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I’m helping to uphold my people’s custom of native tattooing, and I think my late dad would be glad and proud

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28 May 2023
12 minutes read
 I’m helping to uphold my people’s custom of native tattooing, and I think my late dad would be glad and proud

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My heritage

I am Mrs Dinah Atams-Pollyn, nee Kingston-Doughbo, an indigene of Finima, from Owupele Burusu of Buoye Omuso Brown House in Bonny Local Government Area of Rivers State, Nigeria.

Late Pa Abel Doughbo, my maternal grandfather, was the first registered pharmacist (001) in the State.

My dad, Kingston Prince Brown, was fondly known and called Fine Boy. I do not know how or why he earned the alias; he died when I was thirteen years old. But I am aware that he was a neat man.

He was known to be a brilliant teacher and a good fisherman.

I was his only daughter and the third of his four children with my mum, Charity Otamunonengigha Brown, who died in 2007. Otamunonengigha means you all are not greater than God. Her parents had her twenty years after they got married and they were childless. They had four males after her.

After my dad’s death, my mum played the role of a father and mother to me. Which is why I miss her every single day. She was my super heroine: straightforward, prayerful, wonderful, nice, generous, hospitable, and accommodating, yet strict.

From primary school through university to immediate family

I had my primary school education at Model Primary School, Bonny Island.

From there, I attended the famous Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School (ACMGS), Elelenwo. Port Harcourt, River State.

I then attended the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT) and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in economics.

Before my admission to the university, I was a staff of the Rivers State Local Government Civil Service Commission, joining in 2005. I was granted a study leave to attend the university. Because it was largely without pay, I had to do odd jobs such as washing of clothes, baking and assisting a hairdresser at her salon.

I was lucky during my final year to have the support of the man who would later be my husband and father of our three children, two girls and a boy: Atamunosiari Pollyn, an indigene of Kalaibiama from the Igoniko Burusu family in Pollyn House of Kalaibiama in Bonny Local Government Area.

I am serving the second three-year term as president of Pollyn Wives Association of Kalaibiama - women who are traditionally married into the Pollyn House.

To become a member, the woman’s bride price must have been paid.

Formed and registered in January 2019, I was the first to be elected as president. Perhaps, because of my transparency, firmness, and being a goal-getter, attributes I took from my mum.

During my primary assignment in the National Youth Service Corps in 2011, I taught mathematics and economics at the Bonny National Grammar School. I returned, after NYSC, to the Bonny Local Government Council, and I am currently an admin officer in the Budget and Planning Department.

My dad's prayer for his ‘Inyingi’

While growing up, my dad always called me Inyingi which means mum in our Ibani language.

He never tired in reminding me that I must marry a Bonny indigene, and that he would want me to uphold the custom of our people.

His father, Pa Prince Brown, was a great dancer. I, however, could neither dance nor sing. Indeed, there was nothing traditional or native about me. Nothing.

But my father saw something special in me and always professed that I would do a native thing that would make people know me not only on Bonny Island but also worldwide.

He noted that the family had been known to have talents.

I would say that his prayer has been answered. I am married to a wonderful, caring Bonny man; my huge support system.

And, thanks to an elderly woman known by almost everyone in Finima as Church Teacher – her name is Mrs Hilda Lambert Brown – I am now fulfilling my dad’s wish of upholding the custom of our people.

And, as Mrs Brown had insisted when I was reluctant to take up the practice, I am not just helping to make the art form not go into extinction, it is also helping to support my family.

When she reached out to me, I was at a low ebb, over my husband’s personal misfortune. Mrs Brown said that with it, I would help to uplift my family. She is right.

Stages of Iria in Bonny and Opobo

In Bonny and Opobo in Rivers State, there is a ceremony called Iria. It is an initiation into womanhood and marriage.

It is in three stages. Kala Egerebite is done when a girl is between fourteen and twenty years old - covering the girl-child, telling her she cannot play naked again because she has started menstruating.

Opu Egerebite is from age twenty to forty - preparing her for suitors. Decorating her and she dances while men look for a wife. This is usually done in December.

Bibite is from age forty. This is done by the lady's husband - to appreciate her, with coral, wrapper, money, etc. 

Because of the economic situation, many now do all the three rites at once, to reduce the cost. 

The teenage girl is confined, for about three months or less, to a fattening room where she will be attended to by her mother and other elderly females in the family who themselves must have performed the Iria. Listen to the narration of the stages of Iria and what happens in the fattening room).

