Over the time, I have come to live above all the ohs!, ahs! and whys! that greet me on any first meeting with a human specie from another continent different from mine.
Their first reaction usually comes along with probing questions like ‘what happen to you on your face?’; ‘Did you meet with an accident?’; ‘Were you abused by someone?’; ‘Are they marks of punishment for being an errant child?’ I mean they ask all sort of questions!
Meanwhile, I have learnt to deal with these questions as they throw them…to those friendly among them, I’ve taken out time to explain the reasons with courtesy. To those with contemptuous gaze, agape mouth and rolling eyes , I have shunned and stood against with pride and confidence.
Why all these parables? It is all about facial marks that I bear on my face. Yes, facial marks. I have them on my face, one on each cheek…bold and legible. They have become some sort of emblem with which both friends and acquaintances remember me. They can also describe me to people with them…don’t you remember that African lady with some strokes on her face? they say.
Well, for those that care to know, this has always been my simple explanation: Facial or tribal marks are signs of cultural identity for some African societies, including among the Yoruba people in Nigeria where I come from. The tribal markings come in different patterns of strokes for each tribe and family which distinguishes them from one another and enable them to sight an outsider.
This is an age-old tradition and its practice is already waning and in fact there are currently some extant laws prohibiting parents from putting facial marks or tattoo on their children in Nigeria. This explains why my children don’t bear the marks.
Because of the fact that marking is usually done to youngsters, most Nigerians whose faces bear ethnic marks had little choice in the matter…just like me who was only few months old when the strokes were put on my face.
Don’t ask if I was angry with my parents because I am not. Although, I had on occasions asked them why and my mother’s satisfying explanation had always been ‘It is because ‘Kobomoje’ (literally – ‘it doesn’t spoil the child’), which was the popular trend in Ibadan during the time you were born.’
Tribal marks were as a result of different things like religious beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation, which could be either hearsay or just the societal norm of the community, normally traced to a deity.
For instance, in the Yoruba culture, if a woman continues to have still birth, the child is given marks on a certain part of his/her body to avoid the alleged evil child coming back.
However, in the ancient times, tribal marks were also seen as a good means of identification of people from different communities. Members of the same village, clan, or lineage, home town always carry the same tribal marks and so a visitor can be easily recognised. Also, parents used tribal marks to identify their children, thus it is a way of a father acknowledging the authenticity of his children.
In addition, the tribal marks were used as a sign of identification during the civil war in Nigeria, as some people have testified that their tribal marks saved them at that time.