ABUJA, Nigeria — Hundreds of years ago, as a reaction to rampant kidnappings and the devastating slave trade, Nigerians began cutting patterns into their children’s faces to make them easily identifiable.
Today, 32 years since the last civil war and almost 150 years since the United States abolished slavery, the practice continues. Some parents say that’s just how dangerous modern Nigeria remains.
Ahamed Sarkin Aska, a traditional doctor, said his 29 children are all protected by tribal marks. If one of his kids is lost, any one can look at the parallel slashes etched into their joints and stomachs and recognize the family’s sign.
“Anyone can see the mark and transfer the boy back to the house,” he told GlobalPost in his unlit home in the capital, Abuja.
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Such markings can be found all over Nigeria, from the mostly Muslim north to the mostly Christian south, and are used as a means to protect children from an array of modern-day threats.
Northern Nigeria faces an ongoing insurgency that has left about 1,400 people dead in the past three years. In the south, there is deep resentment against oil companies that make fortunes while locals live in abject poverty. As a result, what was a full-blown uprising a few years ago is now a simmering security crisis with increasingly frequent kidnappings.
In Nigeria’s volatile “middle belt,” an intensifying sectarian conflict also threatens the safety of Nigerian children. In July, about 5,500 people were forced to flee their homes after deadly ethnic clashes in Plateau State. Thousands more were evacuated a few weeks later into makeshift camps when the military moved into the area. Flooding in central and eastern Nigeria has also left 100,000 people homeless in recent months. Aska said parents worry small children could get lost in the chaos if they are forced to flee battles or floods.
On a breezy porch overlooking a mosque, Onojah Abbah Samson, a banker, said his face was marked when he was 2-years old, during the Biafra War, a gruesome civil conflict that left between one and three million people dead in less than three years.
At the time, he said, people were getting marked for fear of being misidentified as a member of a rival ethnic group, and being kidnapped or killed. Despite today’s security threats, however, he has not marked any of his four children. Things may not be great now, he said, but they are better than they used to be.
“We are now in a civilized world,” he told GlobalPost. “There’s no need for that.”
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Despite their dark history, tribal marks have become a valued part of Nigerian heritage.
In a cramped office in the Ministry of Culture, Ayowumi Ayanwale Olayanju, Nigeria’s program officer for UNESCO, the UN cultural organization, flipped through a book of drawings, pointing out different patterns that represent some of Nigeria’s hundreds of ethnic groups.
Olayanju said he hopes UNESCO will preserve the tradition in the future, even if it is not practiced. The tradition has spiritual roots, he said, quoting a Nigerian proverb that compares tribal marks to the rewards of hard work.
"When the mark is cut it is painful,” he told GlobalPost. “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."
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When he travels abroad, Olayanju said he often meets Nigerians from his tribe who admire his marks, nostalgic for their homeland.
“The respect people gave me in Brazil was so much. They saw me and recognized me as an ancestor,” he said. “They were so happy when they saw [the marks] they had their photograph taken with me.”