Kehinde Odusina: Man On Marks

 

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I come from a place in Ogun State that – much until recently – was a proper village. Both my parents are from the same place but my father had left home to school and eventually work. When they got married, my father was working in Ile-Ife and so he lived there; my mother on the other hand remained in the village with his family. So, my father would travel every month or maybe even once in two months to see his wife. It was in this village that I was born as a twin but my twin brother passed on shortly after we were born.

My father has exactly my kind of marks but with his travels and exposure, he was of the opinion that the culture had become redundant and should be discarded. He never wanted any of his children to have any form of scarification on their bodies. Those were his thoughts regarding tribal marks and he had communicated it clearly to his wife and everyone in his family.

One day, my father came – as usual – to the village to visit his young family but nothing about that trip was usual. He got home and found that his baby boy had been given the exact kind of marks that he had.

According to my mother, after my twin brother passed away, the family suddenly felt that the only way to save me from going to join him was to give me the marks. My mother was in her in-laws’ place and that meant she had no say whatsoever in the matter. This was an era before cellphones. Ife to the village was a 7-8hour journey and so no one could rush to Ife to call my dad to intervene. I was three-months old when I was given these marks.

My father returned to find my face all marked and he flared up. He was so angry at what had been done that he took his wife away from the village and, in protest against what they had done, he left me behind in the village. It was his own way of saying: ‘you have done your worst, now keep what you have done’.

For the next three years, I was in the village with my grandparents till he finally came to pick me after my immediate sibling was born. My father was never happy about the marks and my mother continued to beg him till he finally accepted the fact that what had been done and could not be undone.

As I grew up, I learnt that my dad had an uncle – his father’s brother – and the man was feared. The story was that he was very diabolic and no one dared to challenge him on any matter. From the story I heard, he was the one who mandated that I be given the tribal marks after my twin died. Considering the structure of village life, his place wasn’t far from where my grandma and mother lived so he had proximity to his advantage; and because he was greatly feared, he had his way.

I was in primary school in Ife when we visited the village and they showed me the man’s house. I wanted to see what the man who had done this to me looked like – just to stare him in the face. Had there not been stories about how powerful he was, I’d have loved to express my displeasure on that trip to his house. That was the first and only time I ever entered the man’s house till he passed away.

Anytime we went to the village for ileya celebration and every other person went to greet the man in his house, I never accompanied them. I’d just stay with my grandma till they returned from his house. We’d spend days in the village and I’d not go to greet him even when he sent for me. When I heard he passed away, I didn’t feel anything at all. So, essentially, in our nuclear family, it is only my dad and I that have these marks.

In my JSS1 that I was bullied by a very senior student and I sustained some bruises from the act. I reported the incident to my parents and they were very furious.  When I mentioned the name of the student who had bullied me, my parents knew his parents and so we got into the car and drove over to theirs.

