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‘Tribal marks, our identity, our pride’

Like many of Africa’s traditional practices, tribal marks are fast outdated and many of those who have them loudly complain that the age-long traditional practice is negatively affecting their personality and fortune.


Even from his childhood days, Dr. Jacob Adeyanju, a lecturer in the Department of Educational Management at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), was loved and adored by his classmates and teachers alike. Because of his brilliant academic performance in his primary and secondary schools, encomiums and recognitions naturally came his way like bees to the honeycomb.

And after replicating outstanding traits he exhibited during his undergraduate years at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in Ile-Ife, Osun State, he was rewarded with instant employment in UNILAG where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). But Adeyanju, a man that always brims with confidence and optimism, got the shock of his life recently while at a forum in Manchester City, United Kingdom, for an academic conference.


Being the only black in the midst of attendees numbering about 300, he knew instantly he would be the cynosure of all eyes. What, however, did him in was not his distinctive black complexion; it was his conspicuous facial marks that nearly became the theme of discourse at the conference.


“Virtually, everyone looked at me with disdain and derision because of my facial marks,” he said. But when it was time for him to address the gathering, he took the participants by surprise with what was described as a “superb presentation.” He ended his session with a standing ovation. Reminiscing over the Manchester City incident, the academic agreed that it was a blessing in disguise after all.


Prior to his presentation, a number of the participants, who managed to speak to him, had rudely confronted him and asked why his face was “mutilated” with facial marks. “For me, what saved me from humiliation was my oratory skills and competence in the subject of discourse, which I think were more important than my physical appearance,” Adeyanju said.

But, at last, his physical appearance, which nearly stole the show of the conference, suddenly became irrelevant such that almost all the participants wanted to be his friends as they asked for his phone numbers and email address after the conference.


Although the erudite scholar was able to ward off stigmatisation issues and prove to the world that his facial marks couldn’t encumber or be the yardsticks for his accomplishments, many with bold marks on their faces are not that lucky.


One of such unlucky ones is 30-year-old Olalere Sharafa, a fresh graduate of Communication and Language Arts of the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State. Up till now, Sharafa frequently blames his parents for “defacing” him with ‘Gombo,’ a set of multiple straight and curved lines of marks of about a half an inch apart inscribed on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth.


Despite making a Second Class Upper Division (2.1), he continually blames his scarified face for his inability to secure a job over the years. Still in the dark as to why his tribal marks terrify would-be employers, Sharafa cited a recent example of a job interview session that suddenly went awry when it was his turn to face the panel in an oral interview. Having passed a written test and scored the highest point, he was shortlisted in an advertising agency in Lagos for a modelling deal, leaving him ecstatic that he would soon secure a means of livelihood.

However, like a flash in the pan, his joy was short-lived as the job seeker was thoroughly disappointed when the panellists refused to attend to him for an oral interview, leaving the venue with “the worst humiliation in my life” instead of an appointment letter.


“The moment I stepped into the conference room, venue of the interview, the panellists were shocked to discover that someone who scored the highest point in the written test had tribal marks. They asked several times if I was Olalere Sharafa, I responded in affirmative and then I was asked to step aside,” he said.


That was one of many moments of dashed hopes, as the Ibadanborn applicant was bluntly told by the panellists that someone with facial marks was not needed for the job; his brilliant performance in the aptitude test notwithstanding. “I never knew that my facial looks could limit my potential as regards job even with my brilliant credentials.

Since then, I have become selective while searching for jobs,” he lamented. Although she has suffered a fate similar to Sharafa’s while growing up, Shade Olowoporoku learnt early how to cope with negative public reactions to her tribal marks.


With three longitudinal lashes known as ‘Pele’ on each of her cheeks and another three horizontal lines of marks beside her eyelids popularly called ‘Idoko,’ the 40-year-old stylist said she was chosen to undergo facial marks among her siblings due to her position as the first child of the family. According to her, every first child in her family, which is the popular Jagun family in Oyo town, must have a tribal mark regardless of whether the child is male or female.


