As I remember correctly, we were taught in elementary school (social studies class to be precise), that the way of life of a group of people is generally known as culture. The term culture nowadays has extended to include the language, food, mode of greeting, marital system and physical identity (not excluding the facial identity). One of such interesting facial features that is peculiar to the Yorubas of Nigeria are tribal marks.
Tribal marks are scarification which are usually inscribed on the face or body by either burning or cutting of the skin (during childhood), an act many have now come to see as barbaric and redundant but it wasn’t always so. Originally, tribal marks were used as a means of identification, inoculation against diseases and beautification of the face but these days, due to extant laws, and international campaigns, this cultural practice is fast fading away.

Tribal marks are inscribed in some people to enhance their  beauty

The history of how tribal marks came to be a popular act among the Yorubas is a fuzzy one. A popular story has it that there was this popular King who reigned over the old Oyo Empire. The king was said to be in possession of so many slaves which was a common practice for all kings in that period. There was a day that one of the slaves- a beautiful female, misbehaved, she was caught fornicating with one of the guards. The King inquired from his youngest wife the kind of punishment they should give to that very slave who misbehaved and out of jealousy, the young queen asked that the guards to take the slave somewhere and tortured her usuing sharp objects like razor, knife and so on to deface her so that she would not look attractive to any man that come her way. The guards acted according to the instruction given to them by the Madam and they locked up the slave for seven good days. After the seven days, the King’s wife requested that the slave should be released and brought forth to the palace. When the King’s wife and guards saw the tortured slave, they saw her beauty in another dimension because the scars that came out of the torture have added another beauty to the slave and according to the giver of this account, that marked the beginning of tribal marks in the kingdom.

The Origin of the Tribal Mark is centered around a young female slave

In Yorubaland, tribal marks differs in shapes and sizes depending on your ethnic affiliation. The Ijesha people are known for their “pele” marks. Pele is a four-horizontal-line, quarter-of-an-inch-long mark made on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth. Natives of Ondo are usually identified by half-an-inch-vertical lines on both sides of the nose down to the mouth (marks are thick and long) while you would most likely find an Ogbomoso native of sporting multiple straight and curved lines (Gombo) on both sides of the face. Other tribal marks among Yoruba people include Ture, Mande, Jamgbadi, Keke, Abaja etc.

Among the people of Ibadan, tribal marks remains a thing of particular pride especially among the indigenes in the core areas of the township. The marks to them are meant to serve different purposes. For example, it is used to differentiate one royal family from another as is the case with the Mefa Omo Oba, a six line drawn on both cheeks of the descendants of Iba Oluyole - the founding father of Ibadan There is also another one known as Abaja awon Basorun, a four horizontal line drawn on the left cheek with three vertical lines drawn on the right cheek and which is peculiar to children of the Basorun descendants in Ibadan. The pele also cuts across different families in Ibadan because of the way it beautifies their face. There are also tribal marks that may be found on the face of Ibadan indigenes which may not be attributed to a particular family, an examples of this is the one-one mark known as “kobomoje” that is very common in Ibadan.

Given how useful, fascinating and deeply cultural these tribal marks were,the reasons for why it is slipping headlong into oblivion is quite reasonable. For one, health reasons should be cited - many of the places where these markings are carried out are archaic in their ways and the tools they use are outdated and in most places, not well cared for meaning the child stands being exposed to diseases and such. Secondly, scarring a child for life without his/her consent is something to be frowned upon. Another reason is that tribal marks used to be an indicator to identify slaves and since slavery has been abolished, it has become a stigma most parents wouldn’t want to passed on to their children. The blowing wind of civilization and the great urge to embrace western culture is another reason why this part of old identity is becoming an outlaw practice in Nigeria.The government has moved to outlaw the practice, but many states have yet to approve the law. Many human rights organizations argue that the scarring of children is abuse and have often associated the practice with female genital mutilation.


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