People stare at me because of the tribal marks on my face. I wish I never had them. I wish I knew what I looked like without them. Before I left Nigeria, I asked my mother about them. She said that she and my father were merely upholding traditional practices. I wished that I was born in 2012 when a law against such markings was introduced. I told my parents that I hated the marks. They are ugly not beautiful.
My mother got angry and said to me, “Those marks you hate so much helped some tribes avoid becoming slaves, because the slave-traders viewed faces without scars as a sign of good health, and so did not seize tribesmen with facial scars. People without facial scars are descendants of slaves, immigrants or refugees. Those marks help people to know which region you come from. You should be proud not ashamed of them. They are part of your heritage–of who you are.”
Nothing she nor my father said could convince me to accept their warped area of beauty. After I graduated from school, I was happy to leave Abuja for London to study at Queen Mary University there. I had a room in a Queen Mary hall of residence and I had no trouble making friends but I got tired of people asking me about the marks. I explained to them that they weren’t accidental scars and that I wasn’t proud of them. My parents marked me when I was a baby. I couldn’t believe that they did that to me. For a very long time, I was bitter about it and resented them.
Then, my life and how I felt about my marks and my parents changed. It was when at the last minute, I decided to enroll in the English and History course and I’m happy I did. Professor Ashworth was not only very handsome and the youngest I have seen so far but he was really nice. I enjoyed his class and looked forward to going every week. After class, I stayed and chatted with him for a while before I rushed off to my next class.
We never talked about my marks and he never stared at them like other people did which made me feel good. He was seeing me not my marks. One day, he asked me if I would meet him after school at Queen Victoria Park in front of the Queen’s Gate at five-thirty. I said yes, of course and was so excited. I couldn’t wait and at five-fifteen, I was waiting for him. He came at exactly five-thirty. We went for a walk. I had never been to that park before although it wasn’t far from the university. As we walked and talked, I didn’t worry about running into a student or faculty member. And even if we did, we had nothing to feel guilty about. We were just two people strolling in the park on a beautiful afternoon.
We stopped for a while and I leaned against the tree, facing the lake. I could feel him watching me and I turned my head. My heart skipped a beat when our eyes met. “Do you have a boyfriend, Taahira?” he asked.
I shook my head at once. “No. What guy would want to date me anyway?” I asked. “He’d take one look at my face and run.” I was speaking from experience. Most of the guys on campus avoided me.
“In front of me I see a lovely young woman with whom I would really like to be in a relationship,” he said, quietly. And as if unable to resist, he reached out and touched my face. “Will you have dinner with me tomorrow evening?”
I seemed to have trouble breathing and my heart was beating really fast. “Yes,” I managed to say.
He smiled and his hand dropped to his side. “I’ll pick you up where we met today. Dinner will be at my country home. Oxfordshire is beautiful at this time of the year. Before dinner, I could show you around the grounds and then we could go for a walk to Winderton Village.”
“You live in Oxfordshire?”
“Yes. It’s just less than a 90 minute drive to London.”
“Do you live there by yourself?”
“No, I have a live-in couple–a husband and wife. He’s the head gardener and she’s the housekeeper. Very nice people. They have been with me for over ten years. They are like family.”
My head was spinning. I was going to have dinner with my English History professor. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking forward to visiting Oxfordshire because it was where Downton Abbey was filmed and George Clooney bought a house for his wife there. “What time should I meet you at the gate?” I asked.
“At four. Bring a pair of comfortable shoes with you for walking. Do you have to go back to the university now or could we go somewhere and have something to eat?”
“No, I don’t have to go back to the university now.”
He straightened away from the tree. “All right, I know this Italian place where they serve the best pasta.” He reached for my hand and I let him hold it as I fell into step with him. I was thrilled to be holding hands with him. People looked at us but he didn’t seem to care and that made me feel good.
We went to the Italian place and enjoyed great food. He took me back to the university campus. I hardly slept a wink that night. Saturday came and I was anxious for it to go quickly so that I could see him. This time when I got to the park entrance he was waiting for me. He smiled when he saw me. “Good evening,” he said before he leaned over and kissed me on my right cheek where the big, ugly mark was. When he drew back, our eyes met and what I saw in his, made my heart skip a beat. We held hands as we walked to his car. Soon, we were on our way to Oxfordshire. It was beautiful and very English.
