My Tribal Mark, My Untold Story

My Tribal Mark, My Untold Story

This happened to my brother some four to five decades ago. I was quite far from the scene but somehow I witnessed the whole gory event. Wale was just 9-day old. By tradition in my family, circumcision — mutilation if you like — takes place just a day after a child’s christening. Wale was innocently giggling in the warmth palms of Alfas the previous day. Little did the poor little thing know the pains — physical and mental — underway that would live with him through his breathing period on earth.

It was so early in the morning, the innocent Mama Wale was paranoid, nervous, waiting for the fate her little trove was about to suffer. She’s new to such experience herself. She is a young bride who just found her legs deep-rooted in the hallow corridor of Alabi’s patriarchy. Of course, just like in every other Yoruba setting, a barren woman has no room in her husband’s home. She had survived this phase and now she was in her all time euphory. 

The stress occasioned by the previous day’s naming ceremonies was still taking its toll on her. She was slightly fatigued despite enthusiasm that must follow the ritual of her child’s genital circumcision. As a norm, children’s genitalia go through the sharpness of blade on their 9th day of breathing. Mama Wale had only been told or made to know of this — nothing more, and now she’s restive to see it happen.

There was this our beloved mother, at least our father wouldn’t have us refer to her anything less. She was not a senior wife, just a woman that shared the same panegyric with us. And her role was usually to coordinate any family culture or ritual. To covet the role, we can say, she was the custodian of family progeny and identities — that is, the custodian of the family’s cultural and traditional heritages! Every child in my family grew up to know her as Iya Aakeelu.

Iya Aakeelu was there on the day of the naming ceremonies. The little coins in her wrapper’s folds were gifted out as well to the Alfas to buy the child some good fortune, such that devoid of mental or physical pains either at the present and throughout the future of the child. At each donation to the decorated table of Alfas, Iya would dance to the sonorous verses of Waka. That day she danced and danced, pulling and wrapping back her two and a half length of aso-ebi wrapper. 

Oh! Iya Aakeelu was a christian — typical of Yoruba family settings. So it wasn’t so surprising to see her in such an overly gaiety spirit. I was once told it would interest anyone to see Iya’s dancing steps every week on Sunday in her church. That’s all Mama had to give God. To thank God for strengthening her life to continue in the role of holding up the family rope together through her divine wisdom. It was indeed a joyful moment in the family at Wale’s naming ceremonies.

Interestingly, Mama had a daughter she took around. She was so proud of the young damsel. The lady was fair in complexion, her cheeks were smooth without any contour. She had this regular ladies face but somehow hers was extra in beauty. No mark, nothing. Indeed, Mama had every reason to be proud of her daughter. So you would always find her in her mother’s company. And Mama too took uneven joy in taking her around. In short, the sight of Komfot enthralled many onlookers at the event of Wale’s naming ceremony that day.

Mama Wale in her usual innocent, gentle demeanour, unbeknownst had taken Iya Akeelu to be her new mother. Of course, this is a tradition everywhere. But somehow, Mama Wale’s confidence and trust in Iya Akeelu was a bit extra. And that occasioned her unhindered and unbridled allowance of Iya Aakeelu when early morning on that fateful day Iya requested handing over of Wale to her for ‘normal’ circumcision of a newborn baby boy.

Unsuspectingly, Mama Wale held out her child to Mama. At least that would afford her the ample time to tidy up the room; visitors would soon befog her room to greet her for the Ìnáwó-ana and to salute her for the safe delivery of that bouncing baby boy — a good omen; some would even come to check how rich her fortunes are in the ‘hand’ of her husband. That is, how well laced and richly are her room’s apparatus. Women’s world hmm!

Friends and well-wishers had not really turned in as she had envisaged, as at the moment, eight or nine of them were around. But not too long after Mama came to take Wale, one deep screaming, confidently taken for a child’s, started shrieking her eardrums, including those of the visitors’. The screaming was so loud and aching that they all asked whose child could be in such pains. Definitely not Adewale’s. He’s just 9-old today, his voice can’t be this strong and compelling, Mama Wale thought while she shrugged on, cheeking out gists with her friends on seats — on the lookout, I mean.

*******

Adémólá, the son of Adeogun, looked on as his father etched out Adewale’s cheeks’ flesh. It was nothing new to him. He had been part of this experience so many a time. In fact, he had lent hands when his father was dealing with the little kid’s genitals earlier on. Oops! Sorry, he actually helped him pin Adewale’s limpy limps to the ground as his father surgically removed the congenital skin from Aduke’s son’s prick. Wale was laid on a mattress made of a few cloth wrappers rectangularly folded to form a baby-sized bed.

The pain was becoming unbearable to the poor little one, and he had to use the strength that in all honesty was never there to fight the inflictors of such overwhelming pain. If not for his unceasing and unavoidable cries that blocked his hearing, he could have heard Iya Aakeelu said as she cleared the remnants of the Kolanot particles off her throat: “No amount of your cries will take you away from Adeogun’s firm grip; Ademola, you too should learn this from your father: he is the best — beast — in this locale.”, Ademola, so indifferent, nodded as he pinned on Wale’s two hands in addition to his head to the near-bare ground while Adeogun — Bàbá Alábe, everyone in the hood would have him called and his new apprentice exchanged the sharpened metals.