This, she said, was a traditional sign of honour and a clear indication that the child is not a bastard. She added that while growing up, she encountered a lot of challenges, especially stigmatisation and embarrassment among colleagues and friends in school, while many called her all sorts of nicknames to deride and embarrass her. However, with the passage of time, she explained that she overcame the inferiority complex often induced in her by the undesirable public response to her tribal marks.


“There was a time I felt if I had the choice, I would have preferred to erase the marks and be regarded as a bastard to continuously have these marks on my face. It nearly ruined me if I had not fought the esteem-killing effect it had on me.


“I remember when I approached people back in the days as a young lady, the expressions on their faces were often depressing if not discouraging for an ambitious young lady like me. Some will look at me and say: ‘Who is this?’ Some people would have already concluded that I am an illiterate person, just by merely looking at my face. Those days, I always wished I could wipe it off, because I felt I was losing a lot of relationships,” she narrated her ordeal.

But it is a case of different strokes for different folks for Ibrahim Gobir, a native of Kebbi State. He was indifferent about the effect of facial marks on his fortune, saying proudly that the ‘Gobirci’ on his face, comprising multiple slashes drawn from the eyelids and head region to the jaw with another one running from the nose to the right cheek, has nothing to do with his potential and fortunes in life.


According to the Lagos-based 38-year-old man, the ‘Gorbici’ mark is culture of the people of Bagobiri in Isah Local Government Area of Kebbi State, insisting that he had resigned to fate instead of bothering about stigmatisation and the possible adverse perception by anybody.


This, he said, is the only way he can always make himself happy since there is nothing he could do to erase the marks. “How many people will I explain to that tribal mark is symbol of honour, riches and influence in my region? With or without marks, I will fulfil my destiny. So, as for me, I see no difference between someone with and without marks,” he concluded.


Genesis of facial markings

According to folktales, the historical background of tribal marks varies from one tribe or ethnic group to the other. Some historians said the art of marking the face dated back to the fifth Century B.C., when some foreigners who lived in Egypt began to mark themselves by cutting their foreheads with knives in an attempt to prove that they were not Egyptians.

Some history books conclude that the practice, which differentiated the foreigners from their hosts, was later adopted in other African countries. Another version of history debunks this assertion, saying facial marking began at the time when traditional kingdoms were invaded and people kidnapped, especially when slave trade crept into Africa. As such, clans started marking their members to distinguish themselves and enable them to know where an individual belonged to, should they have the privilege of returning home.


Reasons for facial marks

While tracing the genealogy of facial marks in Yoruba land, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, a renowned Ifa priest and cultural ambassador, agreed that the tribal marks have been in existence from time immemorial. He explained that the basic reasons for the marks were for identification and beauty, which Yoruba people proudly adopted as culture with time.

Elebuibon, who is a visiting lecturer of African Culture and Religion at San Fransisco State University, California, United States (US), explained further that there are spiritual dimensions to facial markings because some families in Yoruba land have it as a mark of tradition to consult Ifa Oracle before embarking on the marks to know if the facial marks won’t lead to the untimely death of their babies. Corroborating Elebuibon, the Alado of Ado Awaye Kingdom, Oba Demola Olugbile Folakanmi, said that tribal marks in Yoruba land was more than just a cultural practice for identification.

In Ado Awaye, a sprawling town in Oyo State, facial markings are part of criteria used, especially in the royal families, to ascend the throne of their forefathers, stressing that any prince who wishes to ascend the throne must as a matter of cultural imperative have facial marks.

The respected monarch told New Telegraph that was one of the reasons the royal stool of Ado Awaye remained vacant for almost 34 years due to litigations from different contenders gunning for the stool of the kingdom. He concluded that his ‘Gombo’ marks were among other things considered by the kingmakers before nominating him as the new king after the court’s ruling on the choice of the next ruling house. He said that his emergence as the 13th Oba of Ado Awaye was as a result of the ‘Gombo’ mark which was the type peculiar to the royal ancestors of the kingdom.

