Killed by Modernity


Tribal marks are getting out of fashion and those who have them complain that the age-long traditional practice is negatively affecting their personality

By Chinwe Okafor  |  Sep. 20, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

IYABO Ajayi, a secondary school student, does not like the tribal mark on her cheeks. She believes the marks make her look ugly. “I have never liked the marks. I feel ugly each time I look at them on the mirror. I had once asked my mother why she marked my face and those of my sisters, without any on her face and she said it was mandatory for every female child in my father’s family to carry them. It makes me feel inferior and my classmates, especially the boys, usually taunt me about it, so it kept me from having too many friends,” she said.

Feeling pathetic about herself is Adefunke Adewale, a university student, whose face is marked with one short tiny mark on each cheek. “Maybe I would have loved it if they were not this much. I am a lady and I wonder why my parents believed the marks would make me beautiful. People laugh at me in school so much that I’ve learnt to laugh at myself. I’ve grown used to them, but it is really sad. Over time, when I couldn’t forgive my parents, I moved out of the house and was raised by my grandmother,” she said.

Ajayi and Adebola are just two out of the thousands or millions of Nigerians who, today are upset by the tribal marks on their faces. Over the years, many individuals and groups have campaigned against the act of making tribal marks on a child’s face for whatever reason. Tribal marks on people’s faces are done for various reasons. A woman, who identified herself as Rashidat Iyola whose baby has one short and tiny mark on each cheek, in a leaf-like pattern, told Realnews that the marks were done to secure good health for the child.


Adeolu Akinkuade, a 26-year-old barber, who had a thick long single stroke on each cheek, said they were made for health reasons. “I was told that I used to be constantly sick when I was young and that was why the marks were made on my face. Initially, I hated them and hated myself for that but over time, I realised that I had no choice, so I had to accept them. But definitely, I will not put my children through this,” he said.

Nneka Nwachukwu, a nurse, agrees that in the Igboland, most of the marks people carry on their faces were made health for reasons. “The marks were often made on children when they had convulsions. The blood from the cut would then be mixed with some other ingredients, which the child would use as medicine to stop the convulsion. The mark is usually a thick line on each cheek, but personally, I don’t like it and I cannot admit such for my children.”

Apart from health reasons, a tribal mark is a means of identification. It is another form of identity card. Maybe this justifies why people who wear tribal marks nowadays are often ridiculed and stigmatised. Hammed Olaposi, a 30-year-old university graduate with tribal marks, confessed that the  tribal marks have a negative effect on his personality. “These marks are horrible. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been embarrassed as a result of these marks. I would have loved to be a model; I really loved it, but as I grew up, I realised that my face could pose as a threat to such a career in the future. So I decided to study a course where my face wouldn’t be an obstacle for my employment.

“I know I can’t be a model or work in a bank, so today, I am a pharmacist and I’m doing really well. In Oyo my tribe, the marks were for beautification, as well as a proof that I am the legitimate child of my father. If I had a choice in the matter, I would have preferred to be perceived as a bastard than to have these marks on my face. It would have ruined me if I had not fought the esteem killing effect it had on me.”

Over the years, tribal marks were regarded as a fashionable tradition which date back to the fifth Century B.C. when some foreigners who lived in Egypt, in an attempt to prove that they were not Egyptians, cut their foreheads with knives, creating marks which differentiated them from their hosts. The practice was later adopted in other African countries, especially at a time when kingdoms were invaded and people were kidnapped. As such, clans started marking their members to differentiate themselves and also to be able to know where an individual belonged.


These marks formed part of the rich culture of the black race and Nigeria was no exception. But overtime, the practice had been eroded by intervening variables mainly attributed to the effect of modernisation and religion. However, with the trend dwindling over time, individuals who wear them nowadays often become objects of ridicule among their peers. Even Nigerians who were given tribal marks during childhood have decided not to give their children facial marks. The pain and risk of infection along with the scorn and discrimination the child may face later in life are all factors that make parents reject facial markings. Individuals now prefer that their identity card or means of identification should be in the wallets and not on their faces anymore.

Lanre Olutayo, a professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Ibadan, has traced the origin of tribal marks in Nigeria to the slave trade era. “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 folks, 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. However, 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,” he said.

