Facial Marks—Nigeria’s Fading ‘Identity Card’
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN NIGERIA
ONE morning in the late 1960’s, six-year-old Danjuma approached his father and insisted that he be given the cuts that Igala citizens wore on their faces with pride. Danjuma felt that he could no longer endure the ridicule of his schoolmates who taunted him for not having the facial marks. Though the cuts were usually administered to Igala infants too young to dread the operation, the boys viewed the marks as a sign of bravery. They regarded those without them as cowards who could not face the knife.
Until then, Danjuma’s father had resisted giving his son the facial marks. But that morning, pressured by his son’s determination to prove his bravery, he took a knife and made three deep horizontal cuts on each side of the boy’s face, slightly above the corners of his mouth.
Danjuma’s father knew that the real significance of the cuts had little to do with courage. Instead, the cuts would heal into scars of identification. They would be a permanent ‘identity card’ that could be neither lost nor forged. They would make his son instantly recognizable to his kinsmen, qualifying him for the rights and privileges of an Igala citizen. But the marks would also set him apart from the more than 250 other ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Scarification and cicatrization, though not limited to Africa, have a long history on the continent. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century B.C.E. about Carians living in Egypt: “[They] cut their foreheads with knives, thus proving that they are foreigners and not Egyptians.” Bronze heads fashioned in Ife, Nigeria, seven hundred years ago show facial lines that are thought by many to be ethnic markings. Facial markings are also evident in the sculpture of the ancient Nigerian kingdom of Benin.
Not all facial marks are made for ethnic identification. Some marks were and still are associated with spiritistic and religious practices. Others are symbols of status in traditional societies. Still others are decorative marks.
Cut by specialists in the community, facial marks vary widely. Some are slight slits in the skin, while others are deep gashes widened by the fingers. Sometimes a native dye is added to the wound to stain the marks. Each ethnic group has its own unique pattern. For example, vertical marks, one on each cheek, identify Ondo men and women. Three horizontal marks on each cheek identify the Oyo people. To those literate in markings, a mere glance at someone’s face is sufficient to read that person’s ethnic group, town, or even family.
Just as the marks and reasons for them vary greatly, so do attitudes concerning them. Many wear the marks with pride. An editor with Nigeria’s Daily Times stated: “Some consider the marks as an insignia of patriotism. It makes them feel like true sons of their ancestors.”
This is the view of Jimoh, a Nigerian man, who says: “I have never felt bad about my Oyo marks because it shows that I am a real Yoruba indigene from the town of the Alafin.” He further relates how in 1967 the marks saved his life during the Nigerian Civil War: “The house I lived in . . . was invaded and all [the others] were killed. The murderers did not touch me because of the marks on my face.”
Others deeply resent the marks. Tajudeen says about the marking on his face: “I hate it, and I curse the day it was inflicted on me.” And a teenage girl praises her mother for not allowing her to be subjected to the operation as a child. She says: “I would consider suicide if I had been given the marks.”
Coping With Ridicule
Danjuma, mentioned in the introduction, was ridiculed because he did not have the marks. Usually the opposite is the case. Over 45 years ago, G. T. Basden wrote in his book Niger Ibos: “Scarifying and tattooing are going out of fashion. Many of the young men . . . would gladly be relieved of [their marks]. What is a matter of pride, when among his own clansmen, becomes a reproach, because of the ridicule and contempt which is meted out to him in other parts of the country.”
Those words are certainly true today. Ajai, who earned a degree in psychology at the University of Lagos, recently studied facial marks in Nigeria. She observed: “People with facial marks, these days, at least in the cities like Lagos, are in the minority and come in contact with people who ridicule them. For instance, it is common to hear people refer to an individual as colonel, only to discover that he is not a member of the armed forces, but that the stripes on his cheeks are the same number as that of the stripes on the uniform of a colonel in the Army. Some are called tiger, because of their striped cheeks or some are referred to as everlasting tears. . . . Imagine what effect this has on the self esteem of the individual.”
Perhaps the toughest trials are endured in school. Samuel was the only one in his class with facial marks. He relates: “In school I was made fun of a lot. My mates would call me ‘railway line’ and ‘the boy with the railway line.’ They were always making fun of me and would raise three fingers. It made me feel inferior.”
How did he cope? Samuel continues: “One day the jesting was so intense that I went to my biology teacher and asked him if it was possible to remove the marks. He told me that it could be done by plastic surgery but that I should not bother because thousands of people in Nigeria had marks. He said that my peers were making fun of me because they were not mature but that when we grew up, all the jesting would stop. He also said that the marks did not determine what I really was or what I would become.
“That made me feel much better, and the bad feeling I had about the marks disappeared. People seldom refer to my marks now. Even when they do refer to them, I just smile. My relationship with others is not impaired. People respect me because of what I am, not because I have marks.”
A Fading Tradition
Because marking is usually done to youngsters, most Nigerians whose faces bear ethnic marks had little choice in the matter. When they become parents, however, they must decide whether to mark their children.
Some people decide to do so. According to the Times International of Lagos, there are several reasons for this decision. The magazine states: “Some still regard it as beautifying. Others believe tribal marks can be helpful in determining the bearer’s origin for the purpose of favouritism. Another is the usage in determining the legitimacy of a child in the traditional setting.”
Today, however, for more and more parents, these reasons are not compelling. Even among those who are proud of their marks, comparatively few risk the tribal surgeon’s knife on the faces of their children. This is especially true in the cities. The pain and the risk of infection along with the scorn and discrimination the child may face later in life are all factors that make parents reject facial marking.
Clearly, the popularity and acceptance of facial marks are fading fast. It seems that in the Nigeria of the future, the ‘identity card’ will be something people carry in their wallets, not on their faces.
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Facial marks indicate ethnic groups
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Facial marking is a fading tradition