September 10, 2012
ISEYIN, NIGERIA – Bamidele Alhazan, who is in her 70s, is sitting on a mat with her legs stretched out in front of her in her house in Iseyin, a city in southwestern Nigeria.
Alhazan is growing old. Not only have wrinkles nestled in around her eyes, but her traditional marks are also fading.
Alhazan has the abaja mark on her face. The mark of her mother’s family, the abaja is three vertical lines on top of three or four horizontal lines on both cheeks, totaling 12 to 14 marks. The mark’s design varies by the town.
She says that she almost received the gombo mark, which belongs to her father’s family, on her face instead. She turns her head to show the beginnings of a gombo mark on her left cheek. The gombo mark is similar to the abaja but drawn closer to the head.
“My father’s side wanted me to be marked with gombo,” she says. “But my mother insisted that they should mark me abaja.”
She says in Yoruba that traditional marks are a tradition passed from one generation to another.
“My grandparents, paternal and maternal, had traditional marks,” she says. “My own parents had traditional marks. … My husband also had them.”
But not all of her children have marks. She says this is because the tradition is declining.
“I marked the first two,” she says. “When I was pregnant with the third, the many guests that my husband used to receive began to tell him that people no longer mark their children.”
So they decided to compromise – marking the child, but with a subtler design.
“When I gave birth to the child,” she says, “my husband told me to carry the child away to Oluwole, where they will make just one, small, straight mark on both cheeks, the ondo mark.”
She listened to her husband and took the newborn to Oluwole, another part of Iseyin, to receive the ondo mark. But she says it was a tough choice for her because she was afraid of what her husband’s sisters would say if the child didn’t receive the full marks of his family. The ondo mark belongs to a different group.
“My husband belongs to the Oloola family,” she says. “So when we give birth, they would just take the child from us and mark them.”
“Oloola” is the designation given to families of traditional artists who specialize in making the traditional marks on others. Oloola families in different areas are not related by blood, but by their ability to mark.
Alhazan says traditional marks are an aspect of the Yoruba tradition that has contributed positively to the culture in various ways.
“I love marks because they are beautiful,” she says. “I admire them.”
She says the chief purpose of marks is identification.
“The marks are good for identification,” she says. “For instance, in the family of kings, when he has children, he marks his children.”
These marks let others know that the children are royalty and legitimate heirs to the throne.
But the tradition of facial marks is declining, Alhazan says. Two of her six children are not marked, nor are her grandchildren.
“My grandchildren are not marked because my children no longer wanted the marks,” she says.
Various tribal groups across Nigeria have marked their children for generations in order to identify them as part of the group. But the tradition is declining, as some parents opt for other groups’ marks, smaller marks, marks for the firstborn or no marks at all. More awareness of health risks has also contributed to the declining tradition. Meanwhile, some religious officials call marking a form of child abuse. Marking is illegal under Nigerian law, but not everyone is aware of or accepts this legislation.
Facial marks are traditional across Nigeria. Each group has its own marks. Common marks in Iseyin are the abaja, gombo, pele and bamu.
Asiru Kayode, a lawyer from an Oloola family, says that the marks have traditionally provided a source of identity.
“In those days,” he says, “when people see you with facial marks, they will say, ‘Oh, you are this person’s child.’ … They used it to identify.”
This is because the marks vary by group.
“Some also have it on their bodies, so it depends,” he says. “Those marks speak for themselves. We have some for royal families, three vertical marks. We have the ones that are for blacksmiths, four vertical and a bar on their noses.”
Kayode has the Oloola marks on his cheeks – three slanted lines on each cheek. He says that the Oloola are in charge of making the marks on all others.
“It is only those that are born in the Oloola family that can do it successfully,” he says. “In fact, nobody else can attempt it.”
The marks are permanent cuts on the face.
“For the facial marks, we give them some special preparations,” he says.
In some places, they use charcoal and leaves.
“You grind it very well and put it on it on hourly basis,” he says. “If you want it to come [out beautifully], we give you some herbs.”
He does not say what the special ingredient his family uses is.
“Every profession has its own secrets,” he says.
The tradition of marking is passed from one generation to another among Oloola families.
“Once you are born into the family, the blood is in your system first,” he says. “It runs and flows there. Now, as you are growing up, you watch them do it. And at a stage, they say: ‘Start doing it.’”
But this tradition is declining.
Kayode works as a lawyer outside Iseyin during the week so his children are less exposed to this family custom.
“These ones are not living in the family house,” he says. “Had it been that I was living in Iseyin, they will be seeing it. But because I am not based here – I am only here on weekends – so they don’t see it done.”
Parents have also been weakening the traditional tie between marking and identity. Some parents now decide what marks to give their children rather than using their group’s marks, opting for marks that belong to other groups because they say they are more beautiful. Others, like Alhazan and her husband, opt for smaller marks as a compromise between the traditional marks and the modern tendency to not mark. Some mark just the firstborn, while others don’t mark their children at all.
