The first time I ever saw a tattoo was on Otoola’s wrist.
Otoola, Elizabeth Osuntokun was my paternal grandmother from Okemesi in Ekiti.
I would look in amazement at what I believed were scars on her wrists, wondering how on earth she had acquired them. One day she caught me gazing at them as usual.
And, smiling knowingly, she drew me closer to her.
‘You are wondering what these are?’
I was a shy girl, so I just nodded, somewhat embarrassed that she had caught me staring. We weren’t exactly close to Mama Mesi, as we called her – a vibrant, strong and entrepreneurial woman who sold kola-nuts for a living in our village – because we lived far away in Ibadan. We probably saw her once a year when we travelled down for the New Year’s holidays.
‘Well, this is a mark of beautification,’ she explained, slowly and deliberately, as she didn’t speak English. She spoke that way so I would understand her, as I didn’t speak our native Ekiti dialect but I understood it.
She drew me closer still, since she could see that my interest had been piqued.
‘I had my name tattooed on my left wrist; can you see?’ She lovingly and tenderly outlined the alphabets that spelled O T O O L A with her fingers, almost like a caress.
‘Was it painful?’
She cackled, throwing her head back in mirth. Despite her movements, her crossed legs remained so; she would always cross her legs, the left leg on her knee, her hands cushioning the upper knee.
She was a beautiful woman, jet black, and despite her age, ramrod straight – quite tall. Her eyes were her best assets as far as I was concerned; they were bright, knowing, seeing beyond ordinary eyes and very intelligent.
‘Yes, it was very painful but it was worth it. Don’t you think so?’
I didn’t quite know what to say. She took my hand and let me feel the gentle swelling, and I traced out the letters gingerly with my middle finger.
‘You can press harder if you want, it doesn’t hurt anymore.’
My siblings, a riotous bunch, were running all over the living room, oblivious of my conversation with Mama Mesi. One or two would have probably noticed that I wasn’t running around with them, but then I was a very quiet and reserved child.
I pressed harder and though I knew she wouldn’t find it painful anymore, I still couldn’t stop myself wincing, which she found thoroughly entertaining. She smiled, her eyes sparkling with humour.
‘There are other symbols; apart from your name. What do they stand for? And how was the scarification done? Who did them?’
Mama Mesi said that it was done by one of her cousins; and since it was meant to beautify her body, he embellished the incisions with herbs and some other materials. As she started going into detail about the process, my father, her son Oduola, walked in, temporarily putting the stopper on our conversation. He greeted her respectfully, and she, looking up lovingly, told him what we were talking about. He sat down beside her and gestured that she should continue. And so she did.
‘The sharp edge of coconut shells or stones would be heated up in an open fire, while the area of the skin intended for scarification is stretched taut; and the sharp object would be used to draw on the skin, with blood oozing out from the fresh cuts, ground charcoal would be sprinkled on the cuttings to create permanent blisters. The sharp objects are usually reheated – and most times they had more than one in the fire, to interchange as others cool off. The cuts when healed would form raised scars, the type you see on my wrist.’
My grandmother merely chuckled at my horrified expression.
Oduola looked upset and disquieted; he wasn’t as amused as his mother. She looked at him knowingly and pressed his arm soothingly.
‘Nle Awe,’ she said softly to him, meaning, it’s alright.
There seemed to be an unspoken communication between mother and son that excluded me, then I saw my father touching the tribal marks on his face, gently, while reflecting on what he’d heard.
It had totally escaped me that my father had more pronounced scarifications on his face than Otoola had on her wrist.
I must take a minute to talk about my father, Oduola Joseph Osuntokun. As his mother was jet black, so he was very light-skinned. He was an outstandingly good-looking man, and his facial marks were faint, although still quite visible; far from jarring, they seemed to blend well with his skin.
‘Oh, I’m used to the marks on my face now,’ he said. ‘, it was the norm for all firstborns to have these incredibly obvious marks on our faces. My mother’s was seen as a beauty enhancement, but for me it was a symbol of where I was born, my village, my origin. In times of war, it was beneficial or the opposite for us, as it quickly marked you as a friend or enemy.’
I listened in awe, mesmerised as my father, for the first time, spoke about the effect the marks had on him mentally. My siblings soon migrated to where the three of us sat, and settled down at our grandmother and father’s feet, quickly becoming transfixed.
‘The first time I travelled out of Nigeria was to Freetown in Sierra Leone, for my university education at Fourah Bay College; the marks caused quite a stir on campus and in the town, which naturally I didn’t like. I was constantly been stopped and asked why I had these marks. It didn’t help that they were conspicuously placed on both my cheeks; it was the sort of attention no young man would like, and for a while, it affected my confidence.’
Looking anxiously at his face, one of my brothers asked the question I had asked Mama Mesi earlier.
‘Did it hurt you, Papa?’
‘No, or more correctly, I couldn’t tell; I must have been only a few days old when it was done. Why don’t you ask Mama?’ He turned to his mother. About half a dozen accusing and inquisitive eyes shifted in my grandmother’s direction.
‘Oduola and his children!’ Mama Mesi smiled in acknowledgment of my father’s famed love us.
‘Your father was the first child and son of his father, so there was no way he could escape the scarification; and it was an honour, a privilege, because of his position in the family. I couldn’t bear to witness the actual ceremony, which was done on the seventh day after I gave birth to him. Luckily, the marks were not infected as some were wont to do, and he survived it and many other ordeals that you young ones wouldn’t have survived today.’
My father took over from her, resuming the account of his life with facial marks.
‘After some time, the Sierra Leoneans got used to them; and things got better when a couple of Nigerians who had facial marks joined me in school. I mean, mine actually paled in comparison to some who had craters and ridges practically chiselled on their faces.’
His candour was rewarded with a brief interlude of childish giggles.
Then he grew sombre again.
‘The worst reactions I ever got were during my travels to Europe and the USA. People would gather in the streets to stare at me, mouths wide open in horror and disdain. It was hard getting used to the stupid queries about whether I was attacked by lions in the jungle, or if I acquired the scars while fighting during some of our “barbaric wars.” After a while, I learned to use humour as a defensive tool, and would regale them with tales of my valour on the battlefield. They were even more astounded at my spoken English than my marks.
‘My confidence grew as I began to achieve greater heights in life. My facial markings also grew fainter with time, and I hardly ever remember that I have them now.’
Otoola looked at Oduola in admiration and love. She started to incant the family panegyrics.
‘Omo Olupo, Oko omoje…’