Hundreds of years ago, the drawing of Ila (tribal/facial mark) was a common practice among the Yoruba tribe of Western Nigeria. Ila are special marks drawn on the face or body of an individual shortly after birth or during childhood. Those who have this marks are referred to as Okola.
Meanwhile, the purpose of giving these marks differs, they may include; beautification, identification of a particular group within the Yoruba nation, some are drawn to identify slaves, inoculate infants against diseases and perform certain traditional rites, for example, keeping abiku (children predestined to die repeatedly) alive (Ila Abiku). The Ila Abiku is drawn vividly on any part of the child’s body so as to make his/her spirit friends reject him/her whenever he/she make attempts to return.
Well, to some families, their traditions necessitate it for the first son of the family to have tribal marks while other children may be spared.
There are two different methods of marking Ila in Yorubaland; The first is burning the skin with hot objects while the second and commonly used method is cutting the skin with sharp instruments such as knives, blades and glass in some cases.
Each Yoruba tribe has a peculiar way of drawing their marks; it comes in different shapes, sizes and locations on the body or face. The position and pattern of the mark is determined by the culture of a tribe or reason for the marks.
Using the Ogbomosho clan as a case study draw – They have multiple deep, straight and curved lines on both sides of the face called Gombo or Keke while the Ondo natives draw a thick and long vertical lines on both side of the nose down to the mouth. The Ijesas are also known for their ‘Pele‘, a four horizontal tribal mark drawn on both sides of the cheeks. There are different variants of ‘Pele’; the Pele Ijesa and Ijebu, they are short horizontal lines drawn on the cheeks, pele Ife; this is also similar to the earlier ones, and lastly Pele Akoko which is peculiar to the Akoko natives of Ondo.
Another pattern of tribal mark in Yorubaland is the Abaja mark popularly known as ‘Abaja Alafin Mefa‘, a six horizontal lines inscribed on both sides of the cheeks. The Abaja style is common among the Oyo people and can be found on the face of the present Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III. Other types of Ila include; Jamgbadi, Mande, Ture, Bamu and so on.
The belief of the Yoruba people is that the origin of tribal mark is dated back to a certain time when the king of Oyo, Sango, sent two of his slaves on a mission to a far land. When the slaves returned, Sango discovered that only one of the slaves accomplished his mission while the other failed. He rewarded the first slave and sentenced the second to a hundred and twenty two razor cuts all over his body. After the punishment and sufferings the slave went through, the scars healed up and gave him an admirable appearance which caught the attention of the king’s wives who demanded to have the cuts on their body too. Sango, seeing this declared that the cuts should be given to people as a symbol of royalty and not as punishment. Sango himself decided to have the cuts but couldn’t bear more than the two made on his arm. Since that day, people began to get the cuts as a symbol of royalty.
It is not surprising that this age long tradition has began to wane in the modern Yoruba society as civilization and modernization revealed the harm an individual with tribal marks is exposed to.
Bamidele Oluwaseun (President, NAMACOS, AAUA) who spoke with OldNaija on the issue of tribal marks has this to say: “The practice of tribal mark should stop because it is a violation on an individual’s fundamental right. Apart from this, an individual with tribal marks is liable to get infected as different items which might contain germs are applied to the surface of the mark. If I have tribal marks inscribed on my face, I would feel different from others and would also segregate myself from my peers.”
Here is another interview Omitonade Ifawemimo, an Ifa Priestess, had with OldNaija on the same issue of tribal marks.
OldNaija: Do you think having tribal mark is an infringement on human right of choice?
Omitonade Ifawemimo: In modern day, Yes. The reason is that as at the time those marks were made the child did not have the capacity to decide whether he or she wanted it. If he grew up and chose it, no problem but as at present day it is a violation of his right.
OldNaija: Should the practise of tribal mark stop? If yes/no, why?
Omitonade Ifawemimo: No answer! You know tribal mark is part of Yoruba culture and traditions. The genesis of tribal marks started with Alafin Sango as a punishment and later developed to become an identity and beauty.
OldNaija: Will you proud if you have tribal marks inscribed on your face or feel other way?
Omitonade Ifawemimo: Maybe lol
(Omitonade Ifawemimo is an Ifa priestess and the CEO of Ancestral Vision Arts and Craft)
Should the practice of tribal mark continue or stop? Express your opinion in the comment box below.