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Marked for life? Are your tribal marks attractive or repulsive?

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As incredible as it may seem, many people find tribal marks repulsive.

The first time Akinwunmi travelled to the United kingdom several years ago, he recalled how a little white girl approached him where he was seated at the airport and studied his face. Akinwunmi had four long horizontal lines deeply etched on his two cheeks.

The girl was aged about six. Akinwunmi was initially embarrassed at the way the girl stared at him. Her parents were seated a few yards away and not knowing how to send her away, he decided to engage her in a conversation.

lTribal marks
lTribal marks

Then, the girl came clean to ask about the marks on his face and he told her he fought and killed a lion. Impressed, she ran back to her parents shouting on top of her voice that she wanted her doll and a biro. She was shouting that she had just met a brave man who had killed a lion.

The little girl drew the attention of many who shifted their gaze to Akinwunmi’s direction and wondered at him. Some of the men even nodded in admiration at his bravery and the little white girl returned, holding her doll and a biro. She lovingly caressed Akinwunmi’s face and the marks on his face before giving him her doll for his autograph.

Now visibly embarrassed, Akinwunmi held her hand and told her he didn’t fight or kill a lion but that the marks on his face were tribal marks he got as a child. On hearing that, the little girl shifted away and screamed in horror, shouting that he was a savage. Her scream attracted airport officials who came to her rescue and found her pointing at Akinwunmi’s tribal marks as the face of a savage.

That was over thirty years ago.

Now, Akinwunmi is 57 years and happily married. He has five kids. None of whom has tribal marks.

“ I cannot subject my children to the embarrassment I suffered over the marks I have on my face. Even in my school days in Nigeria, they called me all sorts of names because of the severe tribal marks my grand parents put on my face. As a young man, I remained a virgin for a long time because the kind of ladies I wanted to date rejected me due to the marks on my face. The greatest thing that happened to me was getting educated and qualifying to be a doctor otherwise it would have been disastrous for me.

It was difficult for me to get a woman to marry, I mean the kind of woman I wanted. The ladies hated the ugly marks on my face. Even my wife till today does not like my tribal marks even though she eventually accepted to marry me. Her attraction then was travelling to live in UK with me but I guess along the line, she began to love me despite my tribal marks”. This is just one of the stories shared by people with tribal marks on their faces many of whom would not give such marks to their children.

Nowadays, tribal marks have become the dying lore of ancient days. Some of the young people who have it feel resentment towards their parents for giving them such scars in the first place.

During his tenure as Ekiti governor, Fayose banned the inscription of tribal marks in Ekiti.  Women are worse off for it. A woman that has four lines each on her cheek may have it tough in getting a husband in the present time no matter how pretty she is.

There have been reports of many who resorted to plastic surgery to reduce the effect of the scars or completely remove them.

Of beauty and heritage

Across the major and minor tribes in Nigeria, tribal marks have become a way of identification. Such marks reveal instantly, the tribe of anybody who has such a mark. In Yoruba land, tribal marks are an age-long practice of identification of peoples’ origin.

The marks reveal whether one is of Egba, Nupe, Ilaje and other Yoruba origin. Different tribes use these marks and designs as a form of identification, beautification and protection. These tribal marks are created using sharp instruments such as razor blades, knives or glass and in some cases, flesh is cut from the skin to create a gash, which later heals and leaves a permanent pattern on the body.

In an encounter, Alhaji Adegboye, an octogenarian who had what he described as Egba tribal marks told this writer that in the old days when there were inter-tribal wars, tribal marks were used as a source of identification.

“People who were migrating to other places had these marks given to them as a mark of identification so that whosoever came in contact with them would know instantly where they were coming from. There are tribal marks that tell you instantly that someone is an Egba man, an Ilaje person or an Ijesha man.

There are also big families that have their family marks and wherever they see each other, they would recognise themselves from the marks on their faces or hidden elsewhere in their bodies.

