Tribal Marks Ignite New Identity Crises Among Nigerians

By Kayode Oyero

Recently, the picture of a baby girl with fresh tribal mark welts went viral on the Internet. This elicited reactions on traditional and mainstream media with personalities kicking against the practice.

“This barbaric act must stop. National identity card is enough to identify where individuals come from. Support my bill to stop this,” Senator Melaye representing Kogi-west senatorial district in Nigeria wrote on his twitter account.

“Historically,” says Adesanya Ahmed Ope Oluwa,a PhD holder and senior lecturer at the department of African Studies, Lagos State University who spoke with AfricaInterview“tribal marks are primarily for identification and beautification or fashion purposes.

“Tribal marks were used to identify which family a person belongs to – especially in times of war when families mix-up only to re-unite many years and even decades after the war.Tribal marks then served as classification of who belongs to which clanor lineageas the tribal mark of one clan or family differs from another’s, even within the same settlement.”

Asked whether the identification reason is still valid today when there is no longer communal wars and family members no longer get missing to re-connect after many decades, Dr. Adesanya says: “tribal marks still serve identification purpose especially for Africans in the Diaspora being that it tells of their original ancestry.”

2016-11-19-photo-00000316Mr. Ademola Oyinlola, a journalist agrees with Adesanya. Oyinlola says “In days of old in Yoruba land tribal marks were a means of identification. So if you were of Oyo, Egba or Igbomina stock, people could tell straightaway once you came into sight.It was also for adornment of the body or if you like for fashion in those days.

“However, I do not think tribal marks are still relevant in today’s world considering all the health risks associated with putting tribal marks on people’s faces or bodies,” says Oyinlola.

Commenting on the health risks, a medical doctor at the Federal Medical Center, Gombe State, Deji Oyebamiji says“we don’t recommend tribal marks at all. The child is prone to a lot of misery and health misfortunes; the child can contract tetanus and other deadly infection in the process because most times the tools used in cutting the marks are not hygienic and in many cases, they are used for multiple users.”

Another medical practitioner, Chibueze Friday says: “There are health implications of tribal markings. These, however, border mainly on the technique – by implication, how the individual received his/her mark. Most times the procedures are performed as traditional rites in groups. In the process, the man performing the ritual for them uses a single unsterilized sharp to cut several persons.

“Thus they transmit diseases such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV viruses. Even tuberculosis has been linked to that. A significant number of patients that come down with Hepatitis B virus relate chronic liver disease eg cirrhosis, in our environment got the virus via this means.

“Secondly, some of the pigments or chemicals used in tattooing can cause anaphylactic reaction, dermatitis, poisoning and renal failure also. Examples include mercury, lead, several unnamed local salts and chemicals. There are many bodies coming in educating the public on the dangers of this practice.”

Omotola Jalade Ekehinde
Omotola Jalade Ekehinde

Also in the category of those who frown at the practice as child abuse, Nollywood actress, Omotola Jalade Ekehinde wrote on her Instagram page: “I support a bill against this practice. Like female genital mutilation, or child marriage, no permanent/life impairing decision should be taken on behalf of a child.”

A lawyer,Biodun Ogunnubi speaks on the possibility of the abolition of tribal marks:“Tribal marks may not be regarded as child abuse in Nigeria and in Africa generally due to different reasons, such as; tribal marks are regarded as a means of identification at times during times of war, symbol of beauty in some societies – and you know beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.Tribal marks might also be for spiritual reasons, part of health rites.

“Hence, in Nigeria and Africa it may not be regarded as child abuse. But internationally, tribal marks may be regarded as child abuse as the definition of child abuse includes psychological abuse as tribal marks if excessive can cause stigmatization and in turn affect a child’s morale, self esteem, confidence, ability to relate in the society, etc.

“However, for tribal marks to be abolished in Nigeria, it must be proven that it is contrary to Equity, Natural Justice and Good Conscience.A redress might be sought under Section 34 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 – Right to Dignity of Human Persons.

2016-11-19-photo-00000313“However, it might not be abolished in the next 20 years due to the fact that some Nigerians believe in the use of tribal marks, even enlightened people. It will be abolished probably in the next generation,” says Ogunnubi.

With the public outrage that greeted the picture of the girl child that went viral lately on the media and the popular embrace of tattoos in contemporary society,it may be true that the culture of tribal marks has outlived its relevance in Nigeria and in Africa only to be replaced with tattoo.

The two bears might be similar though. While the secondary purpose of tribal marks according to historical context is beautification purpose, the sole reason of tattoo making is for fashion.

A mother and banker, Adesodun Florence disagrees: “Tribal marks and tattoo are not for same purpose. Tattoo is a form of fashion among the happening guys and not for identification.”

“I hate tribal marks and tattoos genuinely. God forbid my children have it when neither I nor my husband hasany of the two,”says Bukola deremi Ladigbolu, a mother and social activist.

“I prefer neither tribal marks nor tattoos. The latter is actually worse because as a Child of GOD it is not scriptural. The Bible specifically frowns against it whereas the former was cultural or traditional if you like,” says Oyinlola.

Sen. Melaye
Sen. Melaye

Only time will tell if the bill promised to be proposed at the upper legislative chamber by Sen. Melaye and the fight by others like actress Omotolawill save some of the victims from the torture and misery subjected to during the tribal mark rite.


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