Kayode’s sons are watching television. They do not have the traditional marks.
“It is a personal choice,” Kayode says. “Nobody is bound to mark their children.”
He says his father didn’t ask him to mark his children, in which case he would have listened.
“If my father was of the view that I should mark my children,” he says, “there is nothing anybody can do.”
He points to a wooden frame displaying a photo of a man in traditional Yoruba attire.
“There is absolute obedience to the elderly,” he says. “You cannot do things the way you like. As long as your parents are alive, you still obey them – once it does not run contrary to common sense.”
Alhazan’s son, Abiodun Alhazan, 37, is a teacher at Islamic Girls High School and the publisher of a community newspaper called The Chronicler. Like Kayode, he says that his mother didn’t ask him to mark his children either.
“She did not ask me about marking my children,” he says. “If she did, I would have allowed her. I don’t have a choice.”
He says he’s proud of his marks.
“I like it, not because I don’t have a choice, but because I have grown to like it for its uniqueness,” he says.
But he decided not to mark his children.
Wasiu Ademola, 33, also a teacher, confirms that the tradition is declining. Now, his family members only mark their firstborns. As the firstborn in his family, he has marks.
“It’s like putting the feet of the family firmly on the ground,” Ademola says. “It helps them say that this is still in our family. It is a kind of distinction that this is our family by having that kind of tribal mark.”
Still, he says that traditional marks are just like most of the other traditional practices – fading with time.
”The only thing that doesn’t change is change,” he says.
But he cautions that people must not lose their culture entirely.
“If we let go of tribal marks,” he says, “we should not let go of our language. … Yoruba language is rich.”
“We seem not to appreciate our values here,” he says, “instead of appreciating and doing some sort of polishing, branding our own culture in a positive manner. These oyinbo [White] people will say, ‘This is not good. This is bad,’ trying to import their own culture.”
But some say it’s not only a cultural matter, but also a health concern.
Ayodele Balogun, 40, a health officer, says that traditional marks could lead to injuries.
“They mark some people, and there may be an injury,” he says. “The face ends up swollen and spoils the person’s face. Though this is uncommon, some people have to correct this by operation.”
He says that the risk of infection has also made some people think twice about traditional marks.
“With the advent of HIV/AIDS, the tradition of traditional marks reduced,” Balogun says. “They used same knives for the same purpose.”
The older Alhazan worries about the “alien” diseases that can be spread through traditional marks nowadays.
”When we were marking, there were no diseases,” she says. “There was even no hypertension or diabetes then. We don’t know what is bringing all these illnesses now.”
Kayode, on the other hand, says that traditional marking can’t spread diseases.
”Omo kiiku lowo onikola,” he says, quoting a Yoruba saying that translates to: “No harm comes to any child marked by the marker’s knife. God forbid, erase that.”
But various religious leaders disagree, calling marking a form of child abuse.
Abdul-Jeleel Abdul-Ganiyu, chief imam of Olona Central Mosque in Iseyin, says that the Quran doesn’t support traditional marks.
“Marks on any part of the body of whatever kind, they were not brought by religion,” he says. “Islam is, in fact, against it because the doctrines of Islam is against it to transform or change God’s creation.”
But Kayode, who is also a Muslim, disagrees.
“Where is it specifically stated that tribal marks are opposed to Islam?” he asks. “There is none.”
Moreover, he says that the tradition is older than the Quran.
“The marks go back to generations before Islam,” he says. “Before Christ, people were marked. Some people were marked long ago before the religions came.”
But Abdul-Ganiyu says that children’s rights are paramount. He insists that there are alternative ways to identify them that doesn’t involve cutting their faces.
“Islam makes it clear that children have their rights,” he says. “As Muslims, there are different ways to identify ourselves. … We should all make use of the different ways to identify ourselves rather than marking children.”
Abdul-Ganiyu has two small ondo strokes on his face. But none of his children are marked.
He says that he tells his congregants about Islam’s stance on traditional marks but leaves it to them to decide. He says that more awareness is needed among Muslim parents who still mark their children.
“We need to continue to tell them about it until they understand and follow it without any quarrel,” he says.
Samson Bayonle Babalola is the reverend of St. George’s Catholic Church in Iseyin. His father was marked but didn’t mark his children.
He says that the Church is not against culture.
“Everybody, man or woman, is a product of one particular culture or the other,” he says. “We are born into a certain religion or a certain culture and begin to do what obtains in that culture or that religion.”
But he says that the Church opposes mutilation.
“Traditional marks can be classed in the civil world as mutilations,” he says. “And in that situation, the Church does not support it.”
Nigeria’s 2003 Child Rights Act made marking children punishable by law, according to Taiwo Akinlami, a lawyer and child rights activist. The punishment is 5,000 naira ($32), a month in prison or both.
”The law is superior to custom and tradition,” Akinlami wrote via BlackBerry Messenger. “The only issue is that since law is an instrument of social change, there must be a deliberate effort to enlighten the people particularly those in the rural areas.”