An individual’s tribe or family typically dictates the pattern in which tribal marks are inscribed on their faces, stomach or legs. Specific families are charged with the responsibility of creating these marks. These household names are also used to sing their praises. The skill of making these marks is passed from one generation to another.”

Alhaji Adegboye,had tribal marks not only on his face but also on parts of his body.

“ In my days, they are considered beautiful. Every first son in our family must have a tribal mark. I am a first son and I was given these beautiful marks at birth. My younger ones did not have them. Our first daughter, that is my mother’s first daughter has words tattooed on her chest, arms, and legs.

These words are praise words, which are complimentary phrases about the person they are inscribed on. As she grew up, she also added more tattoos on her neck and arms. My sister has on her arm , a tattoo depicting a man’s name and a heart sign on her hand. Perhaps, she must have been in love when she gave herself that mark. Other parts of her body had drawings that I couldn’t decipher.

“ My grandmother also had a lot of marks. Apart from the tribal marks on her face, she had several marks all over her body that as a boy, I used to be struck by how she withstood the pains.

“ Ironically, things have changed. None of my children or grandchildren has any tribal mark. I lived in London and had my children over there. I would have loved my first son to have a tribal mark but the British doctors would not hear of it.

And because my children were all British citizens, we couldn’t give them the marks at that time. When we returned home to Nigeria, my wife passed on and I married another one. But she is not Yoruba and kicked against it.

She quickly reminded me that none of my children from my first marriage had a tribal mark and for peace to reign, I obliged her. She has three children for me and they didn’t have tribal marks”

Looking back, Alhaji Adegboye said his tribal marks did not pose a big challenge to him. “ The women were not crazy about me and I was not a ladies’ man. I was the serious type but when I made up my mind to settle down, I began to approach women. There was a particular lady I wanted to marry but she was a Christian.

She told me pointblank that she would not marry a Muslim especially one with tribal marks. I wooed her but it did not work and because I liked her character, I told my cousin who is a Christian about her and she married him. My cousin didn’t have any tribal marks anyway.

“ That tradition is fading out now. In fact, it has faded out although I still see a few people who wear minor tribal marks. The ones I see these days are not as deep like the one in the past. The young people have also made fancy of tattoos. The entertainers and actors are using it to suit their trades. These days, young people have all manner of designs on their bodies and they call them tattoos but they have rejected tribal marks.”

Although these marks have a long history of tradition and culture, some Nigerians believe the practice of scarification as it is called should be stopped, because they are “barbaric” or unfashionable and antiquated.

Aisha, a young lady from Benue state in her mid-twenties expressed disapproval at the practice. She has tribal marks on her face and even though they were not very obvious, Aisha recalls she was made fun of as a child for the marks evenly placed on both sides of her mouth. Now, those marks are what distinguishes her as a Benue girl living in Lagos.

“ People would see me and start speaking my language because they know I’m Idoma. There was a time I was detained for committing a traffic offence but one of the policemen saw the marks on my face and spoke Idoma to me and my sisters and I responded. Being Idoma himself, he was lenient and eventually warned us against committing such an offence again and pleaded with his colleagues to let us off the hook. That was how my tribal marks saved us”.

Agatha, an Igbo girl from Anambra has two marks on both sides of her cheeks but she said she got those marks because her parents said she was ‘ogbanje’ or what the Yoruba would call ‘abiku’. She also has some scars on her back, ears and a black patch on her jaw which were given to ensure she would be rejected by her spirit friends.

But there are people who love their tribal marks.

George, an Igala from Kogi said Igala people are not many and therefore, they appreciate each other wherever they meet. George lives in Lagos and according to him, his Igala marks are his identity anywhere he goes.

“ Igala people are few and we appreciate each other. Anywhere we hear the language spoken or see the tribal marks, we stop to ask questions. I’ve gotten favours because my people recognised me through my tribal marks. On my side, anybody I see anywhere with the tribal marks, I stop to speak the language to the person.