My mouth dropped open when I saw the sprawling mansion and the immaculate grounds. He obviously came from a wealthy family. The front hall was enormous. Everything was enormous. The housekeeper, Mrs. Jenkins was a bit wary of me at first but she soon warmed up. After he showed me around the mansion where a person could easily get lost, he took me around the grounds. Thank goodness I was wearing a pair of runners. There was so much to see.
As we headed over the rolling countryside towards Winderton Village, he told me more about his parents and his childhood here. Like me, he was an only child. His parents moved from London to here and when they died, the mansion, the land became his. His father always expected him to follow in his footsteps become an MP but he opted to become an English and History professor at Queen Mary University instead. I’m happy that he chose teaching over politics or we never would have met. His mother used to be private secretary to a Duchess but left her position after she got married. She was twenty years his father’s junior.
“Do you have a problem dating a man twice your age?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “No. Age isn’t important to me.”
He smiled and gently squeezed my hand which he had been holding since we left the grounds. “I’m happy to hear that.”
Winderton was very picturesque. It looked like a picture you would see on a postcard. We passed by old farm buildings and visited the All Saints church which is at the center of the town. It’s an Anglican Church although Roman Catholic services were also held there on Saturdays. He must have arranged to have them open the doors for us because we were able to go inside. The Nave and aisles faced north east. It was a very modest looking church, not at all like the Catholic churches I have seen in photos or visited. “Are you Anglican or Catholic?” I asked as we left and headed back to the mansion. The sun was setting. Winderton looked beautiful at sunset.
“I’m Anglican. What about you?”
“I’m neither. I’m still trying to find a church I could belong to, I guess.”
“They are having Carols ‘at the George’ in the Church at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, December 17th. Would you be interested in coming?”
“Yes, I would be.”
“I’ll pick you up around 5 and we will have dinner at the mansion before coming over here. Do you have any plans for Christmas? Will you be spending it with your parents?”
I shook my head. “No, I wouldn’t be spending Christmas with them.”
“Would you spend it and New Year’s with me? I will take you home on New Year’s Day in the early evening.”
“Yes, Professor I would love to spend Christmas and New Year’s with you.”
“Taahira, now that we’re off the campus, I would like you to call me by my first name. Do you know what it is?”
“Yes, I do.”
He stopped and turned to face me. We were on the hill leading up to his estate. “I’d like to hear you say it.”
“Say it again…”
His eyes darkened and he pulled me in his arms. He kissed me and I felt a spark. I put my arms around his neck and kissed him back. I have never been kissed before and it was out of this world. We stood there for several minutes exchanging passionate kisses and then, he raised his head, breathing heavily. “We’d better stop,” he said breathlessly.
I was disappointed but I nodded in assent. And lacing his fingers through mine, we headed for the mansion.
Dinner was amazing and afterwards, we went into the drawing-room where we spent the rest of the evening until it was time for him to take me home. We officially started dating after that evening and by the end of January 2020, we were engaged. I joined the Anglican Church. In June, we had a small, intimate wedding. Mrs. Jenkins was the matron of honor and Mr. Jenkins the best man. We spent our honeymoon in romantic Tuscany.
My tribal marks don’t bother me anymore. I have come to accept that they are and always will be a part of me. I have forgiven my parents and am in touch with them. I have informed them that their grandchildren will not be marked. There comes a time in one’s life when they must break with some traditions. I think that this tradition should be outlawed and I’m advocating for that through an organization other victims of tribal marks and I have found called, Scarred for Life. The support has been tremendous and we are pushing for the Nigerian government to ban marking children in the name of culture.
This story is fiction but tribal markings are a reality in Nigeria. There these tribal markings are given to young children using hot knives laced with ash by a local tribal mark giver. This is done for cultural reasons but Senator Dino Melaye feels this practice causes low self-esteem in the marked children and increases the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS because the sharp instruments used by the locales to inscribe the tribal marks were not sterilized. He is pushing for Senate to criminalize the practice. “These tribal marks have become emblems of disfiguration and have hindered many situations of life. Some have developed low self-esteem, they are most times treated with scorn and ridicule.” Melaye was himself a victim of these markings. His grandmother took him to get them while his father, who never wanted his children to have them, was away.
Although the tradition of tribal markings or scarification is dying, it should be outlawed. The Nigerian government needs to put the rights of the children above this barbaric practice of preserving family identity.