In traditional Yoruba societies, children born into a patrilineal clan share clan names, poetry, taboos and tribal marks. The tribal marks gives them full clan membership rights.
Each tribe of the Yoruba ethnic group has different inscription patterns which appears in different sizes and shapes at different locations on the body, depending on the tribe.
Used as a means of identification, tribal marks are also for beauty. But in this present generation where the standard of beauty often changes, tribal marks are archaic and whoever wears one is considered a local person.
“Ha ha, you have tribal marks and you’re dressing fine. You speak well too. Who dash you?” is one of the most ridiculous comments Adetutu Alabi has gotten as a result of the tribal marks on her face.
Adetutu, a 30-year old tambour beading artist and a single mother of one, became known after international singer, Rihanna followed her on Instagram. Adetutu had shared her desire to model for the singer, so, she started a campaign to get her attention.
Eight days into her campaign, Rihanna followed back!
While some people may envy Adetutu for taking such a bold step, it took many years to become the woman she is today. From being body shamed to being bullied, Adetutu’s tribal marks cost her so many things.
In an interview with Sola Abe for Woman.Ng, Adetutu Alabi talks about navigating life as a woman with tribal marks in a 21st century.
There are many things Adetutu isn’t ashamed to talk about, like, coming from a polygamous family. Just like her tribal marks, Adetutu says polygamy used to be a part of African culture.
The four marks on each side of her cheeks tells she comes from Eruwa town in Oyo state, however, at a point in their lives, her father migrated to his maternal grandmother’s hometown in Okeagbe Akoko North West in Ondo state.
Adetutu isn’t the only child with tribal marks in her family; some of her siblings were scarred too. Her late dad, who is not apologetic about the marks as it is also on his face, stopped scarring his children around 1999/2000, when he saw that the scarred ones were always being insulted.
Growing up with tribal marks wasn’t easy for Adetutu.
“What is this on your face? Why will you have this kind of thing? Who did it? Did you do it yourself?” were some of the questions Adetutu dealt with.
She remembers being jeered at, both in Primary and Secondary school. At some point, she was advised by her friends to use sandpaper on the cheeks. Eager to end the misery her tribal marks was bringing her, Adetutu ended up scratching her face.
“Since then, I left it and decided to live my life like that,” she said.
Just because of her tribal marks, nothing good was seen in Adetutu by some people. Many expected her not to be able to dress well or speak good English and whenever she proves them wrong, they say, “what is this on your face and you’re even doing shakara.”
As a result, she stopped mingling with others; stopped going to parties and didn’t take pictures.
“I felt very bad. If I should say something that others do not agree with, they get back at me through my tribal marks. So I felt that if they should be doing this now, what am I looking for at the university?” she said.
She decided to learn a skill and start her own business. Now, she has a 7 years experience at tambour beading.
“I don’t regret not going to the university. I have my business and I’m doing fine in my own little way. At least, I can take care of my daughter,” she noted.
Having a business of her own, however, has not stopped the bullying or discrimination. A client once told Adetutu to conceal her marks when coming to deliver her order, else, she wouldn’t work with her again.
“I chose my work instead of her. I chose my face like that,” she said.
While Adetutu doesn’t mind concealing her tribal marks with makeup, she explained that she once tried it but didn’t like it because her face felt too caked, which made her looked fake.
Being in a relationship with someone she thought loved her was enough for Adetutu. She wasn’t bothered that they couldn’t go out in broad day light. Adetutu got pregnant for her baby’s father and he asked her to keep it but one day, he left and she never heard of him again.
“I once considered suicide. That was after my baby father left. He didn’t tell me his reasons for leaving.”
Adetutu couldn’t go ahead with the suicide because of her daughter, who will clock 9 years soon.
Eight years later, her baby’s father reached out to her. He had seen Adetutu’s story on Instablog and decided to seek her forgiveness. According to Adetutu, her baby father told her that the reason he left was because he couldn’t show her off as his, so that people will not mock his choice of woman.
Due to her past experiences with men, Adetutu says it’s hard to trust someone who wants to date her even if they have genuine intentions. She’s contented with herself and wouldn’t say yes to any condition that doesn’t favour her.
Accepting her tribal marks
After years of resenting her parents for scarring her, Adetutu decided to accept the way she looks. For her, the deed had already been done and an experience in 2017 sealed that decision.
A troll had been disturbing her on her Facebook page. Whenever she posted a picture, the troll would send abusive messages to her inbox. One day, Adetutu posted a picture and the troll commented, asking if she was not ashamed of herself. She then asked her to delete the picture.
When Adetutu’s friends saw the comment, they defended her. The troll’s account was reported and since then, Adetutu decided to live her life. She started posting selfies everyday.
“I made sure I plaster my pictures everywhere. I was done hiding.”
Adetutu’s experience with bullying taught her to love herself and she wished she had known that earlier. Having lost her mum at four years old; her dad, who is a medical doctor, was too busy to help her understand or motivate her and she wasn’t close to her step-mum, so, she was left to figure it out by herself.
“I have cried thousands of time because of my tribal marks because the insults and comments of people can be so painful.”
Although, the bullying hasn’t stopped, Adetutu says it has made her skin tougher and can now defend herself.
“When you insult me, do that from afar but don’t touch me, if you touch me, we will have an issue,” she said, noting that she has decided to love herself, move around confidently and be bold.
Being a Face Model
Her desire to be a model was from childhood but she knew her tribal marks was a barrier. The idea to be a face model struck her in 2016, but whenever she mentioned it to her friends, they tell her nobody would consider her.
One day, she posted a picture on her Facebook page and shared how her tribal marks wouldn’t let her be a face model.
“My social media friends were really nice, they motivated me. They said ‘yes, you can. Who told you there are no models with tribal marks? Though, they are not much but if you search, you’ll see,’” she said, noting her Facebook friends were really supportive.
Few months later, a photographer needed a model with tribal marks and her Facebook friends kept tagging her to his post. That was how Adetutu’s modeling career started in 2016.
Two years later, in October, Adetutu, a big fan of Rihanna started a campaign after seeing that the international singer struck a pose similar to a recent picture she took. Adetutu decided she wanted to model for Rihanna, who launched a makeup line in 2017.
Begging her social media friends for retweets and reposts, Rihanna followed Adetutu on Instagram on the eighth day of the campaign.
“The campaign didn’t have an expiry date; I just decided to keep doing it. When someone told me that Rihanna was following me, I said ‘no, show me, prove it.’ So, they sent me a screenshot and I went to check my Instagram page and it was real.”
Although, the singer is yet to reach out to Adetutu on a modeling deal, Adetutu believes it will happen one day.
“For her following me, I know it’s really going to happen someday. It may not be this month or this year but I know it will happen,” she said with so much faith in her eyes.
Tribal marks advocate
Even though, Adetutu has accepted her tribal marks as a part of her, she wants it to be stopped. She believes that nobody should be scarred as a child.
“Tribal marks should be done when a child is old enough to talk,” she said.
Adetutu says she’s glad she’s an inspiration to many people like her, as they reach out to her, sharing how they conceal their marks with makeup to avoid being bullied. Encouraging them to step out of their comfort zones, Adetutu believes people like her will soon take over their own narrative as it is not their faults that they were scarred as children.