Ojo Adeshina, a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, University of Ibadan, UI, says that with the advent of globalisation, there is little need for tribal marks unlike in the olden days. According to him, there are no more wars which formed the major basis for inscribing marks on faces then. But these days, tribal marks have been associated health problems. There have been instances where people have bled to death or contacted diseases through the process of face marking. “It has much effect on an individual. Many people do not want to associate with someone that glaringly has marks on his or her face, when the marks are so glaring that it defaces the person. Such individual would find it hard to forgive the parents, thereby constantly holding a grudge which, over time, might extend to other people. Also an individual with tribal marks might feel reduced in terms of beauty and this could make such person unnecessarily reserved, as they sometimes have the impression that they are different from others, believing their beauty had been tampered with.  Most times, individuals with tribal marks might experience inferiority complexity. They might not be able to interact freely with people, even in situations where they have what is expected of them,” Adeshina explained.


However, incising tribal marks on faces has become a criminal offence in many states in Nigeria today. This, in a way, has helped to reduce the act across different tribes in the country. Osun, Oyo and Ekiti State governments have banned people in their state from giving facial marks to their children. Some Nigerians have been quick to argue that tribal mark is a cultural matter, which deserves no anti-legislation. But without prejudice to culture, the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, has ordered the 36 states to adopt the Child Rights Act in order to adequately protect the rights of children. Bem Angwe, executive secretary of the commission, said he was determined to ensure that every Nigerian child enjoyed the right to live and to make choices. According to Angwe, the adoption of the law in every state will help to protect children from abuses like tribal marks, tattoos, child labour, defilement, witchcraft accusation and other forms of abuses.

Despite bans and efforts made by government to put a stop to facial marks on children, Munirat Alarape, a housewife who herself has eight slashes on each cheek and one beside each eyelid, said though the procedure was always painful, it’s a culture that has for long been, an identity for anyone to know her origin. “For every first child in my family, that is the Ashipa family in Oyo town, be it a boy or girl, these marks must be made on their faces. It is drawn with the local knife, after which a blend of charcoal and coconut oil is applied for it to heal and darken. It is always so painful and you would be wide awake while it is being done but when it heals, it becomes a beauty to behold,” she said.

Also in tune with Alarape, is Ayowumi Ayanwale Olayanju, Nigeria’s program officer for the U.N. cultural organisation, UNESCO, agrees. He regretted that the tradition is losing popularity because “it is considered old-fashioned.” He does not believe it harms children but rather that the tradition has spiritual roots. He quoted a Nigerian proverb that likens tribal marks to the rewards of hard work. “When you make marks, or when the mark is cut, it is painful.  When it is healed it’s like a free thing, something that you admire. You don’t even feel the pain, you only enjoy the beauty.” Olayanju hopes the tradition will be preserved trough recognition by UNESCO in future, even if it is no more practiced.

This dying culture is an economic loss for the Oloolas in Yoruba land who specialise in the trade of making tribal marks. Samuel Ogundeji, an Oloola in Ilaka area of Oyo town, said the trade which was common among Yoruba people in South-West Nigeria, dates back to centuries, even before the advent of colonialism. According to him, all the descendants of the Oloola including the educated ones are familiar with the practice. “It is a generational trade known to a particular household called Oloola. Tribal marks are different from any other trade. It’s a generational craft because our fathers handed it down to us. We have researched into it and discovered that it does not affect religion in any way. Where our own trade differs from others is that we have a house called Oloola, an abode of tribal marks,” he said.

Leaf like tribal mark
Leaf like tribal mark

Ogundeji, said that in times past, facial tribal marks were more or less a form of identity in Yoruba land. He said that tribal marks have different variants which include: Keke of Owu, otherwise called Keke Olowu which is common with the Olowu and another one called Gombo, which cuts across different households. Others, he said are Meeje meaning Seven, Pele, meaning three horizontal lines and Ture, which is peculiar to the Olokun Esin household.

In Nigeria, ethnic groups such as Yoruba, Hausa, Kanuri, Nupe, Igala, and Jarawa in Plateau state were known to have some of the most invasive scars. The marks ranged from three horizontal marks on each cheek to identify Oyo people to two vertical marks, one on each cheek to identify Ondo people, all of Yoruba extraction. The Jarawa people draw many tiny incisions from the head to the chin, while the Nupe have tiny cat-like whiskers beside the lips. Besides, they also have tribal marks on other parts of the body.

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