Monday, May 20, 2024


I have been thinking of what to write this month, which of course has been earmarked as Ghana month in Ghana. As my mental search through the swath without immediate success, I decided to comb the streets of Facebook for more information on what to write on. Lo and behold, I saw a beautiful picture of two brothers–Manasseh Awuni Azure and Abdul Hayi Moomen–of the North posted on the latter’s Facebook wall comparing amongst them, who is more handsome.

Even though it was obvious that they were all handsome, one thing of note was the immaculate and carefully embroidered mark on the left cheek of Manasseh Azure Awuni. Voilà! I have gotten something to write on for the Ghana-Month; INSIGNIAS.

The month of March has been designated in Ghana as Ghana-Month to champion history and traditions of cultural heritage in which this country is built on. It is based on this designation that this cultural piece is written to venture into certain area of traditional practices undergoing metamorphosis. This area of cultural practice, largely unquestioned by the communities involved, has taken a different twist in this modern era. But before this article delves into this area, it must first recap what tradition has to say.


Tradition encapsulates belief systems, customs, patterns, conducts as well as established doctrines that have been passed from one generation to the other. It involves shared experiences, values and practices that offer a given people a sense of identity and differentiate them from other groups of people. This means that every social grouping has its own tradition which embodies individual rights and values, and is generally productive but could sometimes be at the detriment of individuals, individual groups within that social network, and even the community at large.

Africa is a continent known for long-standing and diverse traditions. As such, there are endless beneficial traditions that imbue people with a sense of self and experience of community. Examples of these traditions are rituals which help in communal cleansing, festivals which are very much entertaining, performances and dances which are therapeutic and even breastfeeding with its health perks. On the other hand, the continent is also dotted with several traditional practices whose presence continues to crush the social, physical and psychological conditions of certain individuals; women and children especially.

In the treatment of History and Culture, a British culture theorist and forefront cultural studies advocate, Raymond Williams, opined that every history embodied, at its center, a system of tension and “interactions” characterized by tripartite aspects: the residual, the dominant and the emergent. One of such residual cultures is under discussion. This particular culture, unrecognizable yet very keen to our crucial identification, recognition and categorization has descended generations. Something people of this generation have carried along on their bodies for ages without knowing what they actually meant.

It is also one of the traditions that the inception of Modernity, Westernization and Acculturation has caused much damage to than any other cultures without any provocation. It has faded along the many traditions swept into oblivion by the winds of the west. It was absurd, mind-boggling, and even strange to have notice a home grown (local) woman referred to these tribal markings as scars simple because she considers herself elite. More disheartening was when people who are alien to these cultures ascribed child rights and dehumanization to some of these cultural markings when indeed a little check on Google could have save them an embarrassment.


In August 2010, when I first entered the Techiman Timber Market in the now newly created Bono East Region of Ghana, it was easy to spot the different types of wood seated under long sheds due to the glaring properties and outstanding markings. I was able to differentiate between “Wawa” board, “Frama,” “Redwood”, “Nyamedua,” “Kronkodua” and several other species belonging to a broad category of families. Some of them were so easy to pick out while others were not that outwardly. However, they all have unique identifiers on them. This was where my attention was first drawn to our own unique characteristics.

It took me down memory lane to the dying embers of 2016 when I visited Koforidua central market to board a car back to Accra, I realised the marks on the cheeks of a man seated next to me which was similar to mine and my mental enquiry revealed that he was a tribesman. The three vertical strokes on either side of his cheeks gave him out easily. I immediately knew he was from Wa, in the Upper West Region. This was a typical tribal marking of the Wa Chiefdom. It didn’t only give him out as a tribesman but also gave me the opportunity to inquire into the meaning of these unmistaken markings. This was the beginning of a long search;

I have carried these three strokes on the north, south, east and west of my stomach for only God knows how long without knowing their meaning. My father and his siblings, have similar marks on every available portion of their bodies. For my part, modernity and enlightenment, has reduced it to only my stomach and a slanted reduced stroke on my left cheek. The last time I counted my dad’s strokes was 2006. They were 42 individual strokes of threes on his stomach, upper arms, lower arms, lower limbs, upper limbs, and either side of his cheeks. In comparison, mine is only 12 strokes of threes on my stomach–modernity when modernity started it casualty.

Since my encounter with my tribesman at Koforidua central market, I have searched for the meaning behind those scars. Scars that can, themselves, speak a loud language. A searing message. Symbolically, these marks were attributed to the 18th century slavery. In my quest, I have discovered these markings predated the 18th century trans-slavery. However, it has magnified it, publicizes it and becomes more noticeable as a form of categorization.

Humans have their own categorizations too. Some are too glaring to point to, while others are not. Some Tribal marks are one of the key insignias found on the bodies of one of every two persons living in the Northern part of Ghana today.

Meanwhile, the dominant history or tradition is that which dictate or try to dictate what can be thought and what can be done, the residual represent past cultural formations, values and meanings whose aspects may still be active in the present and even exerting pressure to distort the balance of the dominant tradition. On the part of tribal markings, the emergent tradition or history of Modernity embody future cultural dimensions different from that pressure put on pre-existing as well as existing cultures.

History has it that tribal markings originated from ancient Egypt where civilization first hit the shores of Africa where human beings began expanding beyond their confined abodes, families and immediate ties. There was the need for a form of identification within families so that clans can easily recognized clansmen, tribesmen and families when they meet as the population was expanding beyond expectation. Even though there are other stories differing from this origin. This has been widely accepted by majority of scholars and researchers as a lot of evidence points to.

