5 March 2011

Nigeria: Tribal Marks - Our Lost Heritage


In the olden days, when a child is born, the proud father will want the child to be given tribal marks as a way of expressing that he is 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. VICTORIA OZOHU MAYAKI evaluates the genesis of this trend in our culture today.

Tribal marks which can also be described as facial marks though well dominated in Africa, can be traced to some foreigners who were living in Egypt in the 5th century BC. During that time, a Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about some foreigners living in Egypt who cut their foreheads with knives to differentiate themselves from the Egyptians. This practice was further adopted years later when several kings of various kingdoms in Africa, started invading other kings and their people for land and other resources. The invaders therefore mark themselves as well as their family members to differentiate themselves from the captured kings and their family members whom they now regard as their slaves.

Tribal marks came into Nigeria during the colonial era when the colonial masters were capturing people and taking them to foreign countries for slavery, people started giving their family members marks to locate them if ever they were captured and to recognise them when they are freed.

These marks are usually permanent on the face of the bearer, it is a way of identification 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 are 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. The Yorubas for example, have different pattern of marks and names for them like ture, bamu, keke, gombo, abaja, pele etc. the Hausas also have names for tribal marks like zube, yan baka, doddori, bille and so on. The well known Fulani marking is the kalangu. Tribal marks are not well associated with the Igbos, only a very few of them have marks which in most cases are on their temple.

Though, markings are done on the face mostly for the purpose of ethnic identification, not all marks on the face are for the purpose of identifying an individual as belonging to a particular ethnic group. There are other reasons for facial markings; some are associated with spiritual or religious practices. In some Yoruba settings, children born as still = birth or a "reincarnated child" which is called abiku, a child believed to have been born twice or thrice are given marks on their face and body for several reasons. It is believed that to take away the spiritual powers of the child, he has to be identified by the marks when he/she is given birth to again and to stop the death of the child at a tender age. It can also be used to wade away evil spirits ravaging around a certain group of people or family. In this case, the marks are not only on the face but other parts of the body as well.

Apart from spiritual and religious purposes, facial marks are given to certain people for the treatment of illness especially children. In this case, traditional healers do incisions on the children's face or body to treat them for ailments like convulsion, pneumonia and measles. Also, some people belong to a certain tribes that don't encourage tribal marks but admire certain patterns thus, these can decide to have their faces marked and in this case, it is for beautification and not identification.

Tribal marks are mostly given to people at a very young age most especially when they are babies. This is because at that age, the child doesn't have a say on decisions to giving him/her tribal marks. The people who make these marks use either razor blades or sharp knives to cut the face and they have native dye, pigmentation or black paste usually from grinded charcoal dust which is put into the open wound to stain the marks, stop the bleeding and to make the wound heal fast. It is the black paste applied to the wound that makes the mark permanent and never fade away growing alongside the bearer.

Although tribal marks are given to children at a very tender age, the beares grow to react differently to them. Laja Akinbade, an Ogbomosho man from Oyo State with three long marks on each cheek, laments the state of his face because of the mark. He says ,"the mark has constituted a lot of embarrassment for me because people don't even call my name while describing or referring to me, instead, they refer to the marks and they call me annoying names like "fight lion" or "okola", a Yoruba term for someone with facial marks." Another person who reacted negatively to her marks is Veronica Oche, an Igala lady with tribal marks on her cheeks. She says, "at a time, I grew to hate my parents for disfiguring my face like this, to me, it's really annoying, I was really taunted in my secondary school days and it affected me a lot because a lot of people didn't want to have me in their group because they saw me as a very ugly person and I will never allow my children go through that trauma."

Even though our fore fathers had good intentions for giving their children tribal marks and had the intentions of passing it down from generation to generation, civilisation and our exposure to western culture have aborted these intentions of theirs. This is because giving facial marks to children is now restricted to people in the rural areas and adults that have facial marks are going around in search of a way to remove them completely or cover them, even if by using plastic surgery.

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