“Did you fight a Lion?!”
“Yes I did, I survived. Could you? I’m King Kong” marked (pun intended) Olanrewaju Titi, a participant in Kaduna-born Nadine Ibrahim’s Documentary Short: Marked (2021).
The 20 minute documentary is the 6th short by the 28 year old, and daughter of the former minister of Environment in Nigeria. The film covers the subject of ‘traditional scarification’, a tribal, beautification and spiritual practice in Nigeria.
With a mixture of narration, interviews and lovely aerial shots of Nigerian landscapes; The film takes us on a brief but thought-provoking ride, switching seamlessly between the outside looking in, and the inside looking out.
The documentary begins with a child, a baby. Still crying they are placed on the marker’s lap, and we get a brief look at his tools. He grabs the blade and reaches to do his job. Then it cuts (pun not intended).
We see the aftermath; the bleeding has stopped, the crying has stopped. The baby lies looking not quite at the camera, not quite at whoever is behind it, breathing heavily from an ordeal they are ironically sure to forget.
With an all-black background the film continues as we listen to the stories of the beautiful people of Nigeria. Stories of their marks, often mistaken for scars, even by a close friend of yours truly; the person who actually introduced me to this gem.
“Tribal Marks! Not Tribal Scars” I screamed at her, even before seeing the trailer.
First of all, Kudos to Nadine for seamlessly including and interweaving 5 languages in this short film. Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Pidgin and English. That’s 1 for accurate representation, and 0 for lazy writing.
4 years ago, when I was still in the service I had a massive literature textbook I was so fond of, and it had stories from all over the world. Fiction, non-fiction, poems, what have you.
Africa was my favourite chapter, and I remember quite well, a work from a non-Nigerian African country. According to the elder characters, the reason why the people underwent scarifications was to escape slavery.
Apparently, In all records of all African people being sold as slaves to all parts of the world. None of them, not the field-hands, or the ones that worked in houses, had those scars. And so they did this to themselves, in order to escape the unquenchable thirst of the West.
This was new to me. In my very specific education, growing up in Nigeria, we were all told that tribal marks were used as a form of Identity, to identify people of separate tribes in an event of war and displacement, people would be able to find their way back home.
According to this Documentary, there is more to the story.
After the first scene, we proceed to see a montage of close ups of people’s faces. Men, Women and Children. Some marks were located on the temple, some on the cheeks, some on the forehead and chin. Others on the chest, stomach and other parts.
Some horizontal, some vertical, some pigmented, some like fine ridges, blending perfectly with wrinkles.
In the documentary the Nigerian people continued with their stories, one man stating he was the last of his people to bear such a unique pattern of tribal marks. In these stories I observed a lot of the men bore their marks with pride, the women not so much.
Although it was quite clear from the documentary that: they all, if ever, suffered equal amounts of teasing and bullying for their marks their whole lives. It was even clearer that as a result of beauty standards and societal pressures, the weight fell heavily on the women.
The stories behind the reasons behind the scars were the most entertaining. According to Titi; She had been marked as a result of the advice of her grandfather, “So that her mother’s ex-husband wouldn’t have a claim on her” She said.
According to another man. It was as a result of the infamous Nigerian Civil war, or the Biafra war as others know it.
The aftermath of the lives of a lot of these people were the same. It had led to job losses for some, as they were othered, and found it difficult to integrate into urban settings. For others it was years and years of trauma from feeling unattractive, to say the least.
The Abikus or the Obanjes. If you’ve watched Ghibli’s ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ you might have a less cynical understanding of this very Nigerian myth.
‘A-bi-ku’ in Yoruba means ‘Born to die’. Although exempt from this documentary, there exists a popular myth of spirit-children brought to this world through mortal parents for whatever reason, and having to leave a little too soon. According to the Yorubas, one of the surefire ways of making sure these kids don’t “die before their time”, is to mark them so that the spirits wouldn’t recognize them.
In the documentary, there were interviewees who stated that the reasons behind their marks were much deeper. More spiritual and tied to health/mortality. Some stated that it cured illnesses. Illnesses they suffered greatly from, before they were marked. Coincidence?
I don’t know what I think. Upon my second viewing with my Dad, he mentioned my mom’s marks were spiritual not tribal, like I had been led to believe. My life was a lie.
Another interviewee likened his marks to the ‘western immunization’. A way of preventing illnesses. According to him, marks and inscriptions would be made on parts where vital organs lay, along with herbs and special prayers. Therefore, sicknesses would be prevented.
More common in Northern Nigeria, where our esteemed Filmmaker hails thus; These marks are usually made of small incisions, close together to form pigmented clumps, drawn in patterns making them look more like tattoos upon inspection. These are done as a form of beautification. By both men and women, they are seen as attractive.
Additionally, between the actual act, and the aftermath, they are seen as a way to test the strength and resilience of the subject, as well as add to their beauty.
Growing up I normalised the idea of tribal marks, it wasn’t until later that I realised it wasn’t the same for those who actually had it. Their lives were far from normal. This documentary confirmed that. In its conclusion, they stated:
“In 2017, Senator Dino Malaye presented a bill at the National Assembly titled ‘A Bill for an Act to provide for the Prohibition of Facial Mutilation: Offences, Prosecution and Punishment of Offenders’. The bill is yet to be passed and is awaiting public hearing”.
If you asked what I think; It would be that the above is a bit shortsighted and ignorant to say the least. However, I also believe consent is key.
Even moreso, I believe we really ought to criminalise hate speech towards people who bear these marks. That way; those who have it or are yet to, whether by choice or not, can see their marks as a form of national pride and can therefore, be a small percentage of Nigerian people who truly feel like the government has their backs.
That’s just me though! What do you think?
Fun Fact: I have an ex whose marks are asymmetrical because when they were done, they were a baby with cheeks so cute and chubby they couldn’t be done properly 🙂
Have a good one, stay hydrated and learn more about tribes with traditional markings/scarifications. Also instastalk Nadine Ibrahim. She’s gorgeous!