On Tribal Marks and Culture

The picture above has reportedly moved lawmakers in the Nigerian Senate to commence the process of enacting a law against tribal marks.

These scarifications, usually formed by burning or cutting marks into the skin during childhood are part of the culture in several Nigerian societies.

In Yoruba societies, for example, according to this Wikipedia article, the primary function of tribal marks was for the “identification of a person’s tribe, family or patrilineal heritage. Other secondary functions of the marks are symbols of beauty, Yoruba creativity and keeping mischievous children alive (ila Abiku)…”

Image Credit: Vanguard Nigeria

Naturally, even though the facts are still sketchy, conversations about culture have trailed the news of the imminent prohibition of the practice.

Those who support the ban have applauded the Senate’s move, saying the practice is tantamount to child abuse.

Still others have raised concerns about whether this prohibition might constitute an assault on our culture. Some have said that we are setting a dangerous precedent by criminalizing innocuous bits of our history and cultural heritage.

As one commentator asked, “should tribal marks be a thing our children only see in cartoons, and see old pictures of, and hear about?”

These are my immediate thoughts on the subject:

  1. Culture is a living thing, as they say. It evolves. It is the way of life of a people, and because this way of life often changes, the culture changes too. It evolves, and grows, and transforms itself alongside the people. A stagnant culture dies.
  2. The evolution of culture is itself, evidence of, and a testimony to the evolution of society; an abandonment or a refinement, as it were of beliefs, practices, and lifestyles. There will be pockets of resistance to this evolution. Twins used to be killed. Nudity wasn’t frowned upon. Abikus used to be mutilated and buried. Then the culture evolved. Sometimes the influences are external. Sometimes the culture simply cannot be sustained and implodes.
  3. The fact that a practice is part of the culture – even intrinsically so – does not necessarily exclude it from being evil or harmful. Kings still allegedly get buried with human heads. Some used to be buried with an army of servants whose duty was to cater to their needs in the afterlife. The recent episode involving the Abobaku of the Ooni of Ife who is, by tradition, supposed to accompany the king on his journey to the afterlife comes to mind. Invariably not all cultural practices are bad. Some serve to preserve the ethics and mores of society. Some reinforce a sense of community and identity. Some straddle the grey area between good/useful and ripe-for-the-refuse-dump-of-history.
  4. Facial tribal markings may seem to some like a thing that should be kept for the sake of cultural preservation, but the merits of the practice do not stand up to any objective scrutiny. As some people have noted, as a means of identification, the need for such identification marks no longer exists. The social conditions and other circumstances that evolved tribal marks as a necessary means of identifying people do not exist any longer. In addition, other means of identification now exist; mutilating a child’s face seems a very odd choice if identification is the objective.
  5. As for beautification, while it is understandable that parents may want to give their children an edge in the beauty games, society’s standards of beauty have evolved, and they continue to evolve. An argument can be made for standards of beauty being a part of the culture, for example, the fattened Calabar brides, the lip plates of the Mursi of Ethiopia, the Lobi of Chad and the Makonde of Tanzania. These practices, ostensibly to enhance beauty are said to be part of the culture. But if the particular society’s standards of beauty have evolved – and in the case of the Yoruba tribes of Nigeria, they most certainly have – then the beautification argument no longer holds water. The parents, in spite of whatever good intentions they may have, will ultimately do more harm than good by sticking with outdated beauty practices.
  6. Finally, ten to fifteen years down the road, if the child could choose, would they choose to have these markings? This is important because if they choose not to, they have rejected the culture, and of what use is a culture that has been rejected?
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