“Tribal marks are one of the things that qualified me above other contenders. Although due to a series of controversies, having facial marks is no longer strong criteria in the selection of king in parts of Yoruba land; the facial marks remain the benchmarks for choice of kings in Iseyin and Oyo kingdoms.


A would-be king must bear the ancestral facial marks in the ancient towns. As far as I know, all the sons of Alaafin of Oyo have the tribal marks regardless of the first or last. For royal family with this strong history of tribal marks, facial identity is what we don’t joke with,” the monarch said.


Another usefulness of facial markings, according to the monarch, is that they are also used to settle paternity scores and identify the true biological father of the baby whose paternity is mired in dispute. In the days of yore when there was no DNA facility, family tribal marks given to a baby with questionable paternity issue were enough to douse the tension because the baby would not last for seven days after the marks.


Although tribal markings are no longer popular among the educated elite who reside largely in the cities, it is a practice that is yet to fade out completely. Findings show that the cultural practice is still somehow prevalent among the rural dwellers. For instance, as this reporter found out in the course of reporting this story, one can hardly see 10 people without two or more people bearing facial marks. From Ogbomoso to Oyo, Ilorin to Iseyin, Ondo to Abeokuta, Ibadan to Offa, facial markings as a cultural practice is still carried out for different reasons.

While some families and towns marked the face of their first child in order to retain their identity, others see the practice as sacred things and such, regard it as the first criterion for anyone to become the king or hold a chieftaincy title in their lands.


This, it was discovered, was one of the reasons why those from royal families, especially in some parts of Yoruba land must always appear in their deep and glaring marks on their face, without which they could be denied the royal stool. In this part of Nigeria, tribal mark is popular to the extent that most traditional rulers, particularly in the areas noted for the marks, have the facial marks. The marks, like in the Northern ethnic group, are in different sizes and patterns depending on the area.


The only notable difference is that Northern marks are thinner than Southern marks. Hence, Soju, Jaju, Bamu, Keke, Abaja, Pele, Gombo, Mefa Omoba, are common marks in the Yoruba land. In the Northern region, particularly among the non-educated Hausa/Fulani ethnic group, facial scarification is part of fashion which every son and daughter must proudly bear on their faces irrespective of what any civilisation ideology holds. Hence, aside from Bille and the Chika Baki marks among the Fulani ethnic group, some parts of the North, especially people of Argungu and Magoro are also at ease with Bagobiri and Gobirci marks. Others such as Zube, Yan Baka, Doddori are also adopted by Northern clans.

While the Kemberi (another type of mark ranges from 10 to 11 slashes) holds sway among the Kontangora Emirates in Niger State. For the Fakai people in Zuru Emirate, the Gobirci, the multiple strokes of marks with a vertical slash across the nose, is a beautiful mark to behold. In the Igbo land, the marks are not so commonly practiced as it is among Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani tribes but the short two lines of marks are usually inscribed close to the left side eyelid of most people of Anambra State.


But while the facial mark inscription is commonly done with male and female circumcision together in some places, the intense campaign against the practice, especially female genital mutilation by government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other international agencies is forcing the people and facial marks specialists to drop the female circumcision.


According to Baale Oloola of Ibadan land, Pa Iyiola Alade Alabede, who claimed to be 156 years old and the oldest facial marks specialist in Ibadan, Oyo State capital, the marks and the genital circumcision are commonly inscribed with Abe, a sharp object used by the specialists, on the body of the bearers as early as 6a.m. to avoid loss of much blood and for speedy recovery.


The chief specialist said that black powdery substances made of healing herbs and ointments are applied on the marks for speedy healing of the scarification. He boasted that the specialists hardly experience complications when they mark or circumcise. Findings also reveal that both genital circumcision and facial mark are carried out on the children from day five to the age of two or above.


