Tribal marks: A cultural heritage sliding to oblivion?

…It’s an abuse of children’s rights’ *Practice unhygienic, evil – Barr Attoh *Not part of Igbo culture – Prof Anorue *Victims subjected to mockery - Melaye

Whether it’s two lines drawn vertically on each cheek, or a series of lines, sometimes numbering seven or more for each cheek, tribal marks have been part of African’s rich cultural heritage. However, the art is fast fading away as a result of modernisation; SAMSON BENJAMIN reports.

Tribal marks are lacerations made on parts of the body, particularly the face. It comes in different shapes and sizes; it is also known as facial marks. The practice is common in many parts of Nigeria irrespective of tribe, culture and religion.

Since tribal marks are used mainly to differentiate ethnic groups, they vary. There are marks on the cheeks, forehead, the arms, under the chin and so on.

These marks can be in vertical lines, horizontal, or both. They could also come in 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.


Tracing the history of tribal marks in a chat with Blueprint Weekend, Prof Fabian Anorue, a historian with Centre for African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said: “Tribal marks practice in Nigeria dates back to the colonial era when the colonial masters were capturing people and taking them to foreign countries for slavery. People started giving family members marks to identify and recognise them when if they were captured and later found.

“In the Yoruba, Hausa Fulani tribes and Benin tribes, these incisions were a form of identity as the different parts of the land and various families had distinct ways of making the lacerations on the face.”


Similarly, Chief Adiodun Afolayan, the chairman of Yoruba Cultural Association in Karu local government area of Nasarawa state, who has tribal marks, listed and described some tribal marks in Yoruba culture with their distinct numbers, sizes, length and angles. Some of the marks he listed include pele, owu, gombo, agbaja, ture, mande, bamu and Jamgbadi.

He said: “Pele consists of three long vertical lines made on the cheeks. There are other types of pele; pele Ife peculiar to people from Ile Ife, pele Ijebu and pele Ijesha. Owu comprises 12 marks made on the cheek, six made on each cheek and peculiar to people from Abeokuta in Ogun state.

“While the gombo style also known as keke comprises straight and curved lines made on the side of the mouth and peculiar to people of Ogbomosho in Oyo state.”


Similarly, in Igbo culture, Prof Anorue said: “Although tribal marks are not part of the Igbo culture, some Igbo have incisions on their faces which are not really part of a culture, but a ritual to deter an evil child called Ogbanje from tormenting his earthly parents by being born over again only to die at a particular age.

 “Also, before the advent of Christianity in Igbo land, people who were considered to be Osu (outcast) were given certain tribal marks to differentiate them from the ‘free borns.’ The mark was necessary to prevent free association with the outcasts as that was considered an abomination in the communities.”

Why tribal marks?

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend, the head of Research and Documentation, National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Mrs Elizabeth Iheanacho, said the reasons for tribal marks were identity, beauty, social class, and treatment for diseases, among others.

She said: “By the nature of the tribal mark on someone, one can tell where they are from. These tribal marks come in different shapes and sizes based on the locality of the bearer. Tribal marks became very popular during the colonial era where people were being sold into slavery. These marks were given to enable recognition of family members who were taken away, in the event they gained freedom or found their way back home, many years after.

“It places as a symbol of beauty is unknown to many people. This is due to the widespread disapproval that comes with it. Tribal marks are often considered a dent to beauty as they make people look different. However, in some cultures, specific tribal marks are engraved on the skin as a symbol of beauty. These marks are done on specific parts of the body, in specific shapes and sizes, to represent objects of beauty.

“They are also largely used to show the different social strata in a given society. In rural communities, members of a royal clan may be given a certain mark which informs people of their royal heritage wherever they go. The King and his family who hold the highest degree of royalty in a community may have special tribal marks that are exclusive to them. Such marks differentiate them from the rest and give them immunity against certain things.”

In his contribution, Mr Adejumo Yinka, a traditionalist, told Blueprint Weekend that tribal marks could be used as means of treatment for strange illnesses and communication among people with common cultural affiliations.

He said: “Tribal marks play a vital role in saving lives. In the event of certain illnesses that are considered to be strange, some people go the traditional route of treatment. These marks are engraved on the body of the sick one – and certain locally prepared concoctions are applied on them.

“They are also used to chase away evil spirits. In the event a dead person is disturbing someone alive by constantly appearing to them, certain marks are made on them as part of spiritual cleansing.

“They could be used to pass different messages to people who share the same cultural beliefs and ideologies in Nigeria. Some of these beliefs may be alien to outsiders; hence, they don’t understand the need for such marks. The next time you see someone with tribal marks, rather than cast aspersions, ask them a question or two about it,” he said.

Rights abuse

 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.

 Significantly, Barrister Robert Attoh, a child rights activist, described tribal mark as “an abuse of children rights.” He anchored his position on Section 24 of the Child’s Rights Act which says, “No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child.

“A person who tattoos or makes a skin mark on a child commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding five thousand naira or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or to both such fine and imprisonment.”

He also decried the unhygienic manner in which the marks are given and social stigma that those who have marks sometimes suffer.

He said: “Although the practice of having tribal marks is fading, some individuals who have marks term themselves ‘unfortunate’ and are sometimes ashamed of them. Some ladies even go as far as covering them with make-up. Some even testify that people do not accept them because of the tribal marks as most are ashamed to associate with them.

“And the people who make these marks use either unsterilised razor blades or sharp knives to cut the face and they have native dye, pigmentation or black paste usually from grounded charcoal dust which is put into the open wound to stain the marks, stop the bleeding and to make the wound heal faster.

