Halimat Shaibu shared her recent project on Tribal Marks with ‘TellThatStory’. She journeyed to Oje market in the city of Ibadan, Oyo State, on a mission to get answers to some questions, and demystify the perceptions of facial and sometimes, bodily marks.

She and her team talked to and photographed people with some of the common tribal marks in the Yoruba culture (Gọmbọ / Kẹkẹ, Pele, Agbaja and Owu). Our graceful models gave somewhat similar responses on the significance and impact this practice has/had in their lives;
They had no negative tale to tell, and their eyes lit with pride even as they explained the essence of each mark. Tribal marks to them is a means of identification with their families, clans, and villages. They had no diminished sense of self, but rather, a heightened sense of identity with their roots.
Their ILÀ (marks) shows that they are part of a community; a family. Not shameful, but a mark of their rich heritage. To them, their marks are identified not by names but by numbers. Hence, they’d rather say their marks are ‘meta'(3),’ merin'(4) or ‘meje'(7). They loved their ILÀ and would still choose to wear it in their next lives.

While a lot has been said about the culture and essence of tribal marks, one begins to wonder if there is a need to continue the tradition with the younger generation. To our interviewees, they wouldn’t give their children tribal marks because times have changed. One of them said, “Times have changed. Children don’t go to another town to play and go missing. Neither do we need to trace families with marks again. Everybody’s eye don open.”

Wikipedia helped to describe some of the major markings: The Pele style is three longitudinal lines, inscribed on the cheeks. It has different variants. The variants include; Pele Ife, a three longitudinal line inscribed on the cheek, and is peculiar to the Ile Ife people. Pele Ijebu and Pele Ijesha are other variants of Pele. Both variants are three short longitudinal lines inscribed on the cheeks.

Owu tribal marks consist of six incisions on each side of the cheeks and are peculiar to the indigenes of Owu, a historical city in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State, Nigeria. The Gọmbọ style, also known as Kẹkẹ, consists of multiple straight and curved lines about a half of an inch apart inscribed on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth. Indigenes of Ogbomosho in Oyo State are usually identified by the Gọmbọ or Kẹkẹ style of Yoruba tribal marks. Abaja can be both a basic and also a complex style. In its basic form, it is either three or four horizontal stripes on the cheeks. The Abaja style also consists of twelve horizontal lines, six lines per cheek. It is often referred to as “Abaja Alaafin Mefa Mefa”. This tribal mark is unique to the indigenes of Oyo, Nigeria. Other Yoruba tribal marks include Ture, Mande, Bamu, and Jamgbadi.

It is important to note that the use of tribal marks as a means of identification and beautification has now been regulated by laws in Nigeria.  Section 24(1)(2) of the Child Rights Act(Nigeria) 2003 prohibits making any form of mark on a child. The section provides thus:
“No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child. A person who tattoos or makes a skin mark on a child commits an offense under this Act and is liable of conviction to a fine not exceeding #5000, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 1 month, or to both fine and imprisonment “.

The prohibition of tribal marks is an integral part of the state child rights law. Even with this law in place, we were told that there are places in Oyo state where children are still being given these marks.

Halimat Shaibu, is a medical doctor in training and a photographer based in Benin city, Edo State. She has some of her other works on her Instagram; Tamilah__ , and you can reach her via email ;