Explaining the reason for carrying out the facial marks inscription and circumcision at early stage of the child, Nurudeen Kasali Alabede, 40, another Ibadan-based specialist, said that it was easier for the specialists to perform the art on the babies and children at their infancy, adding that the older the bearer, the difficult it is for them to inscribe the mark on them and the longer it will take for the mark to heal. “Some families demand our service on four-day-old babies while some prefer the child to be up to two years before the circumcision and facial scarification is done,”Kasali added.

Facial mark patterns

While tribal marks vary in patterns and styles, depending on the ethnic or the family practicing the culture, they are not always restricted to the faces. Beyond the cheeks, the marks are also inscribed on other parts of the body such as abdomen, hands, legs, thighs, forehead, jaw, wrist, chest, back and other unimaginable places in the body.


These facial mark types in Yoruba land are also slightly different from one another. For instance, Abaja, a three or four horizontal stripes on the cheeks, is typically known among Egba in Ogun State. It is also slightly different from the type adopted in other parts of Yoruba land. The Pele of Ijebu, also in Ogun State, is also shorter than that of Ekiti State; while the Ila Oragun‘s version of Pele in Osun State is a bit wider than that of Owu people in Abeokuta, Ogun State.

So also is Gombo of Ogbomoso from the Egba in Ogun State. Investigations revealed further that in some parts of ancient settlements such Oyo and Iseyin in Oyo State and other parts of Osun State, birthdates of the bearers are inscribed on the abdomen. In some instances, others draw animals such as lizards or scorpions on the stomach or other parts of the body to show important historical background of the drawn object in their respective clans. Something similar is also noticed among the Yoruba in Ilorin, Kwara State.


The locals showed inscriptions on their abdomen, which were traced to be the names of the great-grandfathers or chief facial mark specialists, also known as Olola or Alabede, in their clans. Variety is also noticed in the number of marks inscribed on the body. For instance, aside the facial horizontal marks on each of the cheeks of tribal mark bearers, a plethora of marks equally dot their body parts. “I can’t count the number of marks on my face and other ones in other parts of my body,” said a man who identified himself simply as Sulaiman in Ilorin.


Same goes for bearers in the famous Alanamu Family in Ilorin. Many members of that illustrious family have nothing less than 200 marks on their face, comprising 100 on each cheek. Sulaiman, who claimed to be a brother to Nigeria’s former Minister of Works, the late Major General Abdul-Kareem Adisa, said other parts of his body were also marked with three slashes at both right and left side of his body from head to toe.

“Besides the visible vertical facial marks, which make people to call us ‘Kwara 11,’ there are other three slashes on all other parts of the body. In fact, I have it on all my joints – three on the right and left side. Like the late minister, most Ilorin indigenes have the marks,” Suleiman said.


Marked for success

While many bemoan the marks on their face, some famous personalities with scarification hardly complain that the marks they bear have anything to do with their attainments in life. In the political firmament, one notable face is former President Olusegun Obasanjo, an Owu man from Abeokuta in Ogun State who proudly wears his Owu marks like a badge of righteousness.


“Not many people know that I have three identity cards. The first is the international passport; the second is the national identity card and the third is my tribal marks,” he proudly declared in November 2014, as he collected his electronic national identity card from the National Identity Card Commission (NIMC). The former President has six lines on each side of his cheeks, marks peculiar to Owu indigenes.

It is also on record that some of the nation’s founding fathers had tribal marks. The list included Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, late Tafawa Balewa; the premier of the defunct Western region, late Ladoke Akintola; Ahmadu Bello, late Alhaji Sule Maitama; former military head of State, late General Sanni Abacha; former Kwara State Governor, late Rear Admiral Muhammed Lawal and former Sokoto State Governor, Attaihiru Bafarawa, among others.


