Tribal marks, beauty or ugliness? I often wonder what I will look like with some anytime I see those dry and deepened marks on the faces of people. It’s just pitiable in some cases. I wonder if I have these on my face what will I look like. The little ones I have on me still shame me. To be frank, I gasp anytime I imagine it much bigger, larger and deeper than what I have now. Then it was culture playing its role on the faces of our fathers and forefathers, but sincerely, now it’s a trauma to have these marks on your faces.

I also think about the pains, I mean, people with these marks, the pains inflicted on them for the mark to heal. Anyway, tribal marks now are not sexy and alluring for us and our younger generation.

The origin of traditional marks can be traced to inter-tribal wars before the advent of the colonialists. It was used for identity to avoid falling into the hands of enemies. During slave trade it was also used as a mark for merchants to identify his slaves.

It might be our culture and tradition then, not now. How did it come to be? Who invented it? Why tribal marks? Why not something less painful and ugly? As you read along, let’s take a lane that leads to the invention of tribal marks, I hope it amazes you the way I was amazed when I read the history.

Benin, Natitingou February 28, 2006 – Woman with tribal scarification on her body .It represents the Djougou’s region . Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan.©COSMOS / Jean-Michel Clajot

Tribal marks which can also be described as facial marks, though well dominated in Africa, can be traced to some foreigners living in Egypt in the 5th century BC. During that time, a Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about some foreigners in Egypt who cut their foreheads with knives to differentiate themselves from the Egyptians.

This practice was further adopted years later when kings of Africa, started invading other kings and its people for land and other resources. The invaders therefore marked themselves as well as their family members to differentiate themselves from the captured kings and their family members whom they regarded as their slaves.

Tribal marks came into existence to punish offenders in the old Oyo Empire. History has it that it turned to something of fancy when it actually befitted the offenders, making them attractive.

It was dated back to the days of Alaafin Sango, one of our documented gods in the history of the Yoruba. According to history; Sango sent two of his slaves on an important mission, he, wanted to worship at the grave of his mother and he could no longer remember her name because she died when he was a toddler.

His mother was the daughter of Elempe, a Nupe king, who formed an alliance with Oranyan by giving him his daughter as a wife and Sango was the result of the union. He then appointed a Tetu, who back in that time was a sheriff or king executioner and a Hausa slave to journey to Tapa land, in Old Oyo Empire for the purpose of giving them a horse and a cow for the sacrifice. Sango however, cautioned them to listen thoughtfully to the first name that would be uttered in the process of the invocation which would be the name of his mother. On their arrival, Sango’s grandfather; Elempe saw the duet, he was pleased and entertained them very well. The Hausa slave was carried away but the Tetu was very vigilant and articulate.

When the invocation commenced, the priest who did the sacrifice said; “Torosi, mother gbodo, listen to us, thy son, Sango is coming to worship thee”. The Hausa slave who was blind drunk did not hear the name but the Tetu who was cautious heard the name and memorised it.

Man with tribal markings

On getting to Oyo, the Tetu who was faithful with the assignment was lavishly rewarded while the Hausa slave was given one hundred and twenty-two (122) razor cuts all over his body to serve as a deterrent to others. After several months, the slave was healed and the marks made him so striking and distinguished in the town that, women found him attractive including the king’s wife.

The king also saw the refined look of the slave that he Sango decided that cuts should be given, not as punishment, but as a sign of royalty. He placed himself at once in the hands of the markers. However, he could only bear two cuts, and so from that day, two cuts on the arm have been the sign of royalty, and various other cuts came to be the marks of different tribes.

Another tale of tribal marks goes thus; The Ifa deity instructed Oduduwa to put marks on the cheeks of all the families that left the East i.e. Saudi Arabia with him because of revolution and inner hostility on their journey. This was after they left Saudi Arabia as a result of a religious crisis between the Muslims and themselves who were the advocates of traditional religion.

