Facial Marks, The Natural Identity
Culture has been defined as “a people’s way of life.” It entails their customs, laws, traditions, norms, language, occupation and cuisine.
Culture gives identity to a people and one means through which a person’s origin and ethnic group are known as the facial marks. They are specific identification and beautification marks designed on the face or bodies of people.
According to some oral traditions, the practice of giving tribal marks is an age-long tradition that started in Nigeria during the era of the slave trade, when people started giving their family members marks for recognition in case they were captured.
The marks varied, as some were given on the cheeks, others on the forehead, chin, stomach, hands and different parts of the body. The marks could be drawn vertically or horizontally, and sometimes, can be both. Almost every tribe in Nigeria has marks that distinguish its people from others.
One prominent tribe that practices this culture most is the Yoruba. The people are well known for their facial marks, which vary from town, lineage and family, despite speaking the same language.
The markings are called ila in Yoruba Language and are carried out by professionals known as Oloola and people with tribal marks are referred to as Okola.
These marks are drawn through the scarification technique with the use of a razor or sharp objects, afterwards, they rub native dye made from charcoal to stop any form of bleeding and also to prevent the skin from closing up.
They are mostly given at infanthood; therefore, a child does not have the power to decide whether he or she wants it. The child grows up to meet it on his or her face.
It is a traditional sign of honour and a clear indication that the child is not a bastard, as it identifies the family or the person’s origin. The former President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, proudly flaunts his Owu tribal marks as he once described it as his “natural identity card.”
Facial marks were also given for the purpose of beautification. There is a Yoruba saying, Tita riro lan ko Ila, to ba jina adi oge, which translates to ‘The incisions is very painful, but when it gets healed, the marks become a beautiful thing to admire.’
The different facial marks in Yoruba land are:
The Pele mark is peculiar to the people of Ile-Ife, Osun State (Pele Ife), but it is also a kind of a general Yoruba marking system, as almost all towns of the Yoruba ethnic groups have their version of the mark. The other variant of the Pele are Pele Ijebu, which is that of the Ijebu people and Pele ijesha, for the ijesha people. It is drawn with three long vertical lines on the cheeks.
The Owu marks are drawn with six incisions on each side of the cheek. It is the mark for the Egba people in Abeokuta, Ogun State. These marks could be found on the face of the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo.
The Gombo marks, also known as Keke, consist of multiple straight and curved lines about half of an inch apart inscribed on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth. Four long vertical lines are drawn from the scalp and curved into four perpendicular lines on each cheek. The Gombo marks are peculiar to the people of Ogbomosho in Oyo State. A prominent person who had this mark was the late Chief Ladoke Akintola, the former premier of the Western region.
The Abaja tribal mark is identified with the indigenes of Oyo. The mark can be a basic style or a complex one. The basic form of the mark is either three or four horizontal stripes on the cheeks. The complex style is inscribed with 12 horizontal lines, six lines per cheek, this style is called Abaja Alaafin Mefa mefa. The late Alaafin of Oyo had these tribal marks inscribed on his cheek.
Another Yoruba tribal mark is the Ture, which is made up of three long horizontal lines and three short vertical lines, totalling six on each cheek.
Others are Mande, Bamu and Jamgbadi. There is another kind of incision done for the purpose of identification of a child by inscribing the name, date of birth and family compound of such child. This inscription is always done on the stomach and is common among indigenes of Oyo town. This simply means when a lost child was found then, they would simply check his stomach and return him back to his family compound.
People with tribal marks have been given unpleasant names by society, which has led to a decline in this practice.
As important as tribal marks were used for beautification and identification, it is no longer a common practice because of civilisation. Some laws have been passed against giving tribal marks. For example, in Oyo State, the child rights law imposes a fine or one-month imprisonment or both for anyone who makes or causes a skin mark or tattoo on a child.