About 45-minutes time was expended scarifying Àbàjà on Adewale; Àbàjà and Pélé are the family’s only peculiar marks. For this operation, about four to five sharpened metal objects — surgical utensils if you like to call them — were rolled out from Adeogun’s sack where he perpetually kept his circumcision tools. These pieces of iron metal are usually made by Alágbède (a blacksmith). And afterwards, normally stay rolled within a piece of cloth until it is time for the next surgical procedures — operations, actually; and these objects transmit no harmful disease by the virtue of their sacred usage, so no clinical procedures for sterilisation of these tools needed, prior and aftermath.

Adeogun must have just conducted the procedure on another baby somewhere else earlier during the week. Patches of blood were still painted on the sharp edges of the utensils when he arrived in our compound. Beforehand, he soaked the tools in a bowl of water and wiped them with a piece of cloth to remove the blemishes. Thereon, he picked what object to etch out where or what out of Adewale’s tender skin, all to the delight of the custodians of our family heritage and to the honour of the progenitors in their spiritual realm. “What a well-done job, Adeogun, very well etched“, Mama told the brilliant surgeon who had a very good handwriting, even as blood gushed on and took over the baby’s facial and groin parts.

*******

Now from every part of his body, blood was streaming. With a feeling of fulfilment, Mama Aakeelu brought up Wale from the surgical mat — surgical theatre, sorry — and headed for Mama Wale.

The nearer the painful cries of the baby, the more restive Mama Wale became. And now the cry was unbearable to her. She decided to take a look. On her second step outside of her room, Boom! Mama Aakeelu was right before her eyes with Wale literally in a pool of blood. She came face-to-face with her sworn nightmare in its barest form.

Wale had been put through the sharpness of Abe (locally made blade), and the family’s ancestors would now have a new turning of their body sides in the grave — the most cherished sacrament to the dead — and now equally in that realm, in their union, they’d be proud of Mama Aakeelu for hanging yet again a new banner in the rack of the family lineage. Sooner or later, they would say, Wale too would join them in the realm, and with these marks, locating his progenitors shouldn’t be a Sisyphean task. Indeed such a bequeathed sacred role was worthy of a dexterity blended with some liquid of ingenuity — Mama was a diligent successor!

Mama Wale could not believe what she was seeing. Obviously she could not. The blood had covered all her child’s facial region, her little child’s groin and thighs area was also streaming blood unceasingly. She became almost destitute of sorts. She went down, paralysed. She could not behold the gory sight of her child enmeshed in the pool of blood. She screamed. Cried. Everyone around rushed down, including her friends. Teary faces multiplied; they were all sorried. Iya Wale’s eyes afterwards were red, inflammable, and she’s furiated. She was beaming in anger, but in actual fact, the only thing she could do was to resume her wailing, her crying — nothing else, nothing more.

To Mama Komfot, Aduke’s reaction was an envisaged drama. Well scripted one. She knew a possible reaction to it, so she envisaged nothing less. This was not her first, she had a reputation for many of such in the homestead. It was a practice for which she was now an expert. In fact, few of the visitors were actually extended family members. They were purposefully planted in the company of Mama Wale by Mama and her cohorts. They, too, did a fantastic job. They succeeded in making Aduke accept her unbargained fate: The reasons for preservation of ‘our’ identities were reeled out effortlessly. It was a seamless assignment to them — a job well-done! And indeed those antidotes garnished with superstitious anecdotes had efficacious effects on her. At least for the time being of their stay with her, Aduke only had to accentuate with her lost, swaying mind to the beautiful cultural heritage they meant to preserve by mere scarification of innocence Adéwálé and many more children before and after him.

*******

Alabi would later come to the room to console — condole — his wife. He narrated — lies or truths — how he had vehemently fought the decision of the family, chairperson of which was Iya Komfot; but all his pleas were trashed. In fact, according to him, Mama narrated how he, himself, got the same pattern of the tribal mark, saying it was for the purpose of preserving the family identity — the clan identification; to check incest and to avoid intra-family marriages. And in the time of war, with this mark, Adewale would be spared of death by his own clansmen.

While all the persuasion was ongoing, like an oasis of spring, Aduke’s face was streaming tears. She had tribal marks herself, but on one occasion in her maiden, bachelorette days, she had been brutally bullied for it. And ever since that day, she had vowed, made her mind up never to allow such fate condescended on any of her children. In fact, she once told me (when I was born and grew up) that it was part of consented propositions she and my father had before she agreed to his advances back then.

The Wale’s hurdles began and each sight of these healing vestige moved Aduke close to tears. She eventually saw through its healing period, and it became a life-long cross Adewale would have to bear — the identity they wanted it to be.


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What do you think?

  1. This is a very beautiful piece that points out the ill of our so called custom and traditions. This often has led lot of children to low self esteem and often is used to bully these individuals.

  2. This portrays the African act of recognition. The act of tribal mark was done during slave trade to probably reject any child or persons with tribal mark into the market. But the aftermath: the bullying and all sort could build a low self esteem…

  3. This is a salient story,took me back to the abyss of traditions and religion, its indeed thoughtful as no one actually give germane attention to the theme of this story this days. I think somehow in a way we are been fated to tradition;the circumcision phase all male child is been plagued with.

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