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Dying Culture Of Facial Marks

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By DELE BODUNDE (Last update 25/09/2017)

He has been asked many times if he was attacked by a wild cat, but it is always jokingly.

That is because his scarification or tribal marks enhance the handsomeness of Saka Ajao, a 43-year-old civil servant, who wears the tribal marks known as “Abaja Owu”.

The Abeokuta resident has three bold horizontal marks atop three equally visible vertical ones on each cheek of his handsome face.

“My father had 32 children; all the 32 children have tribal marks.

“As for any of us giving tribal marks to our children, we could not because we know that what gave reason for tribal marks is no more there. The marks were for identification during the tribal wars and slavery.

“When people were scattered by war, they used the tribal marks to identify their towns of origin and families. And now that there are no wars, we are praying for peace. You don’t have to give your children tribal marks,” Ajao explains.

An expert in African and Asian studies, Dr Kehinde Oladeji, corroborates Ajao’s statement by describing facial marks as a dying culture.

Oladeji, a lecturer at the Department of Languages, University of Lagos, says the need for facial marks has become irrelevant.

“Facial marks and scarification were basically for identification during the period of inter-tribal wars and slavery. It was a simple means of knowing where someone came from.

“As it is said in Yoruba, a person with facial marks will not remain missing for too long.
“Such a person, if separated from his relations during war or other conflicts, would meet someone who would identify his town and even his family through his facial marks,” he notes.

Oladeji, however, observes that such wars have ceased and that modernity and technology have made scarification a thing of the past.

“Currently, it is pretty difficult to find facial marks on people who are younger than 35 years in most Nigerian towns.

The culture may linger a while with traditional institutions, but this also will let go with time,’’ he adds.

However, Dr Demola Dasylva, of the Department of English, University of Ibadan (UI), notes that facial marks might remain with traditional institutions for a long time to come.

Dasylva, who has a bias for African culture and customs, says: “Some aspects of culture are so integrated that you cannot change them.

“Great Britain is a developed democracy, yet the monarchy there is accorded so much respect. If facial marks are a condition for being made an Oba, Emir or Eze in any part of the country, concerned princes will only avoid scarification at their own risk,” he says.

Dasylva observes, however, that such scarification may be limited to parts of the body other than the face.

Available records show that scarification can be on the chest, back, stomach, thigh or arm.
Prof. Ohiomamhe Elugbe, of the Department of Languages at UI, describes some facial marks as mere inoculation against certain diseases.

Elugbe explains that the three-quarter-inch vertical mark on each cheek is an inoculation against convulsion, which is mandatory for babies in his mother’s family in Akoko-Edo area of Edo, when he was born.

Elugbe, a linguist, notes that since most childhood killer diseases now have vaccines, herbal or local inoculations that resemble facial marks are fast going out of fashion.

Some past Nigerian leaders were easily identified with their tribal marks.

The late Adegoke Adelabu (Penkelemesi), a flambouyant Ibadan politician who died in a car crash in 1958 before the country’s independence, wore tribal marks comparable to those of the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu and Chief Richard Akinjide.

The late Premier of Western Nigeria, Chief Ladoke Akintola, was radiant with his Ogbomoso tribal marks.

The late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the country’s first and only Prime Minister; and the late Malam Waziri Ibrahim, the exponent of “politics without bitterness’’, had tribal marks.
The Eastern part of the country is not left out of this fast fading fad.

Ifeanyim Ararume, who is still in court over the 2007 Imo governorship election and a serving Senator; as well as Sen. Ayogu Eze have tribal marks.

But for Ms Angel Okon-Fasasi, a Lagos-based beautician, there is no need for permanent beauty courses in this modern world.

“Anybody who has witnessed a Fanty (Brazilian-like cultural festival in Lagos), Haloween or any fun parade will realise that make-up can give you anything from the ‘gombo’ of Ogbomoso to the Igala or Idoma marks that some jokingly call ‘whiskers’,’’ she says.

According to Okon-Fasasi, tattoos have also taken over from facial marks.

“Tattoos are not just making beauty statements; they are also identification marks, depending on where they are made on a person.”

She, however, explains that unlike tribal marks, tattoos are mostly non-permanent and can be removed completely or redone, even with another motif.

Okon-Fasasi says that she is not aware of any Nigerian tribe without tribal marks. “The difference is that while some have several marks, some have just a mark. Also, while some have bold marks, some have almost invisible ones.”

A medical doctor, Shola Adebiyi, wonders why anybody should still be interested in scarification in spite of the deadly infections, including hepatitis and HIV, that can be transmitted in the process.

Adebiyi advises that since the process, unlike male circumcision, cannot be done in hospitals with properly sterilised equipment, it should be discouraged.

An Abuja-based taxi driver, Musa Mohammed, 47, wears the “bille” tribal marks of his fore-fathers in Bauchi State.

“I was not part of the decision to put these marks on my face.

“It was made by my father. But I have not allowed facial marks on any of my seven children because I believe the culture belongs to the past. Besides, it has no religious significance.”
Research has shown that scarification is not limited to Nigeria.

Australian Aborigines and tribes in Papua New Guinea have the culture. The Maori of New Zealand use a form of ink-rubbing scarification to produce facial tattoos known as “moko’’.

It is, however, practised in all of black Africa from Ethiopia to the Cape. It is also for the same reasons — identity, beautification, maturity rights and treatment of ailments.

From the Bororos of Niger and Chad, the Dagombas and Ashantis of Ghana through to the Nuer of Sudan, it is tribal marks all the way.

The significance of scarification among the Nuer of Sudan is that it marks the transition from childhood to boyhood; hence, it is meant only for boys from age 15 and above.

It is a ritual deserving a lot of courage as the “Gaar” or traditional healer usually cuts each of the six vertical marks so deep that the cheek bones are often exposed!

After the marks heal, the Nuer boy becomes a responsible and respected man in his community. He can then marry and settle down to adult life.

Nevertheless, some effort has been made to outlaw scarification in some parts of Nigeria.
The then governor of Ekiti State, Ayo Fayose, made facial Marks and tattoos illegal in the state in 2006 in line with its Child Rights Law.

Whether legislation or mere awareness will consign tribal marks or scarification to history books and artwork may take a while.

It is, however, indisputable that the loss of tribal marks is likely to become the gain of tattoos, considering the current craze for the latter all over the world.

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