“The so-called tribal marks leave permanent marks on their faces. Many of these innocent kids often grow up with low self-esteem when they realise the damages tradition has caused on their faces when compared to their peers,” he said.

Bill against tribal marks

Also, bill to outlaw the incision of tribal marks has passed second reading at the Senate. The proposal entitled, “A bill for an Act to provide for the prohibition of facial mutilation, the offences, prosecution and punishment of offenders and the protection of victims under threat of facial mutilation and to provide for other related matters 2017,” was sponsored by Dino Melaye, a senator from Kogi west.

Speaking in favour of the bill, Melaye argued that facial marks subject victims to mockery, and robs them of self-esteem.

He said: “The irony of these marks is that it makes victims subjects of mockery by friends. Imagine someone being called a tiger simply because of the thick cheeks resulting from facial marks.

“These people have been subjected to different reactions. Some have lamented the marks that are bequeathed on them as generational inheritance. Many have cursed the day which this dastardly act was performed on them.

“Many of the grown 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 25 pupils carrying a tribal mark. His mates will call him the boy with the railway line. They are emblems of disfiguration.

“Some of them have developed low self-esteem and most times treated with scorn and ridicule including rejection by the female folks. The reactions of people who interact with them say it dampens and lowers their spirit,” he said.

 It’s not safe

Also, Prof. Modupe Onadeko, the president, Inter Africa Committee Nigeria on Traditional Practices Harmful to Girls and Women, frown on the continuation of the practice of scarifying the face.

Onadeko recently told the News Agency of Nigeria in Ibadan that the practice, also known generally as tribal marks incision, was dangerous.

She said: “It’s fraught with a lot of dangers because they use unsterilised instruments to do all these cuttings.

“Not only tetanus might set in, infections such as Hepatitis B might set it, but also very importantly infections such as HIV, which might develop into full blown AIDS.

“So, all of these are terrible consequences, which should be prevented, and that is why we need to campaign against tribal marks that it will never be done.”

Onadeko said the effects of tribal marks on the child could be psychological, emotional and social.

“Not just the infection that is important, the healing process might leave a scar.

“The scar might even develop keloids, which are some painless swellings that are so disfiguring and it brings serious psychological problems in later life that may even affect that child’s socialisation.

“And if it’s a girl, she will be so embarrassed that it might affect her chances of getting a suitor and settling down.”

Other Nigerians react      

Meanwhile, some Nigerians expressed mixed reactions over inscribing tribal marks on their faces.

In separate interviews with Blueprint Weekend, some said they find tribal marks on the body, particularly on the face attractive, while others said it was repulsive; hence cannot marry any one sporting it.

Miss Joyce, a beautician, said even though the practice was fast declining due to cultural interaction and modernisation, tribal marks make the person looks less attractive and unappealing.

“As a make-up artist, I find the practice of marking a face repulsive and unattractive. Fortunately for us that practice is fast fading as people no longer see the need to mark their child’s face, probably due to other cultural influences or modernisaation,” she said.

According to her, she cannot date or marry a person that has tribal marks on his face or tattoo on his body.

“I cannot marry a man with tribal marks or tattoo no matter how wealthy or intelligent he is, because for me to even consider marrying someone, I have to at least find him attractive not repulsive.”

In his view, Mr Ola Abodurin, a civil servant, noted that tribal marks were gradually going into extinction because it was prohibited under the Child Rights Act.

According to him, even Yoruba people that usually place priority in marking their children have largely jettisoned the practice.

“Tribal marks rarely exist now even in the villages, because there are some parts of the Yoruba land that has prohibited the act of marking a child’s face as it attracts a heavy fine or imprisonment for the parents or guardians,” he said.

Abodurin said government should enforce the law prohibiting the act to deter those still practising it as, according to him, tribal marks affect the personality and development of the child.

“It is a very wicked act and a violation of human right for a parent to mark the face of his or her child in this modern age because we no longer see it as a form of identity or beauty; rather people these days look at it with disdain.”

Mr Danladi Isa, a teacher, said the act of marking a person’s face for tribal identity was archaic and should be abolished, as it makes the child object of ridicule among peers.

“I have a student in my class that has deep etched marks on his face. Most times, you see other children making fun of him and even isolating him from group play.

“As a teacher, I had to make efforts towards educating the children about the history behind tribal marks as a form of identity, as well as teach them that it was wrong to laugh at him,” he said.

Isa, therefore, urged parents to stop the act as it affects the personality of the children, making them to feel inferior or different from others.

However, some residents said the African practice of tribal marks should not be abandoned, as it promotes African culture.

Mr Timothy Yakubu, a historian, stressed the need for Africans to uphold their cultural values, rather than discarding it in favour of some other cultural beliefs.

 He said: “It is sad that Africans tend to throw away their own ways of life and embrace others, which they feel are superior or better than their own to the detriment of our own cultural practices.

 “Tribal marks are beautiful and are symbols of identification, especially when one is in the midst of people from diverse cultures. It shouldn’t’ be discarded, but should still be practised.”

 According to him, the act of tribal marks should be made with sterilised equipment to prevent the spread of infection and diseases.

Also contributing, Miss Talatu Inuwa, said she does not find tribal marks repulsive, but tolerable as she can marry a person with tribal marks.

“I don’t see anything wrong with been in a relationship or even marrying someone with tribal marks. I am more concerned about the character of the person, rather than his physique like tribal marks or any form of deformity,” she said.

She, therefore, advised the public to desist from judging a person based on his physical appearance, but rather on his character or way of life.

Matched content

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply