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Tribal marks: An ancient culture lost to civilisation

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Tribal marks are traditional facial markings or scarifications that were historically used as a form of identification, social stratification, and beauty enhancement to Yoruba heritage. Temitope Adetunji writes on these and more

Once upon a time, tribal marks on the cheeks of men and women, young and old, were common among different tribes across the country. The Yorubas in the South-West were not exceptions.

They wore their facial marks that varied from one town, family and lineage to another like badges of honour with pride.

Traditionally, tribal marks are made by cutting or scarring the skin with sharp instruments, and the process was often carried out during infancy or early childhood. It was believed that these marks would distinguish members of one family or community from another, helping to foster a sense of identity and belonging.

Furthermore, tribal marks were also associated with social status and served as a visual indicator of a person’s lineage, heritage, or occupation. They were sometimes considered a symbol of beauty and attractiveness, though this perception has changed over time due to evolving societal norms.

 Tribal marks can be of various shapes and sizes, and they can be horizontal or vertical, depending on the culture where the scarification is taking place. The Owu consists of six incisions on each side of the cheek, the Pele of three long lines inscribed on the cheeks, the Gombo (unique to Ogbomosho) of curved and straight lines on both sides of the cheek, and the Oyo call their four horizontal stripes “Abaja.”

Like many other old practices now being seen as outdated, the once sought-after tribal marks practice is gradually fading. It has been dealt a heavy blow by civilisation.

Gbongan, a town located in Osun State, Nigeria, is known for its cultural heritage and vibrant community. It has a long history deeply rooted in the cultural practices of the Yoruba people.

During a journey to the historic town, Saturday Punch was welcomed by small huts, clay cooking pots and clay-built dwellings in the Bembe-Ogbaaga village in the Ayedaade Local Government Area of the state. The village’s traditional architecture and way of life were enthralling.

The natives were friendly and eager to share stories about their culture, history and way of life.

One of those who portrayed this was the Baale of Bembe-Ogbaaga village, Abass Omojare. With his unwavering gaze and the timeless marks etched into his skin, stands as a living embodiment of a truth long held in Yoruba culture – a truth that asserts that one’s identity is not something to be discarded or hidden, but to be worn with dignity and cherished as a reflection of the past, the present and the generations yet to come.

Omojare turned out to be confident and proud of his tribal marks. He appeared to have never regretted having tribal marks. This to him was because “they (tribal marks) are signs of identification and respect in Yoruba culture.”

The promoter of culture in his community described tribal marks as signs of respect in the olden days, adding that, “It is a sign of identity compared to now that modernisation has taken over.”

Omojare, who is an elderly man, described tribal marks as one of the cultural values portraying Yoruba elegance as “Omoluaabi” (a person of good character).

He said, “In Yoruba culture, tribal marks were also considered a form of adornment, enhancing facial beauty and uniqueness.

“Some people believed that tribal marks made them more attractive in those days when many people wished to have them, we saw it as a competition during our own time, compared to now that it is seen as a stigmatisation.

“I feel that now that it is usually seen as a form of stigmatisation, the disappearance of tribal marks has reduced the value of Yoruba culture and heritage which is quite unfair.”

 Omojare, who is proud of his tribal marks, sees it as a joke and does not feel bad anytime people stare at him or body shame him.

However, things have changed…

Sule Adisa, from the Agbole Apata in Gbongan, who welcomed our reporter into his apartment told a unique story of tribal marks in Yoruba land but noted that “things have changed” and tribal marks no longer exist as they used to.

He proudly expressed his tribal marks as the type called ‘pele’.

The aged man, who is still into farming even at his age, stated that tribal marks serve as dignity and respect to one’s culture.

“Tribal marks can foster a sense of unity and solidarity within a group. They help create a shared sense of identity and common experience among members of a tribe or community, contributing to a strong sense of belonging and support.

“Tribal marks were used for identification in the past, but things have changed,” he said.

The disappearance of tribal marks, according to him, has reduced the Yoruba culture due to modernisation.

He, however, revealed his offspring do not have tribal marks despite him and his siblings having. His reason for this was civilisation.

 “Even though I and my siblings have tribal marks, I did not give them to my offspring because of civilisation, I don’t want them to be stigmatised and denied great opportunities,” he explained.

Another woman in the community popularly called Iya Ibadan, feels unconcerned about what people think about her tribal marks.

Iya Ibadan, who became a resident of the community as a result of marriage noted that she strongly believes in tribal marks as a sign of importance and a sign of respect to one’s tribe. She stated that she never had a regret of having tribal marks.

Tribal mark as a tradition

The Yoruba people, who are the predominant ethnic group in Osun State, have a rich cultural heritage that includes various traditional practices, including the use of tribal marks. These marks were often specific to different families or lineages within the community and were passed down from one generation to another.

However, it’s essential to note that in recent times, the practice of tribal marking has faced criticism and decline due to its association with potential health risks and evolving attitudes toward body modifications. The Nigerian government and various organisations have campaigned against the practice, encouraging communities to abandon it in favour of modern forms of identification and self-expression.

As with many cultural traditions, tribal marks have evolved, and their significance and prevalence in Gbongan and other Yoruba communities have changed. Today, while you may still find some individuals with tribal marks as a reminder of their cultural heritage, the practice is less common than in previous generations. Many young people in Gbongan and across Nigeria now prefer to embrace other aspects of Yoruba culture while foregoing the practice of tribal marking.

An indicator to locate a lost person

Approaching Mrs Aduke Elizabeth and her two friends in their little hut in the same Gbongan community showcased an elegance of beauty merely coming across them.

Her type of tribal mark is called the Abaja, often referred to as “Abaja Alaafin Mefa Mefa” or “Abaja Meta.”

Elizabeth’s tribal marks were works of beauty on their own, beautifully flowing and expertly carved, as well as eye-catching.

Her face showed the elegance of maturity, her voice, melodious and enchanting, carried the wisdom of generations.

 Supporting Omojare’s words, she said, “Tribal marks were used as a way to claim a child and indicate their membership within a specific tribe or community. Once a child has a tribal mark, that child cannot be taken to another man (either a concubine or another husband) to be fathered, the tribal marks speak volumes that the child came from a particular society or tribe.”

 Giving further information and the essence of the tribal mark, Aduke sees it as an indicator to locate a lost individual or child.

“Through tribal marks, the household of the lost person can be traced,” she said.

 But Aduke’s friend, Mrs Esther Adeyemi, said although she has a few on her cheek, she despised tribal marks.

She stated that her sort of tribal mark is called “Pele Ife.” – a tribal mark peculiar to the people of Ile-Ife, Osun State.

She preferred growing up without tribal marks. To her, tribal marks don’t fit everyone and it could make some people look ugly.

She said, “I do not like tribal marks even though it is a power of identity, tribal marks are good and they are used for different purposes but while I was growing up, I didn’t seem to like them and now that modernisation has taken over, it has worsened the whole thing, I am always shy knowing that I have tribal marks and people might be staring at me.

“Tribal marks may not be appropriate for everyone, people have diverse facial features, skin types, and personal preferences, imposing tribal marks on individuals who do not desire them can be a form of cultural insensitivity and violation of personal autonomy. I have seen people who look ugly because of their tribal marks, to me it is a form of deformity”

However, she accepted tribal marks as a sign of identification.

Tribal marks and the digital age

An Islamic scholar, Yusuf Sheriff, from Oloola family known for inscribing tribal marks on people, said tribal marks have an enduring history, stretching back thousands of years.

“They have been practised by numerous tribes and ethnic groups across Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. Each tribe’s markings hold distinct meanings, with patterns often representing aspects such as lineage, marital status, age, social standing, bravery, or a connection to the spirit world. The process of receiving these marks, often referred to as scarification, involves controlled cutting or scarring of the skin using various instruments,” he explained.

The Islamic scholar told this reporter that his family used to be in the business of tribal marks and some of them still are, hence why they are called Oloola.

 He added, “Within these tribal marks lies a profound sense of identity and belonging. For many communities, tribal marks serve as a visual language, telling the story of a person’s place within the group. From the earliest age, children may receive their marks, signifying their entrance into adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. The facial marks, in particular, are worn with pride, as they distinguish members of a particular tribe from outsiders.

“In modern times, the practice of tribal marks has faced significant challenges. Globalisation, urbanisation, and changing attitudes toward body modification have led to a decline in this ancient tradition. In some cases, the introduction of Western values has led to the stigmatisation of tribal marks, viewing them as ‘uncivilised’ or ‘barbaric.’”

Issues surrounding tribal marks

The scholar noted that among various issues surrounding tribal marks is consent. He explained that in the past, many individuals, particularly children, were marked without their consent as it was considered an integral part of their identity.

“Today, the debate continues whether the practice infringes on individuals’ rights, and there is a growing call for ensuring that the process remains fully consensual and driven by the personal choices of the individuals involved,” he said.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, in one of its reports, stated that tribal marks practice has been fading away since a federal law banned all forms of child mutilation in 2003.

“So the current bearers of facial marks are the last generation – their facial stripes as varied as Nigeria’s many ethnic groups,” the report read.

Afrocritik’s publication on tribal marks states that oral tradition holds that scarification in Nigeria dates back to the era of the slave trade when Europeans abducted people and bundled them in ships like sardines. People began marking family members to identify and recognise them when (and if) they were apprehended and later found. These permanent marks became methods of identification passed down from family to family, village members, royal lineage identification, and persons from the same lineage.

As strange as the practice may look, some justifications for scarification have been advanced, and upon closer examination, they appear to be valid (at least for the practitioners).

 From a social perspective, tribal marks have, over the years, created stigmas for those who bear them; many regard them as a taint to facial beauty as well as a sign of primitiveness.

In 2018, face model, Adetutu Alabi kicked off a “Tribal Mark Challenge” on social media, which not only went viral but also drew Rihanna’s attention, earning Alabi an interview with the BBC. She now encourages people to wear their tribal marks with pride in a bid to promote body positivism, while at the same time campaigning to stop the scarification of children until they can decide for themselves.

In an interview with Saturday PUNCH in 2018, the face model said some strangers had told her that she was ugly.

The model further revealed that her tribal marks ended her relationship with the father of her child because he was ashamed to walk with her in public.

She said, “One of the reasons the father of my child absconded me was because of my tribal marks. He could not be with me in public, and he only made us meet at night. We dated for some months in 2008, and I got pregnant in 2009. I bore a girl for him, and she will be nine years old this year.

“I felt I was the ugliest girl in the world. I got fed up with relationships because men didn’t always want to go out with me during the day; they would prefer to be with me at night. There was a guy I dated for two years, and that was the condition of the relationship, so I had to endure.”

Experts speak

A historian and a graduate of the University of Ilorin, Oluwatosin Ayodele, said tribal marks are a significant part of Yoruba culture, adding that it is often used for a wide range of purposes.

He said, “Tribal marks are inscribed for identification purposes. They differentiate a tribe, family, personality or ethnic group from another. Once you see a particular mark, you can easily tell the tribe, family or purpose of such person’s tribal marks.

“In the traditional setting, tribal marks serve as a symbol of beauty adding a unique spice to the way a person looks, that is for beautification.

“For spiritual or metaphysical purposes, some children in the olden days are called ‘abiku.’ In other words, they can die anytime and return to where they came from.”

Explaining further, he said it is believed that certain spiritual intervention which involves inscribing a tribal mark on the body of the child can prevent them from returning to where they came from.

He added that tribal marks are dangerous to be inscribed on a baby or someone without their consciousness.

 Also, a traditionalist, Popoola Ifagbenusola, noted that tribal marks, scarification, body tattoos, and body markings have always been part of Yoruba culture, tradition, and values.

Ifagbenusola added that people get these marks to beautify themselves. He added that back then, every Yoruba person had a unique tribal mark that served as recognition.

“We have of the Ibadan, the three marks up, three marks down, and we have the ones of Ilorin which is called ‘Bamu’ that they will mark from their head down to their mouth. Ijebus they have their own and this is unique because we do not carry identity cards or anything but once they see the tribal marks, they know where you are coming from,” he explained.

Ifagbenusola explained further that every lineage has its unique mark, we have the ‘pele’ which is the one one, so it is also for recognition and identification.

He added, “For the traditional aspects, despite being a traditionalist, I am not a religious fanatic so, I will say that culture should not be stagnant, there should be room for improvement in every culture, that is what makes the culture unique.

“There are some things that are meant to be kept the way they are and followed by all means but there are some things in every culture that will never go with time anymore that you have to do away with, one of them is tribal marks or scarification because the reason why they were being done, there are now new means of doing them.”

 Comparing the days of tribal marks to the contemporary, he said, “These days, people don’t do tribal marks. Instead of tribal marks, they make up for identification. I can easily know where people are from even from your name or intonation, there are so many ways to know people’s identification because modernisation has taken over.”

Also, a Professor and the Dean, the College of Humanities, Tai Solarin College of Education, Ogun State, Rasheed Adetumobi shared his views.

 He said there are two major types of body marks – some peculiarly facial marks, and others marks on other parts of the body.

 He explained that the Yoruba community that is very much into facial marks and body marks are ancient Oyo, Ondo, the Ijebus, the Egbas, and some others.

 “The Yoruba developed technology in which they were able to do such incisions on the body with traditional medicine to heal and so on. It’s also used for classification, for easy identification. Initially, it was peculiar to the royal class (olowo lon kola). It was not freely done, it was done on royal children, just to recognise them,” he said.

Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, a Yoruba culture custodian and writer, said civilisation has hurt the use of tribal marks.

 He said, “People are taken aback by the pain and agony the act of marking causes,” stating that we need not make marks on our body. On the contrary, one of the advantages of tribal marks is identity. It adds to our beauty. There is nothing bad in us having tribal marks.

 “For the extremists in modernisation, they are the ones that forbid the act of making tribal marks.

 “I, as a person, have tribal marks. For anyone ashamed of bearing tribal marks, I would say he or she lacks understanding and also lacks exposure. No one can make fun of me for bearing facial marks. For they know the meaning of the marks I bear. My generation understands the importance of tribal marks,” he added.

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