Tattoos are seriously entering Africa. I came face to face with a huge roaring dragon whose home is the back of a Congolese lady. I spotted the Brooklyn Bridge tattooed on the neck of a Marrakesh resident. I kept on meeting tattoos in 2016 from Johannesburg and Kigali to Kinshasa and Casablanca.
In the African context, can we see the tattoos and body painting as a reminiscence of the scars or scarification that used to define and distinguish various tribal groups, from the Congo to Ghana, from Mali to Ethiopia? For sure, tattoos look less dramatic than the scarification that entered my life decades ago. At the age of 8-10, I visited a couple of times an uncle who had the face fully covered with scarification. It was literally linear trenches dug into his skin. I used to stare at him at length while he was conversing with Dad. “He must have suffered atrociously as he had these scars put on his face. How can he smile and laugh with these painful things on his face?” I used to think. One day I dared to ask my father about scarification.
Dad said that scarification stood for both symbols of a high status in the social hierarchy in his tribe – like in other Bantu tribes – and for proof that the bearer had passed certain rites. “But that was long time ago” he concluded.
Today’s tattoos recurrently appear in the upper middle class and urban youth. They appear as a colourful coquetry or expensive accessories. Almost all the tattooed women I met, live in megacities, they drink imported beer and Coke Light, they are well connected and live active professional and social lives. Tattoos are in social circles where they are accepted, valued, even sought after. So far, apart from certain pieces, they are small or medium, they are to be discrete and visible at the same time. They are on hips, wrists, ankles, breasts, forearms, necks. But just to be clear, they are regarded with suspicion, even banned in corporate, established, powerful social circles. I actually have yet to see a mature, middle-age man with a tattoo.
The force behind the growing tattoo trend is urban youth, particularly those aspiring to be influencers and personalities. Many rising stars of the modern Congolese, Ivorian, and Nigerian music proudly show and brag about their tattoos. Like hip hop artists in the USA, modern African artists and personalities are tolerated but seldom qualified as role models. It therefore remains to be seen whether tattoos will outlive the hype and go beyond strictly identified borders in societies.
Barclays used to offer fast credit to consumers, OMO claims to remove stains faster, Western Union asserts to be the fastest money transfer provider, MTN promises more speed in the adverts for its online access and payment solutions. “Fast” has become a recurrent sales argument for many brands in Africa as they are trying to attract légions of consumers moving en masse to cities, modern lifestyle, and the middle-class. The conventional wisdom is that these consumers now aspire to live a productive, time-efficient, hassle-free life.
A sector has now just entered the “fast” trend: food and drinks. And various Indian brands are taking the lead, advertising and offering packaged, easy-to-cook, ready-in-5minutes meals from breakfast, lunch to dinner, dessert. But perhaps realizing that shifts in consumer tastes represent a huge challenge, the Indians’ other ad slogan is “Try It”. So here I am in Kinshasa DRC ready to try a full set of instant Indian meals.
“Clean” is another word used by Made-in-India in their aggressive courtship of modern consumers. Sales representatives go door-to-door to demonstrate how to easily make clean water at home or at the office. Result: I find myself installing and trying a water purifier that the Indian giant, Tata Group, has just released in the DRC market (see the picture on my LinkedIn)
How big is the scale of unmet consumer needs and untapped opportunities behind simple words: easy, clean, clear, safe, solid?