The list equally extends to some of Nigeria’s best lawyers, medical experts, engineers, actors and musicians – many of whose contributions to national development will remain indelible. Prominent among such illustrious names with tribal marks are Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN; Niyi Akintola, SAN; juju music maestro, King Sunny Ade; Olaniyi Afonja popularly called Sanyeri; Ebun Oloyede, among others.


Nailing the coffin of tribal markings

A research work published in 2013 in the African Press Agency listed some ethnic groups it identified as those that traditionally have “some of the most invasive scars.” They included Jarawa in Plateau State, Igala in Kogi State, Yoruba (Oyo and Ondo), Hausa, Kanuri, and Nupe, among others.


The researcher also established the fact that tribal marking was practiced among Hausa and Igbo groups, noting that whether a person has tribal markings would depend not only on their ethnic group but also on traditional practices prevalent in their compound and family. However, with increasing access to education and Western values, many Nigerians have changed their attitude towards tribal markings, viewing the practice as primitive and unnecessary in these modern times.


Perhaps in a bid to respond to the prevailing public mood, political leaders have joined the fray by putting legislations in place at both the national and state levels prohibiting scarification of any kind on any Nigerian. One of such landmark legislative measures to discourage tribal markings came into effect in 2003, when the National Assembly enacted the Child Rights Act.

Among other profound provisions, the Act declares that “no person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child.” It Section 24(1) defines a “skin mark” as “any ethnic or ritual cuts on the skin which leaves permanent marks.” And for violators, the law prescribes a fine of up to N5,000 or a prison term of up to a month, or both. Several international and local bodies have since thrown their weight behind Nigeria’s efforts to make tribal markings a thing of the past.


For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which provides assistance to disadvantaged children and mothers worldwide, mounted campaigns encouraging all the 36 states to domesticate the Child Rights Act without any further delay. In 2011, the global humanitarian body said the Act superseded all other legislations relating to the rights of the child, including legislations enacted at the state level, urging every state to just “formally adopt and adapt the Act for domestication as state laws” and to amend or annul existing laws that contravene the Act.


The National Human Rights Commission, established in 1995 to monitor human rights and assist victims of rights violations, also called on all the 36 states in 2013 to adopt the Act with immediate effect. Interestingly, the campaigns have not been in vain because there is nothing to suggest that the law was not greeted with cold shoulders in most of Nigeria’s 36 states.


As at 2011, no less than 26 states had passed and domesticated the Child Rights Act into law in their own jurisdictions. The list includes Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Jigawa, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers, Taraba, Ebonyi and Bayelsa states.


As at 2013, Amnesty International reported that 12 states were yet to adopt the legislation. Although there is yet to be any record of violators to the law, there seems to be enough signs that the tradition of tribal markings is fast waning, especially in urban areas since the prohibition came into effect – though some still have attachment to their tradition.


Those who wish the practice dead often point to the medical risks associated with the procedure, as well as the stigma that is now associated with tribal marks. While other hold a contrary view, many sociologists and other researchers insist that their findings point to the direction that the practice’s popularity has declined generally among the populace.


Reasons they often cite to back up their claim that tribal marks “no longer have a wide appeal” include the following: many historical reasons for having tribal marks are no longer relevant; people do not need the marks as means of identification because people are no longer being kidnapped in ethnic wars; society’s definition of beauty has changed over time, and belief systems have changed over time due to the influence of Christianity and the Western education.


Now, efforts are afoot towards upping the ante. In March, a new bill specifically meant to exterminate the soul of tribal marks practice was sponsored by Senator Dino Melaye, elected on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), representing Kogi State. If eventually passed into law, the bill, which had scaled the hurdle of second reading, would finally put an end to the “inhuman treatment of children” in the name of tribal marks.


He said reasons why Africans give marks such as identification and paternity claims could no longer be tenable in the face of civilisation and technological advancement. Describing the marks as emblems of disfiguration, the lawmaker said most bearers have developed low self-esteem while some are treated with scorn and ridicule, including rejection by the female folks.


