ABUJA – Many say the Nigerian tradition of cutting what appear to be stripes or patterns into children’s faces is a dying art. But some parents say the marks are increasingly necessary to keep their children safe.
More than 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria and that number does not include traditional forms of communication, like “talking drums,” which have beats that can be literally translated into words.
Nigerians also communicate with tribal marks that have patterns that identify a person’s ethnicity and homeland.
Ahamed Sarkin Aska, a traditional doctor and the father of 29 children, says the tradition of tribal marks goes back hundreds of years to a time when ethnic wars and the slave trade made parents fear their children would be kidnapped, and later unidentifiable.
"When they see the mark they will call the family and say, 'We catch one of your family is in our hands," he explained. If you have something to come and collect him.'"
Aska says all 100 members of his immediate family have marks on their bodies and faces to protect them, as Nigeria faces security threats like ongoing insurgencies and outbreaks of diseases.
Onojah Abbah Samson is a banker and a father of four. He says his face was marked when he was two years old, during the Biafra War, a gruesome civil war that left between 1 and 3 million people dead in less than three years.
At the time, he says, people were getting marked for fear of being misidentified as a member of a rival ethnic group, and being and kidnapped or killed.
"During the war both old and young - they starting getting marks for identification," Samson said. "It was not merely for those that were born during the war."
It is commonly believed that the marks themselves have health benefits. Many young adult Nigerians say they were marked because they were sickly children, and will only mark their own children if they become ill.
But doctors at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital say the marks actually put children at risk for infections, like Hepatitis B.
Ayowumi Ayanwale Olayanju, Nigeria’s program officer for the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO, says the tradition is losing popularity because it is considered old-fashioned, but he does not believe it harms children.
He says the tradition also has spiritual roots and quotes a Nigerian proverb that likens tribal marks to the rewards of hard work:
"When you make marks, or when the mark is cut it is painful," noted Olayanju. "When it is healed it’s like a free thing, something that you admire. You don’t even feel the pain, you only enjoy the beauty."
Olayanju says he hopes the tradition will be preserved by recognition from UNESCO in the future, even if it is not practiced. But many other parents say as long as Nigeria faces instability and disease, tribal marks will remain an essential part of raising healthy children.