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Wither Our Facial Tribal Marks?

Before now, one of the prominent features of a typical Nigerian man or woman was the tribal marks which distinguished one tribe from the other. In recent times, the practice has been rested why is this so asks Nwakaego Ohaegbulam

“I come from Benue State and I was born before the Nigerian civil war and my parents did not give me any tribal marks until the civil war broke out. One morning during the war, my parents asked me to follow my siblings to the house of one woman for an undisclosed purpose.

I obeyed but on getting there, I saw a woman sitting in a corner with a razor blade in her hand. I was curious and observant to know what she was up to especially when she beckoned on the first person to come to her. I watched in horror as she used the razor to make some cuts on the persons face while he writhed in pain with blood gushing from his face. The entire thing did not make sense to me and I vowed not to have her touch me. Being a teenager, I was determined to fight her off if need be, so, when she called upon me to come for the mark, it was an outright No that she received. Asked why I did not want to be marked, I simply told her that I did not want to be cut besides; I saw no reason for the cut.

She told me that the mark served for identification especially with the war raging that if I did not receive the cut, I would be mistaken for an Ibo man and probably killed. I told her that nobody was going to kill me. When I got home, my parents were shocked that I did not receive the cut but I made them understand that I did not want to be a part of it and if I was going to be killed because of it, so be it,” This is the experience of Mr. Idoko Hope, a security personnel. Time was when all that was needed to know an individual’s ethnicity in Nigeria was to simply look at such a person’s facial marks.

It was the pride of an individual to flaunt his or her tribal marks basically because it was his visa for entry into other lands and the marks made him an untouchable especially if his tribe was known to be fighters. The marks also made it easy for his brethren in foreign lands to identify with him and give him the necessary assistance he needed. In ancient African tradition, tribal marks served as a means of identification and a form of legitimacy.

Its origin dates as far back as the 5th century BC in Egypt when some foreigners living there shaved their hairs with knife to differentiate themselves from the Egyptian citizens. Years later, the practice was further adopted when several kings of various kingdoms in Africa, started invading other kingdom.

The invaders marked themselves and their family members to differentiate themselves from the captured. Sources have it that tribal marks in Nigeria started during the slave trade. This Dr. James Obunbaku, of the Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, said may not hold simply because the trade referred to is not clearly stated as there was the inland trade the origin of which is not known and the trans-Atlantic slave trade which did not begin until the contact with the Europeans on the coast. One thing he said is certain which is that “during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the marked people were known to be stubborn and heady. They were known as breaches because they were known to stir up rebellion on the ships conveying them to Europe and the Americas.

At times, they could throw themselves overboard. This, it is believed, could have led to the spread of marks on the cheeks since the Europeans resolved not to buy slaves who wore tribal marks on their cheeks.” In Nigeria, these marks were usually passed down from one generation to the next as part of a family’s tradition and values. Among the Yorubas, there are two different types of tribal marks- the ila (that is the facial marks which also vary) and ona (or local tattoo) each created using a sharp instrument such as razor blades, knives of glass.

The process involves cutting off flesh from the skin to create a gash, which later heals leaving a permanent pattern on the skin. The slimy snail secretion is rubbed on the incision to soothe the pain though the ona gets its unique colour from the addition of other pigments such as cashew fluid and charcoal. In many parts of Igboland, tribal marks were rooted in lots of superstitions and myths. As Chief Omekannaya, a businessman based in Ketu area of Lagos put it, “in those days when we had children possessed by the Ogbanje spirit or abiku as the Yorubas call them, you know they die mysteriously and they are believed to reincarnate.

Such children when they died, the parents usually marked them so that if peradventure they returned, they were easily identified. It is believed that to take the mark exposes the spirit behind the child thus taking away its powers because it has been identified by the mark and putting an end to the death of such a child.”

Apart from that, among the Igbos, the ichi mark was a facial mark worn mainly by men as an indication that the wearer has passed through the initial initiation into the Nze na Ozo society, thus marking the bearer as nobility. The Hausas in Northern Nigeria, have facial markings running from   both sides of the head to the bridge of the nose while the Igala people in Kogi State had the marks on both sides of their cheeks. In recent times, the use of facial marks is on the decline what could be the reason for this? Mr. Momoh a native of Ankpa in Kogi State, who has tribal marks on his face, said that he got the marks as a child back in the days when facial marks were inscribed on children for identification purposes.

“In those days facial marks were used for identification but these days, because of civilization, people no longer do it,” he said. Dr. Kehinde Oladeji, a lecturer at the Department of Languages, University of Lagos, said that the need for facial marks has become irrelevant because modernity and technology has made scarification a thing of the past. In his words, “the culture may linger a while with traditional institutions, but this also will let go with time.

It is currently difficult to find facial marks on people who are younger than 35 years in most Nigerian towns.” The dearth of the practice of scarification is such that in 2006, Ekiti State Governor, Ayo Fayose, gave assent to the Child Rights Law which seeks among to protect the rights of children in the state from all forms of exploitation including hawking on the streets, not going to school and other privations routinely taken for granted by parents in that state.

The law forbade all forms of tattoos and tribal marks on children of the state and offenders would spend one month in prison or pay a fine of N5,000. While it was easier for most scarred men to get wives for themselves, most of the women especially those whose scars were deep, had difficulties getting married. While languages and culture variations make every ethnicity distinct in its own way, with or without the tribal marks, once an individual speaks his mother tongue, the tone of his voice is enough to identify him.

It is a good thing that tribal marks are on the decline even though it is still being practiced in some parts of the country emphasis should be placed on having a good character, love and tolerance of one another for the peace and general well being of the nation

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