“The irony of these marks is that it makes victims subjects of mockery by friends. Imagine someone being called a tiger because of the thick cheek resulting from facial marks. These people have been subjected to different reactions.


Many of the grown up adults have confessed that the most terrific debacle of their lives is their tribal marks. Some have become eunuchs because of this stigma. Imagine a boy in the class of the 25 pupils carrying tribal marks. His mates will call him the boy with railway lines.


“These tribal marks have become emblems of disfiguration and have hindered many situations of life. Some have developed low selfesteem, they are most times treated with scorn and ridicule…many innocent people, mostly children… had inadvertently been infected with the deadly HIV virus. Sharp instruments used by the locales to inscribe the tribal marks were not sterilised, thus exposing kids, even adults, to the risk of HIV/ AIDS,” the senator said.


Like the lawmaker, Maroof Olumuyiwa, a Lagos-based psychologist, said that an individual with facial marks mostly feel reduced in terms of beauty and this could make such person to become unnecessarily reserved, as they sometimes have the impression that they are different from others. “It is natural that most people with tribal marks have the notion that their beauty had been tampered with.


Consequently, in terms of socialisaton or networking with people, they might experience inferiority complexity. Many of them might not be able to interact freely with people, even in situations where they have what is expected of them. Mockery words like: ‘Owala’ or ‘Okola’, ‘you fight lion?’ often discourage them but those with strong determination are not usually affected by this.


It is not uncommon that pupils with facial marks are always subjects of ridicule among their peers. Take for instance, if a 12-year-old boy with facial marks was to mingle with pupils of one of the super-rich schools in Nigeria for a debate or quiz competition, there is no way he will not feel inferior seeing other kids without facial marks no matter how brilliant he is,” the psychologist said.


As for the Chief Executive Officer of the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency (LASCA), Dr. Oluseyi Temowo, the health hazards involved in the process of tribal markings cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand, since they are often carried out with “unsterilised sharp objects.”


His concern is that the child being adorned with marks at a very tender age could easily contact HIV virus aside the pains he or she would undergo as a result of the marks. According to him, the marks, if not well taken care of, can be infected with tetanus which can endanger the life of the child. “Hepatitis B or C is another risk involved in the practice aside HIV.


This is because most of the facial marks specialists are not so educated; they do not believe in the existence of micro-organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eyes. Hence they take issue of sterilisation with levity, thus endangering the lives of their clients with contagious diseases. So it advisable people patronise orthodox medical facilities for circumcision, if necessary,” he added.


But Pa Alade Alabede debunked allegation of unsafe practices among the local facial mark specialists for circumcision and tribal marks, boasting that some orthodox medical practitioners patronise them when they experience complications in the course of circumcising the babies.


The aged man said that aside the healing powder and ointment applied to the mark or circumcised genital organ, they also invoke some incantations to put ‘things’ under control when necessary. The facial specialist, however, blamed the gradual extinction of the cultural practice on the campaigns against the practice and their patronage, lamenting that it was almost a year that he last inscribed facial scarification.


Unlike the time when the practice was hugely popular, many tribal marking specialists said they hardly circumcise or inscribe facial marks in three months. According to Pa Alade Alabede, unlike the olden days when an average specialist could perform circumcision and markings for about 15 children or more in a day, there is virtually no work for them to do nowadays.


Going by the fears expressed by the aged specialist, who said he built houses from proceeds from tribal marking and circumcision, it appears their trade and services are no longer needed in the society such that none of their members now relies on the job as a means of livelihood. “With the

current development, our survival is threatened; our cultural heritage and values are fading out.


I can’t remember the last time I inscribe facial marks on somebody; I only did male circumcision about six months ago just for N1,500. With the civilisation and advent of orthodox health facilities, the world is no longer embracing our services,” he added. Does this signal the final interment of a tradition that used to be a source of beauty and pride among various ethnic groups in the country?



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