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Tribal scars custom drying up in Nigeria

By Christian Purefoy, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Children in some parts of Nigeria are scarred according to local custom
  • Babies are scarred with their tribal mark is to identify their family
  • Can appear as a series of cuts and lines across the face or as are elsewhere on the body
  • Nigerian government has moved to outlaw the practice

Osogbo, Nigeria (CNN) -- In a dark room, the High Priestess used her ceremonial knife to cut two teardrop scars beneath her baby grandson's eyes. As baby Enitan cried out, the marks ran red with blood.

It took only a few moments, but scarred him for life.

In her small mud-brick home in southwest Nigeria, priestess Ifaponle Ogunjinmi performed the Yoruba tradition of giving tribal marks to the youngest member of her family.

"The tribal mark is to identify the family," Ifaponle said. "Everyone in the family must have it."

Ifaponle rubbed the secretion of a snail on Enitan's cheeks and then pressed dark charcoal dust into the open wounds to stop the bleeding. To finish the ceremony, a chicken was brushed across Enitan's head.

"The snail is for cooling the wounds, like water on fire," Ifaponle said. "And the chicken is to clear the body of all illness. It will be sacrificed in two days."

Yoruba tribal scars have a variety of patterns and meanings.

Most obviously, they appear as a series of cuts and lines across the face to identify a person's family and regional heritage. Others, appearing as lizards or scorpions anywhere below the face, are a form of body art.

But they all have spiritual significance.

Video: Tribal markings under fire in Nigeria
RELATED TOPICS
  • Nigeria
  • Africa

Meta Ogunjimni, the child's father, led us into another dark, musty room at the back of his home. Sunlight from a small window cast an eerie light on a dark-red costume in the corner of the room, a shrine to the local goddess of Ifa, surrounded by a variety of bottles and blood-stained ornaments.

The costume consists of a large ornamental mask used in local religious ceremonies. It is decorated with three small wooden faces, each adorned with scars across their cheeks.

"I have inherited these facial marks from my grandfather," said Meta, pointing at the scarred wooden faces on the masquerade, "they help protect me."

Though facial scars can be found across Africa, they are becoming increasingly restricted to people in the rural regions.

The Nigerian government has moved to outlaw the practice, but many states have yet to approve the law. Many human rights organizations argue that the scarring of children is abuse and have often associated the practice with female genital mutilation.

However, regardless of their efforts, facial scars are becoming harder to find for a different reason -- displacement of old ways by Western influence.

"Our grandfathers, who made tribal marks compulsory for everyone have died," Ifaponle said. "In the modern world, many fathers don't allow any marks on their children."

In her arms, Enitan suckled on a bottle of warm milk. He will carry his Yoruba traditions with him for life, but he may well be one of the last.

 
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