Mrs. Sinou: “I refuse to do it to my children. This will stay on my face only.”
Mr. Guemi: “I already wear my identity card on my face. This is the reason why people did it : to recognize one another. But now, this is over. We can no more be recognized.”
For Hââbré, The Last Generation, Ivory Coast, Abidjan-based photographer Joana Choumali captures some of the final faces marked by scarification, the ancient custom of superficially cutting the flesh to form permanent signatures along body. With the urbanization and westernization of cities like Abidjan, Hââbré has gone out of fashion and has even been prohibited in certain areas. Here, Choumali traces the legacy of the tradition as it exists within a modernized society, framing her subjects with an objective and compassionate eye that neither condemns nor affirms their personal histories.
Although the practice has existed throughout the African continent in various forms, Choumali explains that members of the region’s Kô tribe implemented Hââbré, a word that also means “writing,” as a means of expressing their identity, of delineating between specific villages and tribes. As less and less people are practicing Hââbré on their children, only people born some five or six decades ago have facial markings. Where they once carried with them cultural distinction, the scars have become a mark of the past, their wearers rejected by mainstream society. Choumali notes that because of widespread negative attitudes towards Hââbré, “Many people say that if they could, they would erase their scars.”
Choumali had difficultly finding her subjects in an urban environment; once she contacted them, many were hesitant. She explains that she ultimately gained access through a tailor and his wife, who connected her with other people with facial scars. Choumali’s subjects’ views on Hââbré vary, each informed by his or her experience, but all of them stand at a critical point in Africa’s nuanced history, living in the present while simultaneously bearing physical reminders of the past.
Mr. Lawal: “It is here in town that I am ‘nobody’. In the village, I am a noble; people bow down when they see my face! I am proud of that.
Ms. K. Benin: “People would go in groups to get their scarifications, and I went with my friends…”
Mr. Konabé: “Our parents did this not to get lost in life. When you went somewhere, you could not get lost.”
Mr. Boudo: “It is not easy to hit on girls with that. Especially, the Ivorians. I think it is not very attractive.”
Mr. Pousnouaga: “It was like an identity card in my family. Each tribe has their scars.”
Ms. Djeneba: ” I used to like my scars; they were beautiful. We used to brag about them. But, now, in the city, it is definitely out of fashion.”
Mr. Salbre: “ I do not want this for my children. We are the last generation.”
Ms. Martine: “When I was 10 years, I asked for them. I wanted to be like my brothers and sisters, and to show that I am courageous. “
All images © Joana Choumali