Three days to the ceremony, her skin will be decorated with Kiri ku (brownish dye) and Buruma (native indigo ink).

The person whose skin is decorated or painted is called Iriabo, while the skin decorator is called Buruma geebo. That skill is called Buruma gee - native tattooing or drawing on the skin of Iriabo in an attractive style/design.

This is the skill that Church Teacher insisted that I must acquire.

When she mooted the idea, I declined, saying that people said that it had "Mammy Water" spirit, was diabolical and the decorator must be married to the marine world before she could be able to draw.

I thanked her but said I would not be part of such a supposedly diabolical practice as my mum brought up her children in Christian ways and the Anglican Communion, which I was born into, was where I drew my strength from.

To show her seriousness, Church Teacher said that if she died without teaching me the skill, she would not forgive me.

It was three or four years later that I casually went to meet her to see how she was drawing; the practical way to hold the stick, which we call bala, and applying the mixture of Kiri ku, which is now erroneously called Ede-ala, and Buruma.

When she told me the rules, I felt a bit discouraged.

First, the decorator must not talk while drawing.

Second, she must not allow the bala to fall from her hand.

Third, the clay pot, containing the indigo ink, should not be kept on the ground.

Four, one must not have sexual intercourse prior to the job.

When Church Teacher noticed my loss of interest after she itemised the rules, she still insisted that I must learn the skill.

She explained the reasons for those rules.

For instance, not talking while drawing is to not lose concentration and inspiration and prevent any kind of mistake.

Regarding the clay pot not touching the ground, she said that it is to prevent any incident where someone could mistakenly kick it, meaning going over the mixing of the ingredients, which I shall talk about shortly.

On intercourse, she said because one needs to have strength for the time-consuming and energy-sapping decoration, it was important to conserve one's energy. Which is true.

I understood and I agreed to learn.

I started by learning how to grind the Kiri ku, which is a pod-like seed, the same size and colour with tiger nut, and mix with the indigo ink. It is ground with abee (red mud) for a smooth paste. One soaks agboro – native oranges - with ipapa – apricot - steam overnight, to get a slime liquid. One then mixes it with the Kiri ku and Buruma and one is good to go. All the substances are ground in the pod. One can use handkerchief or anything else to extract the liquid for decoration.

After the skill acquisition

Not long after Church Teacher taught me, she suffered a stroke which she has yet to recover from.

Assuming I had refused her entreaties, how would I have learnt the art or how would I have become known as ‘’D Buruma Boss" in Bonny?

I love to draw flowers and other native designs on the skin of an Iriabo as they are beautiful.

I have gone to Opobo and several other places outside Bonny to draw and earn some income.

Besides the money paid by the Iriabo, the admirers at the function put money into a tray which one goes away with.

To elevate my practice, I went to learn more from another old lady, Sisi Awolayeofori Hart in Abalamabie - a village in Bonny - who is now late.

I am more passionate than ever before on the practice, to the extent that I have gone to several parts of Rivers State – Okirika, Eleme, Ahoada, Emuoha, Ogoni - to see how they practice theirs and their patterns.

If my dad were alive, I believe that he would be glad and proud that I am helping to uphold our custom.

In a bid to pass it on to the next generation, I created a platform called the Buruma/Idala Learners Club for the younger ones in Bonny to learn the practice, but because of the long time it takes to draw, the interest is poor.

Please permit me to state that the Pollyn Wives Association has sponsored at least twenty females to acquire this skill. The association also paid the transport fare of the students.

Nimitamunonengibofor, my twelve-year-old daughter, has taken some interest in drawing and the second, Minaibim, is also taking interest in learning.

I look forward to performing their Iria when the time comes.

I hope that more people will take more interest. That is also why I post my drawings in our language on Facebook. Kindly search for Dinah Atams-Pollyn on Facebook to access my account.

I can also be reached via WhatsApp: +234 703 893 6499.


To NigeriaLNG Limited for logistics support to/fro and on Bonny Island. Pelu Awofeso for the interview. Collins Jumbo for photography. Godswill Jumbo for local guidance. 

To Keep Us Going

Dear Reader, This initiative which started as a demonstration project for an intern of The Journalism Clinic has, before our very eyes, taken a life of its own, demanding a lot more resources than envisaged.
Your kind support will keep us going. You can do so securely here.

Many thanks.
Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
+234 818 693 5900