No, That's Not a Scar; They're My Tribal Marks

African woman with tribal mark on her face. Image from http://thenationonlineng.net/tribal-marks-the-nigerian-tattoo

Just the other day, I was explaining that I had tribal marks on my face to a colleague at my “corporate” job, and she exclaimed, “No way! You have tribal marks? I don’t see them.” I had then leaned in really close to her and pointed to the 1-centimeter symmetrical marks on both my upper cheeks to show her where and what my tribal marks looked like.

Tribal Marks

In the Yoruba culture, tribal marks show the different social strata in the society as well as inform other people about ones lineage of the individual. The latter of these was especially important during the slave trade so that the community knew which family a person had been kidnapped from. The marks are done anywhere from toddler-age to primary school-age. They are always done in the early mornings, and they are performed by a “specialist” who can only do the markings for certain families. Meaning, each family/clan has their “specialist” (called Olola [OH-LOW-LA]) who will make the markings on all the faces of the children belonging to that family. Think of it as a wearable family crest, or a face tattoo of sorts, if you will. Even the Alaafin (i.e., King) of Oyo State, where I am from, has tribal marks. Depending on how intricate the markings are, they usually heal within a couple weeks with no infection or lingering discomfort. It is important to note that this is a tradition that has been on the decline for several decades now, even to the point where various Nigerian state governments have banned them. Additionally, as the country has become more and more Westernized, the general public perception of those with tribal marks is seen as less desirable.

Getting My Marks

My paternal grandfather was the one who insisted I get the family’s tribal marks. My mom did not want them on my face, and my father was in a different part of the country at the time it was going to happen, so he didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the matter. My paternal aunties, as well as my cousin--who was grandchild number #1 (I was grandchild #2)--had the marks. As far as my grandfather was concerned, I would be no exception.

During my early childhood in Nigeria, my grandma would often come get me from my mother’s house and I’d spend the whole day with her. She’d then bring me back in the evening. One day, when I was about 2 years old, my grandma did as such. My grandfather had called our family Olola to come to my grandparents’ house to put the marks on my face that day. The Nigerian culture being the patriarchal society it is, and it being the village, my mom’s opinion was unsolicited—much less heeded. Oh, did I forget to mention my grandfather was also the chief in our village? My mom didn’t stand a chance. So, that’s how I got my tribal marks. My grandmother dropped me off back at home after it was done, like it was any other day—but that day was the day I would have permanent marks on my face to tell the rest of the world the family/clan I was from.

Living with My Marks

If you read my “About" me page, you will recall that I stated I was born in Nigeria and have also lived in the United Kingdom (UK). Being in the UK was the first time in my life I had experienced “being the only one of my kind.” This meant everything about me was a source of curiosity and novelty for not just myself as a child exploring the British culture, but for those British children exploring me—a Nigerian girl with dark skin, a funny accent and barely spoke English, braids, was chubby, and had marks on her face.

“What are those marks on your face?” Are those scars from the chicken pox?” My response would always be, "No, that's not a scar; they're my tribal marks." I do not recall any of the children being interested at any point past my statement to then question what tribal marks were. That was totally fine with me, as I didn't offer to explain. It was already a lot of energy navigating being the "other" and straddling the multiple cultural identities that were starting to to be at odds with one another inside me.

I honestly do not know if the questioning came from children just being the precocious, inquisitive, blunt instruments of questioning they are, or if my tribal marks were just that much more noticeable when I was younger and before makeup had become a rite of passage for me. I look through pictures of myself from those days, and I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it is simply because I know my own face, to the point that I don’t notice my tribal marks (but of course, I will notice a Russia-sized pimple on my face that for whatever reason, no one else will see). 

Embracing My Marks

African woman with face-paint of tribal marksThose questions from my secondary-school days—a time when you just want to be seen as “normal” and minimize any differences between yourself and your peers was of utmost priority—always made me self-conscious about my tribal marks. That is, until I left high school and went to University (go Spartans!).  It was in undergrad that I truly started to develop my self-identity, started molding myself into who and what I wanted to be, started developing my own sense of personal values, ideals, and developed a sense of discernment on which parts of my cultural identity (Nigerian, English, and American) would make up the fabric of who Mary was.

Part of that identity development was learning more about my ancestry, including my tribal marks. The name of my business is called Funke’s Trybal Marks. “Funke” is one of my many Yoruba names, and “trybal” is a play on the word “tribal.” I chose this name to pay homage to my Yoruba ancestry, to pay homage to my tribal marks.


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