Urban dweller
The closet

The important cultural ritual of the Sepik crocodile etching

Sepik crocodile scarificationEMMANUEL MAROSI

An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Award for Tourism, Arts & Culture Writing

THE afternoon was hot and airless. We strolled along the beach as the waves rolled in and gently splashed our feet, caressing the fine black sand and leaving behind a veneer of foam as they retreated.

Behind us a lazy red sun was slowly sinking behind hills. Its rays made the clouds silver and a cool, soothing breeze raced from the sea. Crabs played hide and seek and graffitied the dry sand.

The artistic ability of the crabs caused the Sepik man, in his late fifties, to reminisce about his days of initiation in the men’s house.

With pride he removed his shirt and showed us the etchings on his back and chest. They were intricately carved into his skin. When examined closely, they resembled the scaly back of a crocodile.

His tale was sweet yet painful. The process of initiation is not for the faint hearted. It makes men out of boys: these heroes go through initiation without any form of anaesthetic.

They have to withstand the ripples of pain echoing through their nervous system, a pain that throbs right through to the heart.

The deep skin cutting process uses razor sharp scalpels and hooks that pierce the skin and tear the flesh, allowing blood to gush from fresh wounds. The wounds are treated with tree oil and medicinal herbs, both to avoid infection and to raise the bumps that give shape to the crocodile’s scaly back.

The Sepik River sustains an astounding variety of flora and fauna including multitudes of crocodiles and the wellspring of human cultural expression they offer. The Sepik people are ancestrally, culturally and spiritually linked to this monstrous fresh water reptile, known in Pidgin as the pukpuk.

“The crocodile features prominently in legends and rites of the Sepik people,” the old man said.

“The history of the sacred bond between the crocodile and the Sepik people goes far back as the creation.

“Crocodiles and their markings are carved by artisans on house posts, orator’s stools, totem poles, canoes and wooden plates. The art-carvers and are revered within their tribes.”

The men who have these tattoos have standing within their tribes and communities. In fact, “tattoo” is a misleading term because tattooing leaves smooth marks but this process leaves scars. It is often referred to as scarification.

Scarification involves scratching, etching or superficially cutting designs, pictures or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. Most tattoos can be erased.

Scarification is tormenting because men have to bear excruciating pain and lose large amounts of blood. But that is part of the purpose – to signify their transition from boyhood to manhood.

In the East Sepik Province and, in particular, in places along the bank of the Sepik River - like Ambunti, where this man hails from - the people are renowned for scarifying their young men.

“The process of scarifying our bodies with the mark of the crocodile is only painful on the outside but holds sacred connections with our ancestors’ spirits and the crocodile”, the old man declared.

“This initiation is of vital importance to the people of Sepik. With almost everyone who goes through the process, the dotted lines on the chest and back will be evident and are non-erasable. These dotted designs represent the teeth and scales of the crocodile.”

When asked why this was done, he replied: “The mark of the crocodile is a symbolic part in the process.

“By bearing the mark of the crocodile through the process of scarification, we believe we inherit the power, strength and fierceness of the crocodile.

“And it also represents the crocodile’s other features like security, protection and connection with ancestors.”

All men who undergo the process of scarification bear the mark with pride because they are considered leaders in their communities. With the scars come respect and power.

It is their duty to provide for and protect their village. It is their duty to ensure that peace and good order prevail. It is their duty to ensure that festivities and rituals are observed.

The practice of scarification is an important part of the initiation of Sepik men. The mark identifies them as Sepik men.

The entire process of initiating boys into men involves teaching skills like hunting, courting, fishing, carving and house building.

It is a tradition of intrinsic importance and is passed down from forefathers to descendants. An undying culture that will still survive the test of time in the Sepik.

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