Tribal Marks and Tattoos: A Proud Cultural Heritage on the Verge of Oblivion

Growing up in a society with rich cultural practices is fascinating. I remember my siblings and friends occasionally pointing out the short incision on my face and chin. The incision is supposed to aid with the easy emergence of infant dentition, what the Yoruba culture calls “eyin”. I had always grown up living with the mark as part of my identity, and only a few people understood its significance.

Nigeria and Africa have always possessed numerous cultural practices, although most are on the brink of extinction due to modernization and exposure to western culture. One of these practices is Tribal Marks and Tattoos, which are popular amongst various ethnic groups on the African continent.

Tribal Marks and tattoos are lacerations or distinct marks on the body, especially on the face using sharp objects and native dye. They are mainly used as a form of family or tribal identification and became quite popular during the slave trade era. Other purposes may include medicinal, spiritual reasons, fashion, e.t.c. and may be considered a sign of wealth in some parts.

Many tribes have distinct tribal marks, which are unique to the tribe only. Popular tribal marks include Gombo, Abaja, pele, owu, ture, mande, iwu, zube, and bile.

“In Nigeria, facial marks are a means of household and tribal identification while body tattoos (in the form of small lines on the hands, arms or legs) are for beautification.” Madam Olusoji, a native of Oyo Town in Nigeria, told The Moveee.

The facial marks are made with the aid of a scalpel-like knife called “abẹ” in the Yoruba language. The knife is used to make cuts on the face, and black dye is applied immediately to prevent it from closing up. Body tattoos are made by pinching the skin dermis with packed needles (usually in fours). The application of black dye also follows this process.

The famous Yoruba proverbial adage, “Tita riro laa kola, amo ti o ba jinna tan nii doge.” might be valid for the older generation. It means, “The process of getting tribal marks might indeed be a painful one, but once it’s done, it becomes a beautiful sight to behold.”, 

As much as tribal marks and tattoos were held dear and highly revered by the older generation, the trend is disappearing among the younger generation, who think it is an ancient barbaric tradition and a form of mutilation. 

Religious factors could also be considered, especially when it comes to the spiritual aspects. The majority is practising modern religion, and it abhors traditional beliefs. For instance, my facial mark experience is considered a myth and sacrilege. Therefore practices associated with it are no longer carried out.

In Nigeria, an ongoing countrywide petition to ban tribal marks is being lobbied by human activists and politicians. Some states have outlawed the practice. A particular state government introduced a law stating: “No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child”.

All the while, the younger generations are adopting foreign cultural practices such as ink tattoo drawing, male body piercing, etc. The gap between these new trends and the old tribal marks & tattoos keeps getting wider.

Bridging this gap seems impossible as modernity continues to rage like wildfire consuming almost all African traditional and cultural practices that were once held dear to our hearts.

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