What Is That On Your Face? African Tribal Marks And Their Meanings

Ms. K. Djeneba from the Ko tribe in Burkina Faso

Intentional scarification on the face may not be appealing to some, nevertheless, it is a rite of passage and a sign of beauty to others.  Tribal marks are also used as an indicator of which tribe a person belongs to. Here is an explanation of some African tribal marks and their meanings.

Diagram of Yoruba tribal marks…photo credit: This is Africa

Yoruba tribal marks

In Yoruba communities, children are born into particular clans.  Facial marks determine what rights the person has to contribute to the well-being of the clan such as leadership.  The style and location of the markings determine which tribe the child belongs to. Below are the various types:


This style is identifiable by three long lines on each cheek.  There are additional versions called the Pele Ife, Pele Ijebu, and Pele Ijesha.


The Owu marks consist of six cuts on each cheek.  This type of marking is used by the inhabitants of Owu, a historical city in Abeokuta in Ogun State, Nigeria.


Also referred to as Keke, consists of a collection of lines – short and curved half an inch apart on both sides of the mouth.  The people of Ogbomsho in Oyo State use this type of markings.


It consists of a basic and complex style.  The simplistic style is three or four horizontal lines on both cheeks; it can also include six lines on either cheek.

Man with Bor Dinka tribal markings…stock photo

Bor Dinka tribal mark

This mark is indigenous to the Bor Dinka people of South Sudan. It is said that this marking was used as an indicator of a male child belong to a particular lineage.


Man with Nuer/Gar Tribal markings…photo credit: Trip Down Memory Lane


The Gar marking is done by the Nuer people in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia.  Scars are usually unique within each tribe, nonetheless, the most common include the men having six parallel horizontal lines across the forehead with an on top of the nose indentation and the women usually adorn dotted patterns across their skin.

Dinka man with tribal markings…photo credit: The List


The Dinka tribe comprises of many ethnic groups and each practice unique religions.  They inhabit the East and West Banks of River Nile, from Mangalla to Renk, regions of Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Abyei Area of the Angok Dinka in South Khordofan of Sudan.

Their tribal marks are comprised of several lines carved on the forehead on each side ultimately forming a V shape.  This is done to signify the transition from a boy to a man; if the boy screams or shows signs of being in pain, he is characterized as being weak.

Man with Bétamarribé tribal marks…stock photo


Usually performed on girls from Benin, these tribal marks consist of a grid pattern on the face. It is said the marking is to suggest plant growth; which is a metaphor for child-bearing and the well-being of one’s household.

Woodaabe woman with tattooed face marks…stock photo


The Woodaabe, Mbororo, or Bororo tribe are a sub-group of the Fulani tribe.  The women adorn various patterns of tribal marks on their face which are then dyed to enhance the scar’s appearance.  It is said the marks are to block evil spirits and for beautification purposes.

This is not an extensive list of the unique body markings performed throughout the continent. Nevertheless, it is important to note that though these traditions have a significant meaning, they are becoming less important in many tribes especially because it is done at an early age.  Some countries are beginning to impose fines and jail time for those who perform body markings. This is said to be done to protect the welfare of children.

Source: face2face.com

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