“In my JSS1 that I was bullied by a very senior student and I sustained some bruises from the act. I reported the incident to my parents and they were very furious. When I mentioned the name of the student who had bullied me, my parents knew his parents and so we got into the car and drove over to theirs.
My parents narrated what their son had done to me and his parents showed remorse. The boy’s mother pulled me to herself and sat me on her lap as they apologized profusely for what their son had done. As she pet me, she was startled. .
Finally, she said, “se oun na lo na e t’oju e fi ya bayii – was it my son’s beatings that put all these marks over your face?” My parents answered that the marks were tribal marks and not from the beating. That was the very first time that I had the consciousness that there was something etched on my face.
The secondary school I attended was a posh school and I was struggling to fit in. In my house, we spoke purely Yoruba and so that was my primary way of expressing myself and then I found myself in this school where everyone was speaking English and so it took time before I could catch up to speak like the rest spoke. That struggle killed my confidence and courage to relate with people.
In class, I couldn’t raise up my hands to speak because I didn’t want any attention on me. The marks had drawn enough attention to me already. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to fight. Every time I have been involved in fisticuffs; I have been beaten. Unfortunately, again, at that time, I could not speak good English to yab the ones who yabbed me in English.
Going into JSS2, more people bullied me for my marks. They’d call me names – “Okola” “Owala” “You-Fight-Lion” etc. I had up to twenty names because of the marks. In fact, a group of guys – about six of them – who had come from Ibadan to school in Ife began to call me ‘Imade’.
At first, I didn’t get it; it took a while before I figured that they were making a reference to the gorilla at the UI Zoo back then. It really upset me – like, why would you link me with a gorilla?
I used to go to Ile-Keu at the weekends and even there, I had no respite from the bullying and name-hurling. In fact, in my Ile-Keu, it was my Alfa that gave me the name everyone was calling me. Guess what he called me? “Made-In-Nigeria”. He said no matter where I went, once I showed my face, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone where I was from; they’d know I was from Nigeria.
It was at the Ile-Keu too that I got the notion that I could never play football. I remember being asked by my mates to mention any footballer that I knew that had marks. In fact, they challenged me to leave the top-flight clubs in Europe and mention any player in the Super Eagles who had marks and I couldn’t name any.
My friends would tell me – back then – that people who had tribal marks could not travel out of the country; that it is at the embassy they would be denied visas once the oyinbos spot the marks on their faces.
These were the impressions I had and the information I was armed with growing up as a boy with tribal marks. It was as I grew up that I knew that most of these things were untrue.
These experiences really affected me and in my JSS2, I failed and had to repeat the class. The shame of repeating the class and having to still bear the burden of not being accepted by people around me really put a strain on me.
The jeering never stopped even when I eventually got promoted to JSS3 but by the end of my JSS3 I said to myself: ‘I can’t continue living life like this.’
Starting from my SS1, I determined that I’d do all the things that the bullying and mockery had prevented me from doing. Everything the “cool kids” did, I did them too. I began to starch my shirt, I’d go to cybercafe and buy time to browse just because the cool guys were doing it.
I used to rush home once it was closing time – I always couldn’t wait to get out of that hostility but from my SS1, I chose to stay back in school after closing and hang around. After all, we all paid the same school fees.
All of these paid off – there was a drastic improvement in my academic performance.
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“In my secondary school, we had a very large school hall where events like Prizegiving and Valedictory Service took place. The hall would be filled with students and then they’d call the best student in the set and in the subjects out to receive prizes. In SS2, I was announced as the best student in Government and Economics.
Many people did not expect that and so when they heard my name, they just began to clap and it was thunderous. I rose to my feet and walked out to the front to receive my gifts. It did not feel like I was walking, it felt like some force was pushing me and I was merely gliding to the front. It was on that day that every negative vibe and connotations about the marks died.
When this happened, I began to give myself pep-talks. If I could achieve that feat and the whole school could give me such an ovation, then there’s no one in my set that I shouldn’t be able to stand up to and match, head-to-head. As though to consolidate my thoughts, the same year I graduated from secondary school, I got admission into Obafemi Awolowo University to study English.
I was seventeen years old when I got admitted into OAU and about four students from my set in secondary school got admitted into the English department in the same year so I had familiar people to roll with.
In my first month in the university, people did not quite relate with me as a student. Some would assume I was a cleaner or a messenger or something like that. Then, I’d observed that guys on campus were wearing chain and so – in order to wipe that assumption from people’s minds that I was a blue collar staff member – I went home, took one of my mother’s chains and began to wear it on campus. At least with a gold chain on my neck, you wouldn’t be thinking I was on campus for some blue-collar job.
In my third month in OAU, I misplaced my ID card and in other to get a new one, I needed to get some documents and submit them for processing. On one of those documents, I needed my HOD to sign. I kept checking him in his office but he was never there.
During one of those trips to the department, I met a man who was feared by many. As freshers, we had heard so many stories about him. He was stepping out of his office when I bumped into him. He had the Ogbomoso marks on his face and his name was boldly engraved on the door.
Immediately, I prostrated and greeted him. As I rose to my feet, he saw my face and greeted me. I guess because of my marks, he asked me questions about where I was from.
I was about to leave when he called me back – he had spotted a gold chain around my neck. Unknown to me, he didn’t like male students wearing chains and so he snapped and demanded that I handed over the chain to him. I did. He seized the chain and never gave it back to me.
I was so popular in my department because of the marks – I was the dude with tribal marks, nothing more. You literally could walk through the whole of OAU and I’d be the only young person with this type of multiple marks so it was a means of identity for me.
Of course, I had one or two Awo boys in my class and every now and then, they’d say things that would mess things up for me.
One day, one of the lecturers called me ‘Ilari’ and the name stuck. I didn’t know what that meant. I asked around and found that ‘Ilari’ were the servants that always followed the Ooni of Ife around. By calling me ‘ilari’ he gave everyone else the courage to call me names. Till now, I still have classmates who call me ilari.
Whenever people found a name to call me because of my marks, I used to show my displeasure and warn them to stop but I realized that because I was telling them how I felt about it, they continued to call me those names. They never stopped.
Remember, I said I couldn’t fight and I didn’t have an arsenal of verbal assaults so I learnt to just walk away and preserve my peace. Rather than picking issues with people because of my marks, I decided to own the identity and put the tribal marks to some use.
That was when I came up with a plan….I ventured into school politics.”