Some believed it is a West African thing to differentiate clans and tribes as people moved in groups to new locations. However, this postulation can’t hold in the Wa tribal markings because of the composition of the Chiefdom. It has so many clans from different origins. This makes the tribal markings of Wa a bit different. Hence identification markings adopted in Wa Chiefdom originated from their source of governance. It is believed that the three stroke markings come from the three sources of power; the Tendaabas, the Wa-Nabihi, and the Yeri-Naa.

Together, this formed a tripartite of power. This has been symbolized in the three strokes used by Wa as its tribal Markings.

These tribal markings have been sighted with a lot of content. Meanwhile, traditional practices are considered detrimental after being subjected to and evaluated under subjective lenses of biological, social, psychological and natural sciences and deemed not to meet the psycho-social needs of neither man nor are necessary for his development and physical well-being, and therefore negate scientific theory and best practices. These traditions are known as Harmful Traditional Practices (HTP) in westernized lenses.


For Identification: It has been used chiefly as identifiers in and amongst families, tribes and clans. These are marks which people carry for their entire lifetime. This is why I was able to recognize my tribesman far away from home, as far as Cape Coast; people are able to categorize their kinsmen based on these. Even amongst the tribes, there are also variations. The world’s population is about eight billion comprising of the indigenes of Upper West.

Wa Chiefdom which is a subset of the Upper West Regions has about three hundred thousand population comprising of different immigrants and indigene. How could we identify all these people of head if there wasn’t a unique identifier?

Especially, in Wa Township, the Tendaabas and the Princes and Princesses have their way of markings as a way of authority. They mostly have the three strokes on their bodies which signify the Three Spears or sources of power. The three spears is a symbol of Authority under the Kingdom of Wa. Under the Wa Kingship, the Tendaabas and Princes and Princesses have an interconnected relationship–Authority. The Tendaabas reserved the sole responsibility to enskin a King of Wa from the Princely Gates of Wa. So whenever a person is sighted with three strokes on either side the cheek is either from the Tendaabas or the one of the Princely gates of Wa.

All other clans in the Wa Chiefdom have theirs like my own; 12 strokes of threes on the cardinal compass of the stomach, and a slanted reduced mark on the left cheek. The Tendaabas and the Princes and Princesses have a distinctive three strokes on either side of the cheeks while all other clans in the Wa Chiefdom have the slanted reduced stroke on the left cheek. Even though modernity has caused majority of the Tendaabas and Princes and Princesses to kowtow to what is widely practiced by other members of the clan. Now, majority of the people no longer used even the slanted reduced stroke on the cheek.

For Beautification: I could still remember a woman I met at the jungles of Wa Zongo, creating and crafting these marks on her forehead using a coin with brails on her forehead. I enquired to know whether it wasn’t painful and hurting. This makes her laugh. She told me it’s painful when done at once but little painless when gradually done.

It becomes something like a sore which charcoal is added. At the end of this process, a beautiful horizontal stroke was created on her forehead. This, she told me, will be carried for the rest of her life. She added that this makes her more beautiful. Indeed, it was.

This has proven that some of these markings are not for tribal recognition. Especially, as juxtaposed above, some of these marks can be more popular than even tribal markings. Some researchers suggested majority of the markings in southern Ghana are more inclined to beautification than tribal identification. A lot of people tend to have them because of their artistic and impressive additions added to the human face or body. For instance a lot of young ladies have carved these vertical strokes on either side of their cheeks. These markings has gained grounds that one is not familiar with the tribal markings would’ve mistaken them as such.

Moreover, there is another artistic impression or beautification additions to young ladies within Wa Township and beyond. Several ladies have multiple piercings on their ears and nostrils. These impressions are as common as the flies in the neighbourhood yet that shouldn’t be mistaken as tribal markings but only incursions. These impressions are as good as tattoos which have taken over the bodies, colonizing them like how the colonial masters colonized their colonies. These are devoid of the paintings done on ladies during marriage ceremonies and during religious festivities.

For Medicinal Purposes: Some of these marks are for special kind of Identification. There are marks that are placed on children who are believed to have a linkage with the “underworld”. The spiritual implications of these marks are to identify children who kept coming to this world and going to the “underworld” and in the case of Wa, a plus sign is placed on any of the cheeks which the person may likely bring back to the physical world. These marks are not so pervasive or common but can be seen on few cheeks.

There are different forms of sicknesses that demands markings to enhance treatment. For instance, convulsion is one of the sicknesses that markings are done to enhance direct insemination of the medicine into the blood. At the end of the treatment, these markings are left on the portions of the body used for the treatment. Some of these marks are sighted at the downside of the tommy or at the top of the back. These are exceptional markings different from all other tribal markings. Unlike tribal markings, these markings are still done in this modern age even though it is still frowned upon by agents of westernization.


In conclusion, everyone belonging to a society perceived knowledge of the society until they are ask to give account of their knowledge. This becomes one of the toughest jobs to say the least, a mammoth task that cannot be accomplished or ill-informed knowledge about the tradition that one claims to have taken roots. However, technological advancement has impacted negatively in advancing the course of tradition and culture. So many traditions have been categorized as outmoded and hence abolished. Many others are fading on their own; a casualty of Internet. And one of it has been tribal markings. It is fading drastically. Some proponents elude the fading to child rights while others claim it is inhumanely derogatory.

Written By;
Al Latif Kambo-Naa

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