Our own is not too much and those who have the marks don’t complain. I think the Igala tribal mark is sexy and appealing. I’m proud of my own and my wife loves them even though she is Igbo.”

Asked if his children also have the marks, George smiled and shook his head.

“ You know times are changing. My children may not understand it if they grow up and realise their contemporaries from other parts of Nigeria are not wearing tribal marks. I don’t want them to have problems in future especially in this era when unity of Nigerians is the slogan.

One thing about tribal marks is that it can further divide us and that is something we don’t need at this period in Nigeria. Outside this, I have no problem with wearing my tribal marks and I love mine because they are my heritage and are worth preserving”

Olumide, an undergraduate from Ekiti state said he wouldn’t understand what made his parents give him the marks at a time when his contemporaries are no longer having them.

“ Whenever I look at myself in the mirror and see those marks, I feel funny. Some of my friends call me sergeant because of the marks and some make jest of me by calling me the guy that had a fight with the tiger. I know these marks are horrible. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been embarrassed by them.

I wish I could turn things around and I know that if anything could be done to alter then, I would do so when I become financially viable. I only hope it won’t affect me in the employment market when I graduate. They make me look like a bush person. I don’t like the marks at all, and girls don’t look at my face twice. No girl is dying for my love. When I approach girls, the expression on their faces are often discouraging.

Mere looking at me, people wonder at me. Outside the school, people think that I am an uneducated person. I wish I could wipe it off because relationship wise, I have lost a lot of things”.

Biola Dada, a hairdresser said she hates her face and doesn’t understand why she was given such marks.

“My mother doesn’t have them and my father is dead. All my sisters have tribal marks and my mother said it’s from my father’s family. But I tell you, it isn’t funny at all.

My sisters have to lower the standard of the kind of husbands they would have loved to marry. My sister who has an OND in Mass Communication married a driver whereas she wanted to marry a journalist but the deep horizontal marks on her face hindered her from getting the man she wanted. I have finished secondary school and would want to marry a polished man but none has approached me except artisans.”

Rotimi, a building contractor jokes about the horizontal marks on his face. According to him, he has been asked many times if he was attacked by a wild cat, but he always laughed it off. Rotimi believes he has nothing to be ashamed of as the scarification or tribal marks enhance his handsomeness .

“All my siblings have tribal marks but we could not give our children because we know that what gave reason for tribal marks is no more there. The marks were for identification during the tribal wars and slavery.”

Myth of origin

In Yoruba land, a story was told of a certain king named Sango who sent two slaves to a distant country on an important mission. In due course they returned, and he found that one slave had achieved successfully what he had been sent to do, while the other had accomplished nothing.

The King therefore rewarded the first with high honours, and commanded the second to receive a hundred and twenty-two razor cuts all over his body.

That was meant to be a severe punishment, but when the scars healed, they gave to the slave a very remarkable appearance, which greatly took the fancy of the King’s wives. Sango according to the tale therefore decided that cuts should in future be given, not as punishment, but as a sign of royalty, and he placed himself at once in the hands of the markers.

However, he could only bear two cuts, and so from that day two cuts on the arm have been the sign of royalty, and various other cuts came to be the marks of different tribes.

Saturday Vanguard also learned that at a time when kingdoms were invaded and people were kidnapped, clans started marking their members to differentiate themselves and also to be able to know where an individual belonged to, peradventure there were chances for their return home.

Slave trade later became the primary reason for the advent of tribal marks in Nigeria although it became a fashion trend over time. Studies further revealed that tribal marks became a necessity in the old days as a result of the incessant communal wars and slave trade experienced then.

“Families became separated as people were often taken away as slaves and to avoid completely losing their folk, they decided to mark their faces, hoping it would help to withhold family ties. Such marks were used by individuals to trace their source, no matter how long they might have been held captive.

But when these wars ceased, the act of marking the face did not stop, because people then realised that besides the initial purpose for tribal marks, it also beautified the face.”