I vied for the office of Secretary, English Students Association. On the Manifesto Night, the room was jampacked and there were a bunch of Awo boys who were causing distractions in the hall. The turn-out was massive because people wanted to hear what the small-frame boy with tribal marks that was vying for office was going to say.

I’m sure many had partly expected that I’d stammer or I’d miss the concord in my sentences; but they were all shocked to see that my elocution was impeccable. Though it took me days of rehearsals in front of the mirror to prepare for it but then I delivered; and at the polls, I won.

It was about the same time the school scrapped the Student Union government and a Caretaker committee was instituted. For about a semester I was appointed as the Secretary of the caretaker committee. This position gave me access into many offices and personalities. For me, I felt like someone who mattered on campus. That was how I turned around what was supposed to be my weakness to my strength.

I served in Ondo State. At that point, given all I had been through, I had developed great resilience. After my NYSC, I wanted to do my Masters and work at the same time. The only school that gave me that flexibility was TASUED and so I enrolled for my Masters program there. Our set was the third or fourth set in the Masters program and by the time I enrolled, I was already a school principal but because of my short stature many wouldn’t have thought I occupied such a position.

My Masters class was filled with people who believed they were posh and all that. I would go for classes, and leave afterwards. I never spoke English to anyone in class. Then we got to the stage of seminar presentations; at that point I didn’t have any choice than to speak English. My classmates were stunned when I opened my mouth and did my first presentation.

The women…relationship area, was the last aspect of my wrestle with my tribal marks. Throughout secondary school I didn’t have a girlfriend, I couldn’t even dare to speak to a girl at the time. When I got to the university, I didn’t have the courage to ask out the girls on campus so I decided to settle for a girl that was clearly not up to my stature educationally and socially. I went for a girl that I could easily impress.

My first relationship was in my 300 level and I dated a girl who didn’t go to school and was already learning a trade. That relationship did not last for long. As I grew more popular, I became close to more female friends and still I couldn’t open my mouth to ask them out.

In my final year, the realization hit me that I was graduating after four years on campus and I didn’t have a relationship. I asked about three girls out – at different times, of course – but none agreed to date me. I believe the reason why they turned me down was because of my marks; they didn’t tell me that to my face though.

Guys in my circle had begun to have stable relationships and I had none. Whenever my friends and I discussed women, I’d pass of one of my close female friends as my babe because I didn’t want to come across as someone who was struggling to get a girlfriend. Then there were friendships that were deeper than friendships but were not defined as relationships. That was how I went through the university.

