As a kid between the ages of eight and ten, I used to follow my mum to her friends’ baby naming ceremonies in Tamale, Ghana. Here in Ghana, babies aren’t given names until seven days after they are born. On that day there is a naming ceremony that the whole community is invited to. I loved babies so much that I never wanted to leave their house after the naming ceremonies were over.
At many naming ceremonies, babies are given marks by making shallow cuts on their faces or other body parts. The marking process is so bloody and terrifying that, as a kid, I wondered why so many babies were subjected to this gruesome punishment. One morning I asked my mom the name of the marks on the faces of the newly born babies. She said, “Tribal marks, we call it.” I can't think of a tribe that doesn’t engage in tribal marking in Ghana’s Northern Region, and almost all of the tribes have traditional and spiritual backing for the practice.
So, what does the tribal marking ritual look like? The naming ceremony happens in the parents’ yard or at a local mosque. There are specific people charged with making tribal markings. These people claim to be professionals in the cutting process, and they use the same special kind of instrument, which is unsterilized, on every child born in their locality. Most are paid in cash after rendering their service to the people.
I’ve had conversations with many elderly people in the northern part of Ghana, where the act is primarily practiced, about why tribal marking is done. Almost all the folks I talked to shared similar stories about tribal marking. As northerners believe themselves to be brothers, and each other’s keepers, they share common norms and values to keep them united and strong. Tribal marking is one of these traditions that unite a tribe.
The elders with whom I spoke alluded to the fact that they were all born seeing some people with marks on their faces. They learned from their own elders that people were marked for the purpose of easy identification of family members. Tribal marks serve as a major code of identifying people who have traveled far or were missing for a very long time.
This means of identification goes back centuries. The northern part of Ghana has a historical record of tribal wars fought to prove dominance over land. Defeated tribes were ruled with the winning tribe’s system of governance. The people could use the tribal markings on the faces of others to identify tribes, lineages, and which clans people originated from to prevent an easy attack through a trick.
After I probed for more clarification on identification, the elders revealed their belief that their ancestors introduced these acts willingly and willingly allowed the practice to descend from one generation to another to differentiate tribes.
Another pronounced reason why tribes engage in tribal marking is for spiritual protection. Very few people are believed to be able to foretell to future, and those who are believed to possess this gift are known as diviners and soothsayers. During a woman’s pregnancy, the soon-to-be parents might consult their gods with the diviner’s or soothsayer’s help to give the child’s fortune. If the baby’s foreseen destiny is to have a disability, for instance, then the diviner or soothsayer can give a verdict that making some mark on the newly born baby’s body that oozes blood will expel that danger in the body. In most cases, some spiritualist passes their verdicts with threats that failure to make a tribal mark will lead to the baby’s death.
In a chat with my mum as a child, I asked her the name of a blackish substance that is applied to the wounds on the baby’s face. She said it is known as “moha” in Dagbani but has different names in other languages, as almost all of the tribes in the region use a similar substance for this purpose. Upon further recent investigation, I’ve confirmed that it is an herbal medicine concoction prepared to heal the wounds to make a tribal mark. It is also believed that this concoction has a supernatural component that speeds the healing process. I often find it difficult to understand why many still resort to local herbs rather than hospital treatment.
Beautification wasn’t left out as a reason for the tribal marking practice. The marks include many designs on faces or bodies. There is a common northern view that a person’s beauty or handsomeness lies in the marks and symbols on the body, especially the faces. These days, such traditional, permanent marks have paved the way for modern tribal marking make-up.
Many adults in this modern epoch see these marking as an uncivilized practice that endangers the health of children. I have gathered a lot of information about why the practice is fading, and modernity and education have contributed to the decline. Parents are less inclined to cause injury to their babies. Health education has played a major role in the fading out of this practice. Nowadays, many parents and even traditional leaders follow hospital advice after a child is born, going through weighing, scanning, and other forms of scientific medical treatments available for free now with the National Health Insurance.
Also, people who would have chosen the profession of tribal cutting are now largely seeking white-collar jobs as their major employment. There is also discrimination between tribes, which makes having the tribal markings undesirable for some.
Although this practice is gradually fading out, for me it is so sad that some babies still go through such pain in the name of tradition, culture, and/or supernatural belief. Since the cutting process is not medically approved, it may pose dangers to the life of the babies, as the cutters use unsterilized equipment, concoctions prepared from unknown sources, and there is the risk of losing too much blood. As of late, there has been a campaign to convince parents to stop tribal marking the faces and bodies of their children for health reasons.
As my part of the world continues to wise up, I envision an era when not a single child will be subjected to the practice of tribal marking.
*Photo shows an example of typical tribal marking in West Africa