Gobirawa marks on the verge of extinction

Date: 2016-10-20

*Gobirawa marks on the verge of extinction *Sheikh Jamiu 'tribal marks not ordained by the Almighty' *'Our marks will vanish within 10 years' - Bangon Gobir *'Nigeria's facial marks going extinct ' - Historian *Only 2 institutes of African studies in Nigeria *New 'designer marks' have emerged

Sarkin Gobir Ilorin does not have Gobirawa facial marks and neither do his children. His mother 'smuggled' him out of the house, just before he was to be given the marks. That was many years ago, and this explains why though he is Sarki, he does not have them. But he has the marks in an inward sense, for he is a son of Gobir and speaks very well of its heritage. His fondness for his people is a kind of mark itself. It is not a physical mark, but it is a state of mind and this is vital and alive, and it emerges from his spirit. He shows this in many ways, and what he may not have on the outside, he has aplenty inside and he tells me that once on a visit to Niger republic, he wished that he had the Gobirawa marks visible on his face, for there were many Gobirawa at the event and every one of them had the marks. He was the exception. Today, many of the people over whom he rules bear the marks, and they refer to them with pride, even though they admit a decline in the number of persons who have them. Gobirawa marks are made up of "6 on the right cheek, with 1 extra,and 5 on the left, with 1 extra too."

'Designer marks' Some of the young children in Ilorin have a watered down version of the marks,made up of a few strokes on each cheek, and someone describes these as 'designer' marks. In other words this is the popular modern form of the mark, and these lack the full character and style of classical Gobirawa body art, and many have said that these marks are slowly going extinct.

The Gobirawa have a long history of migrations and on account of this they can be found in almost all the countries of west Africa. The fairly vertical Gobirawa marks seem to speak of this epic movement which is said to have started in Saudi Arabia, and spread all the way to Egypt, Agadez, Tsibiri, Alkalawa, Sabon Birni, Ilorin and further down to south west Nigeria, the last occuring long before the jihad of 1804. 50% of Niger republic is Gobir territory, Sarki tells me.

When the Gobirawa proudly bear their marks, this art is at the same time a communication of a long, varied and rich history. For instance, the mark beneath one eye is said to recall the stay of the group in Egypt, for the Pharoahs also had a similar mark. Professor Mukhtar Bunza of the department of history, Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto says "The Gobirawa have Coptic connection for they have under one eye the same mark with the Pharoahs (called yatsun kaza in Hausa which means footprint of the chicken)."

He comments on their origins "I do not know who initiated the marks. When society emerges and becomes distinct, it comes up with some features which are peculiar and unique to its people. In the case of the Gobirawa, an example of this is the mark." It is to be assumed that the full array of marks would reveal much more if they are properly understood for nobody has drawn attention to what the other marks mean. However,more research is needed in this area to decode the entire sequence and meaning of Gobirawa marks. An online search as well as research in libraries by this reporter, did not reveal any work on Gobirawa marks, rather there is a treatment of facial marks in Nigeria in a general manner.

'Going extinct' Body art may be slowly going extinct as a result of the weight of modernisation, religion, new forms of identification, marriage, and a changing sense of beauty. Some say that the Gobirawa marks have been 'obliterated,’'and that they are going 'extinct,' while others like Abubakar Bango, Bangon Sabon Birni add 'within the next 10 years the marks will vanish.' Professor Bunza argues that they have 'declined drastically.' But Sarkin Gobir Ilorin is of the view that the marks will endure for a long time to come. Abdulqadir Bello, who hails from a family that has been 'doing the marks' for many years in Ilorin, opines "Those interested in having the marks done for their children,are more than those who are not keen on it. This year alone I have done the marks for 45 children," and he adds "The Gobirawa mark is not easily done. Among all marks, it's the one you have to focus on and settle down to achieve."