Whenever I asked a girl out and she said no, I never press further. It is when you press further that you may hear things that you shouldn’t hear. I respect my ego and self-respect a lot so once a girl said no, I backed off. Besides, I was careful about the kind of girls I toasted. I’d never toast a girl that had a sharp mouth or that was undiplomatic.

When I began working, there was a girl I asked out. She asked that we should see how things panned out. Through all our daily communications, we became very close and so I knew that deep within her she had affections for me. We had become so close that I had strongly believed, at the time, that she was the one I’d marry.

She got back to me and she said we couldn’t get into a relationship. At the time, she didn’t say why – it was much later that she told me that the reason she never accepted my proposal was because her family were uncomfortable with the idea of her marrying a man with tribal marks.

After I couldn’t lock down this babe, I gave myself another pep-talk. I came to the conclusion that if I continued chasing girls that I felt I could easily impress girls then I’d be dragging myself back into all the struggles I had overcome before. It was then that I made up my mind that going forward, I’d never limit myself. Tribal marks or not, I desired and deserved the best, top-shot babes and I had what was needed to make it happen.

From that point forward, I became very deliberate about the ladies I mingled with. No matter how high-flying a lady might be, I’d talk to her and make friends with her. It was this way that I broke free from the shyness with the women and I never looked back till I met my wife.

Growing up, I had always imagined how I was going to cope when I showed face at my in-laws’ place with the marks. A question always lingered in my mind back: “what will the reception from my in-laws be like?” As it turned out, my father-in-law also has tribal marks, the Oyo marks.

My wife told me that after we started dating and she informed her mother about us, she quickly told her mom that there was a problem: “o ko’la – he has tribal marks”. Her mother then replied, “baba ti e ko’la, se mi o fe? – your own father that has marks, did I not marry him?”

According to her, her mother then went on to ask some questions: “is he a Muslim?” “Is he educated?” “Can he speak English eloquently?” Once the answers to those three questions were in the affirmative, she gave her support to our relationship.

Today, there’s no audience I can’t stand before and speak confidently – may it be a small gathering in a tiny room or a large gathering in an open space; I have grown into myself fully and I own marks and I king with it.

One thing I have learnt through all my experiences is that you can never stop people from making the assumptions. They see you and have in their head a version of who they think you should be. For me it gets dramatic during weekends. On weekdays, I dress corporately but at the weekends, I put on native attires – I can’t wear shirt and trouser from Monday-Friday and still wear the same at the weekends.

When people see me in Ankara or adire and they see my marks, and then I am speaking ijinle Yoruba, the assumption that many have is that I must be a stark illiterate. When situations like that arise, I always love it. Then I’d begin to pray that such a person would make the mistake of engaging me in English. My Joker is my elocution in English. By the time I speak English to them, you can see them freeze in shock.

When my wife and I were dating and we’d go to an eatery, I never spoke English to the cashiers. My wife would pinch me and would want me to speak English so that everyone within earshot will not get an impression that I am unschooled. Me, I’d just ignore and speak my Yoruba. Someone once asked my wife why she would choose to marry an okola and she told them the woman that if she knew how loaded my mind was, she would rush to marry me.

I’d say to anyone who has marks like me – you are enough, you don’t need to force an acceptance from people. People may despise you but you don’t need to despise yourself.

Having tribal marks may be a barrier but trust me, it is a barrier that you can work your way around. You need to make the experience you go through drive a determination into you to pursue excellence.

I have come to realize that my marks are a gift – a blessing in disguise: with these marks I stand out and with how I have built my life, I stand out not just for my marks but for excellent things too. Without these marks, I could have been another random, regular Joe.

These days, when I am talking with my mom and she wants to tease me, she’d say “e ri bo se wa’la soju bii baba e” and we will all burst into laughter.

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