribal Scars" to some fables the students are familiar with. Write an essay about how we can learn about a society's culture from its fables.

2. Role play the story told in "Tribal Scars". Spend time getting the students to "feel" their characters. How does it feel to be the father? the daughter? the grandmother? the slave trader? Discuss or write about student reactions to the exercise.

Relevant Information

Elenora Tate's South Carolina Trilogy is a great way to introduce the topic of black pride to children. Read Carole Brown Knuth's article "African-American Children and the Case for Community: Elenora Tate's South Carolina Trilogy" in the African American Review for more information about these books.

This is a wooden mask from Nigeria. Notice the tribal scarring on the forehead and temple areas.


Teaching Links

Looking for a young adult book that deals with the issue of African's being socialized in the Western world? At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England is the true story of a young African girl who is rescued from death in Africa and ends up under the protection of Queen Victoria.

Educational Resources from the Antislavery Organization include activities, resources, and lesson plans.

The Art and Life in Africa Project by the University of Iowa is a lush resource for information on Africa. Also available through this website is a CD-ROM with a teaching guide.

The G. I. Jones Photographic Archive of Southeastern Nigerian Art and Culture has many photographs of Nigerian people and their culture.

While I was searching for photos of tribal scarring, I found many wonderful sites regarding African culture. The best source for links is by far the Columbia University African Studies links page.

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Joanna Lipking ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Brown, Laura. "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," in Oroonoko. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Ousmane, Sembene. "Tribal Scars". Tribal Scars and Other Stories. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1962.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Page Created by: Vicki L. Whisler

Last Updated: June, 2001