Umaru Garba, Sarkin Aski Sabon Birni, confesses "It's a thing of pride and it makes people proud of history as well as their heritage.” He states that patrons are not very many these days. Dr. Ranti Ojo, Head of the department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Abuja, who specialises in Culture History, thinks that Gobirawa marks are "going extinct. This means it is fading away or no longer in existence. For instance, there are some dialects in Nigeria which are no longer in existence. People don't speak them anymore because of our lackadaisical attitude to our traditions. The same thing applies to facial marks. Before a culture goes extinct, it reduces systematically. There is no sudden extinction or revolutionary extinction. It occurs gradually over a period of years."

He concludes "Gobirawa marks are systematically, geometrically and significantly going extinct." The unhygienic nature of the instruments used, the end of slave trade and tribal wars, the embarrassment suffered by many who bear the marks, alongside the influence of modernity, have all combined to push facial marks to the brink, he argues.

This area is also a poorly researched field in many Nigerian higher institutions, and students do not see it as a viable or lucrative field for study. Nigeria does not seem to have something akin to a museum of facial marks, which would preserve or document this heritage which is fading before our very eyes. Meanwhile, those who actually use instruments to create the marks are also declining in numbers in many Nigerian settlements. It looks like midnight has come for Nigeria's facial marks for, as Daily Trust gathered during the interview with Dr. Ojo "some of Nigeria's elite go abroad to have their facial marks removed by means of plastic surgery."

'I don't have marks'

Ahamed Yusuf Gobir is Sarkin Gobir Ilorin. During the interview he refers to numerous Kings of the Gobir empire, which at its height "was ten times the size of northern Nigeria." He turns to comment on Bawa Jan Gwarzo, who was Sarkin Gobir in late 18th century, as well as the array of Gobirawa Sultans such as those of Tsibiri and Agadez in Niger Republic. He now explains why he does not have facial marks of the Gobirawa, though being one of their leading sons "There's a reason why I don't have marks. The story is that we were actually brought to Ilorin from Lagos, where we lived with our parents. We were brought for the tribal marks to be put on our faces. I was a very young boy then, and my younger brother was just a baby. Our mother didn’t know that this was the reason why we had come. The secret was leaked to her,and apparently the night before the marks were to be put, she smuggled us out of the house, and my father was forced more or less to negotiate with her, and agree that we would not be given the tribal marks."

He says that his elder sisters all have the Gobirawa marks, adding "it was from me in my family that the tribal marks stopped." But he notes "We have deemphasized the marking of the females a bit more.As for the males, generally, you find that they still have the marks."

On why his children don’t have facial marks, he states "It's probably because I didn’t live in Ilorin. If I lived here, I think I probably would have given my boys the mark. My boys were born in Ilorin, but all the girls were born in Kaduna. I wasn't in Ilorin for any specific length of time to have imbibed the culture of marks. I believe that's really why the boys don't have it."

He adds "It's always been something that is a part of our pride and heritage. It was said that in those days at the height of the Gobir influence within the Ilorin emirate, a lot of people who were not Gobirawa, came and asked to be given the Gobir mark, so that they will fall under our protection and enjoy that immunity. At that time there was a lot of security assured an individual by being a Gobir person, and many who were not originally from Gobir got the marks." This shows that some became Gobirawa by association. But under the present conditions Gobirawa culture may not easily spread in this way."

In his opinion the Gobirawa marks are experiencing a gentle resurgence "If anything, the marks are even becoming more of a form of identity,a thing of pride for the younger ones now. To my amazement those who are not of my generation are giving the marks to their children with a passion. This is not something that will die off in the foreseeable future."

'Completely obliterated'

Saad Gobir, a Scholar and member of the Gobir dynasty in Ilorin, speaks on the origins of the culture of facial marks among his peopel “The main reason is for you to be able to identify your kinsmen during the time of war ,so that they are not mistakenly taken away as slaves, and at the same time you wish to emphasise your roots." He shows how marriage can lead to a decline in the culture "If a man marries a non Gobirawa lady, there's a tendency that the children won't have the marks. She will appeal to the husband not to do it.

But there are some instances where a man marries a non Gobirawa lady, who insists that the marks be put on the children. They are not only declining, but there is complete obliteration. This is on account of the effects of civilisation, and above all, there are no wars anymore which justified the facial marks in the first instance."

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