Nigeria's divisive tradition of facial markings fades

A Muslim woman bearing tribal marks on her cheeks poses in Lagos, on July 22, 2019.  -AFP
A Muslim woman bearing tribal marks on her cheeks poses in Lagos, on July 22, 2019. -AFP

IBADAN, NIGERIA - When six-year-old Naziru Abdulwahab was abducted from northern Nigeria, his kidnapper transported him across the country and tried to sell him -- but the potential buyer backed out.

What saved the boy from the child-smuggling rings, police said, was the traditional facial scarring on his cheeks that he had been marked with at birth.

Fearing they would make him too recognizable, the would-be purchaser refused to buy him.

After suspicions were then raised by local residents, the trafficker was arrested and the child rescued.

The incident in June shone a spotlight on the practice of tribal markings that has been fading since the 1980s in the fast-changing country of nearly 200 million people.

Traditional practitioners, known locally as oloola, said it showed the benefits of the practice that critics have long argued is unsafe and child abuse.

"Our taste for foreign things has robbed us of our customs," Mashopa Adekunle, an oloola in the southwestern city of Ibadan, told AFP.

"Nobody wants to put tribal marks on his child anymore. People see the practice as archaic, fetish and unhygienic."

The incisions have traditionally been performed in an array of styles by different ethnic groups in Nigeria.

The scarring is done -- both to boys and girls -- by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood.

From the Yoruba in the southwest, to Igbo in the east and Hausa in the north, the marks serve different purposes: identification, healing, spiritual protection, beautification.

Prominent figures, including ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, have tribal marks on their cheeks.

"In the days of inter-communal wars, tribal marks helped to identify fighters. You would know who were your friends and enemies in the battlefield," said Adekunle.

He agreed that the traditional practitioners needed to move with the times if they wanted to remain relevant -- pointing to the growing numbers of Nigerian youths embracing western-style tattoos.

"The oloola have to do more to convince their critics that their tools are safe for use," he said. -AFP