Monday 24 April 2023

Shaming Tribal Marks

Photo by Salvatore Gebbia on Pexels

by Adetayo Adetokun

Tribal marks have been an intrinsic part of African culture for centuries, and many communities regard them as a sign of beauty and cultural identity. However, there is a growing movement in Africa to discourage the practice of tribal marking, with many people decrying it as an archaic and harmful tradition that has no place in modern society. We explore the practice of tribal marking in Africa, the reasons behind it, and the arguments against it.

Tribal marking is the practice of creating permanent marks or scars on the skin, usually on the face, using a variety of techniques. The marks are intended to identify individuals as members of a particular tribe or community and are often seen as a symbol of cultural identity and pride. The practice is found in different African cultures, including the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Dinka people of Sudan, and the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania.

The reasons for tribal marking vary from culture to culture, but some common themes emerge. In some communities, tribal marks are believed to have spiritual or religious significance and are seen as a way of connecting individuals to their ancestors and the divine. In other cultures, tribal marks are used as a way of indicating social status, with more elaborate and intricate marks reserved for the elite or ruling classes.

Despite these cultural justifications, many people in Africa argue that tribal marking is a harmful and outdated tradition that has no place in modern society. One of the primary concerns is the physical harm that can be caused by the practice. Tribal marking is often carried out using crude and unsanitary tools, such as razor blades or knives, which can lead to infections and other health problems. The scars left by tribal marking can also be painful and disfiguring, making it difficult for individuals to find employment or build social relationships.

Another concern is the psychological impact of the tribal marking. In many communities, children are marked at a young age, sometimes as young as a few weeks old. This can be a traumatic experience for children, who may be frightened and in pain. As they grow older, individuals with tribal marks may face discrimination and prejudice from others who view them as backward or uncivilized. This can lead to feelings of shame and a sense of not belonging, particularly for those who grow up in urban areas where tribal marking is less common.

This explains the growing movement in Africa to discourage the practice of tribal marking. This has been driven in part by health concerns, but also by a broader recognition of the need to protect cultural diversity while also promoting human rights and dignity. In Nigeria, for example, the government has banned the practice of tribal marking in schools and public places, and there are calls for similar measures to be implemented in other countries.

However, not everyone in Africa is in favor of abandoning the practice of tribal marking. Some argue that it is an important part of cultural heritage and should be preserved, while others view it as a personal choice that should be left up to individuals and families. There are also concerns that efforts to discourage tribal marking could be seen as an attack on African cultures and traditions, particularly in a post-colonial context where there is already a sense of cultural loss and dislocation.

So, what is the way forward? It is clear that the practice of tribal marking is a complex issue that cannot be resolved through simple solutions. Efforts to discourage the practice must be balanced with a respect for cultural diversity and the rights of individuals to make their own choices. This may involve promoting alternative forms of cultural expressions, such as music, dance, and art, while also educating people about the health risks and potential psychological harms of tribal marking.

At Shades of Us Storytelling Initiative for African People (Shades of Us) however, we firmly believe that children should not be marked. Children have no understanding of the importance of culture or the stories behind their identities. Introducing them to their culture through pain may be counterproductive. When children become adults, they can choose to maintain their culture and traditions by taking on their tribal marks. 

Ultimately, the goal should be to create a society in which individuals are free to express their cultural identity in a way that is safe, healthy, and respectful of human rights. This may involve working with local communities to find alternative ways of expressing cultural identity that does not involve physical harm, such as traditional clothing or jewelry. It may also require a broader shift in societal attitudes towards physical appearance and cultural identity so that individuals are not judged based on their physical characteristics or cultural background.

In addition to efforts to discourage tribal marking, there is also a need for greater access to healthcare and education in many African communities. By providing access to safe and affordable healthcare services, individuals can receive treatment for any health problems associated with tribal marking and other traditional practices. Education can also play a critical role in promoting awareness about the risks and harms of tribal marking, while also promoting greater respect for cultural diversity and human rights.

It is important to recognize that the issue of tribal marking is not unique to Africa. Many cultures around the world have practised forms of body modification or scarification, from the tattooing and piercing of "civilized" cultures to the facial tattoos of indigenous peoples in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. However, it is also important to recognize that the practice of tribal marking in Africa has its own unique cultural, historical, and social context, and should be understood and addressed on its terms. 

The practice of tribal marking in Africa is a complex issue that requires a nuanced and culturally sensitive approach. While efforts to discourage the practice are necessary to protect the health and well-being of individuals, it is important to also respect the cultural heritage and identity of African communities. By promoting alternative forms of cultural expression, educating individuals about the risks and harms of tribal marking, and working to create a society that values diversity and human rights, we can work towards a future where individuals are free to express their cultural identity safely and healthily.

No comments:

Post a Comment