In those old days, when a child was born, the proud father would want the child to be given tribal marks as a way of expressing that he was the legitimate father of the child as well as a way of identifying the child in their family lineage or ethnic group. It is believed that the best way of identifying people of same ethnic group is the similarity of their marks and in that case, they protect their interest.

This became passed down from family to family, members of the same village, identification of royal lineage and people from the same lineage. But different sets of people have similar tribal marks that differentiate them from people from a different lineage or village.

Since tribal marks are used mainly to differentiate ethnic groups, they vary. There are marks on the cheeks, forehead, on the temple, under the chin and so on. There are vertical lines, horizontal, both vertical and horizontal, slanted lines on both cheeks. These marks are in patterns based on the ethnic group of their bearer and have different meanings and different names.

Tribal marks no more necessary now

A Yoruba adage says that a person with facial marks will not remain missing for too long. According to the people, such a person, if separated from his relations during war or other conflicts, would meet someone who would identify his town and even his family through his facial marks. But that was then. These days, people view those with tribal marks with a certain disdain.

Individuals and friends make jest of those who wear them. The reasons adduced for them like inter-tribal wars and slave trade no longer exist. What many called ‘abiku’ or ‘ogbanje’ in those days in many cases have been found out to be sickle cell anemia. Most people who have marked faces would not do same to their children and those who have another opportunity would not inscribe such on their faces.

Some people without tribal marks said they would avoid friendship with those whose faces are marked if possible.

Favour Chude, a student opines that the act of marking the face is inhuman in nature and should therefore be abolished.

“ Government should do something about emphasis on the tribes of people. We talk of one Nigeria now and so we do not need Igbo tribe, Yoruba tribe or Hausa tribe on the faces of one Nigeria. Tribal marks should be eradicated. I cannot marry a man with tribal marks if he is the last man on earth. I’m not saying I hate people with tribal marks but there is a limit in associating with them.

The practice is barbaric and reminds me of the pains an individual undergoes to get them. “It puts me off when I see a young person having 14 marks on each cheek. What kind of culture would permit a baby’s face to be slashed 28 times? When a guy has such a mark, no matter how brilliant or intelligent he is, such a person often has complex and has a problem socialising. I’ve never dated a guy with tribal marks and I cannot.”

Chinonye Nwogbo has three tiny horizontal lines on each of her cheeks and she said she got them for health reasons.

“ I was a sickly child and I was given the marks to stop convulsions. I don’t like them even though they were not too visible. I was lucky my husband didn’t see them as a barrier to proposing marriage to me.”

With the increase in the cases of HIV/AIDS and blood -related infections, it is becoming deadly to use sharp objects on people especially as such objects in rural and even urban societies can enhance further transmission of the diseases. In Nigeria today, tribal marks have become a criminal offence in some states and this in a way has helped to reduce the act across different tribes in the country. Osun State during the administration of Olagunsoye Oyinlola, banned people in the state from giving facial marks or tattoo to their children.

Section 24 of the law says,”No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child.”  Section 24 (2) of the law says, “A person who tattoos or makes a skin mark on a child commits an offence under this law and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or serve both fine and imprisonment”.

Equally, Ekiti State government under former Governor Ayo Fayose passed a Child Rights Law which forbids all forms of tattoos and tribal marks on children of the state.

Nigerian leaders with tribal marks

But many notable Nigerians have tribal marks on their faces.

From the first republic to the present day, Nigeria has had several leaders who wore their tribal marks like garments of honour. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, Adegoke Adelabu, Chief Ladoke Akintola , Chief Lamidi Adedibu, General Abacha, Chief Richard Akinjide, Olusegun Obasanjo amongst others wore distinct tribal marks that stood them out in the days they held sway.

Nigeria is blessed with rich human and natural resources. Everything about Nigeria speaks out beauty. Nigeria is a country with diverse peoples and cultures and also lovely traditions, but above all, it is a country where some people still give their children tribal marks and say it is beautiful to do so.

The issue of having tribal marks is a serious business.


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