This, the deity instructed him to do, so that each family could be easily recognised on the basis of tribal marks which they wore. As a result of wars, internal disputing and misunderstanding, a number of families and chiefs did not follow Oduduwa to Ile-Ife and that is why today in some places other than Yorubaland in Nigeria, some tribal marks are similar to those of the Yoruba. People in places such as Aswan in Egypt, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Berbers in Bornu and some inhabitants of Daura in Kano state wear marks similar to the ones worn by the Yoruba too.

Likewise, Osemawe of Ondo and Ebumawe of Orile-Iwoye now Ago-Iwoye in Ijebuland were said to be twins, though the Ondo believed nothing of such happened. When Osemawe, the younger of the two established himself properly as the king of Ondo, he wanted to know the marks on the cheeks of the children of his twin brother. He decided to send a servant to Orile-Iwoye. But on getting there, he was not given a befitting welcome. He was only given some water to drink.

However, before he left, he noticed that his children wore pele marks on their cheeks, he left for Ondo and when he got home, he was given a rousing welcome but he was too tired to talk. They asked him the marks on the cheeks of the children of Ebumawe and he used his hand to draw long marks on both cheeks and this made their tribal marks to be different from others.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when slavery was rampant in Nigeria and the persistent wars made some tribes, families lose their loved ones. Those days when war was the only thing that warlords and communities looked forward to in Nigeria, at this period, children disappeared. The strong folks sold into slavery the children of the powerless/less privileged folks, with their wives. Several adults also missed.

They were sold into slavery to other countries. Those sold to slavery usually found it very difficult to recognize one another, if they were from the same family or from the same town.

It was then, the elders thought that there should be an identity or means of identification. This would make them know from which family or town the other person is from as soon as they see the tribal marks.

Then, when a child is born, the proud father will want the child to be given tribal marks as a way of ascertaining that he is the valid 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.

Since a tribal mark was another way to differentiate ethnic groups, they vary. There are marks 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 they have different meanings and different names. The Yoruba for example, have different patterns of marks and names for them like ture, bamu, keke, gombo, abaja, pele, etc.

In the history of the Yoruba, also, tribal marks were used to identify an abiku, a child that keeps coming and going causing his/her parents pains.  They are children “reincarnated”. In this case; a child believed to have been born twice or thrice is given marks on the 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 to stop the death of the child at a tender age. It can also be used to wade away evil spirits ravaging 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.

In Ghana, a reincarnated child’s mark known in Yoruba as abiku is referred to as “Kosanma” and the marks on the face are known as “Kosanma” or “Donko” marks.

Most tribes in Africa give marks for spiritual protection from bad luck. Among Ghanaians and other African fetish priests, Shamans or herbalists are the ones who prescribe these marks. They cut the body and powerful herbs with spiritual potency are inserted to heal the body and for the protection against evil.

Marks are given to certain people for treatment especially children. In this case, traditional healers do incisions on the children’s face or body to treat convulsion, pneumonia and measles. The cuts are made on the hips, wrists, stomach or shoulders.

Tribal marks are mostly given at a very tender age most especially when they are babies. This is because at that age, the child doesn’t have a say on decision.

The people who make these marks use either razor blade or sharp knives. They have native dye, pigmentation or black paste usually from grinded charcoal dust which is put into the 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. It should be noted that not all tribal marks are for beauty or slave identification, some are spiritual as well as for protection and prevention of evil.

Also, a tribal mark back then was a form of trend, if now our youth, including me can’t comprehend having tribal marks on our faces, we should bear it in mind that people used it as a form of beautification.

It was a form of dignity and was appreciated and still is. The likes of late Ladoke Akintola, Alao Arisekola, Adelabu Adegoke, Alaafin of Oyo, Bashorun Ga, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Efunsetan Aniwura, Sunny Ade among others were part of this.

Some carry theirs with regret, wondering what could prompt their parents to give them these ugly looks, some say its fade away as you grow older, others believe it’s a permanent tattoo and one might as well enjoy it as it is not going anywhere..

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