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 scarrings on his cheeks that he had been marked with at birth.
Fearing they would make him too recognisable, 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 reporters.
“Nobody wants to put tribal marks on his child anymore. People see the practice as archaic, fetish and unhygienic.”
On the battlefield –
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 south-west to Igbo in the south-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.
‘Facial mutilation’ –
Opponents have pushed for a country-wide ban on facial markings.
In 2017, the Nigerian Senate debated a bill for the “prohibition of facial mutilation” that would have introduced punishments for those who perform it and protection for those at risk.
Proponents of the move argued that the “barbaric” practice left people disfigured for life and put them at risk of contracting HIV.
The proposed legislation is currently bogged down in parliamentary procedure.
The practice of facial markings has been waning for around 40 years, said the Oloola Descendant Association in Ibadan, whose members barely carry out one case a month now, compared to about 10 in the 1980s.
Sefiu Yusuf, the association’s head, insisted that there was still a role for traditional methods, as he showed reporters his metal instruments wrapped in white handkerchiefs at his dark clinic.
He inherited his position from his father and said his family had long been known for performing circumcisions.
“Only yesterday, a boy was brought here because our patrons believe in our ability,” Yusuf told reporters, at his dilapidated home in the centre of the city.
“Even doctors and nurses seek our help when they have complicated cases.”
He dismissed criticism that his practices were unsafe.
“It’s a smear campaign by NGOs and people in government to… put us out of business,” he said.
For another Ibadan-based oloola, Babatunde Hamzat, the decline of the tradition has had serious consequences for the Nigerian society.
He said its loss had contributed to the high levels of crime in the country.
“In the time of our fathers, a child with tribal marks would not want to commit any crime for fear of being identified,” he said.
“But nowadays, people commit crimes with levity since there is nothing to identify them with.”
‘Preserve family identity’ –
Trader Dauda Lawal, 60, proudly sports the facial marks his parents gave him as a child and says he was happy to do the same to his offspring.
“Being the first son, my parents gave me tribal marks. Though the practice is dying, I still made sure my first son got it to preserve the family identity,” he said.
Lawal claimed his wife married him because of the facial marks he bears.
But he is not sure if his son will follow suit.
“I will be happy if he does a similar thing to his own son because it’s part of our culture that should not be allowed to die,” he said.
That positive view of facial marking is not shared by everyone.
“I can never allow tribal marks on my child’s face because the practice is old-fashioned and unhealthy,” said Lagos beautician Damilola Ajayi.
She said that she was firmly opposed on both health and aesthetic grounds.
“In these days of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, it’s risky to use unsterilised instruments such as the ones used by the oloola on a child’s body,” she said.
“I also cannot date, not to talk of marrying, a man with tribal marks. It’s disgusting.”
A Nation Making Huge Strides in Rebuilding
Rwanda is making significant progress in moving on from its ugly past
In April 1994, ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority boiled over, and what had been decades of mutual distrust ultimately escalated into a full-blown catastrophe. Over 800,000 Tutsi were murdered by Hutu militant groups, with many women raped, and hundreds of thousands of children rendered homeless.
The genocide, which stretched for three months, was met with a slow response from the international community, and many people were forced to flee into neighbouring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The events of that dark period in Rwandan history illustrated in movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sometimes in April”, left a trail of effects, some of which included post-violence trauma, increased distrust, hate and proliferation of pregnancies as a result of rape.
Twenty-five years have passed, and it has been a long, tortuous road to healing for all Rwandans, but commendable efforts have been made. Reconciliation and rehabilitation centres abound in various parts of the country, and there has been significant investment in technology, making Rwanda one of the few shining lights in a continent plagued by poverty and corruption. It is also worthy of note that there is significant female representation in Rwanda’s legislative houses: for context, Rwanda has one of the world’s highest proportions of women in power as 61% of members of parliament and 50% of the cabinet are female.
One aspect of the reconciliation process that needs elaboration, though, is the social work profession. Established after the genocide, social work has been integral to Rwanda’s healing process, through homegrown solutions or indigenous models of development that address the many layers of social wounds. Social workers in Rwanda have been heavily involved in programmes such as community work, local collective action and the indigenous practice of girinka, which makes for the provision of one cow for every poor family. There are also initiatives, such as the Hope and Homes for Children, which cater to children who may have been abandoned as a result of parental trauma resulting from rape, family isolation, drug abuse, vulnerability and stigma towards children with disabilities.
Rwanda’s success story is one that many African nations can take a cue from. Who is to say that countries like Sierra Leone would not be a lot better off if there were more women in positions of power? What if there had been more concrete efforts to ensure reconciliation between the Igbo and the rest of Nigeria after the civil war? These are the unanswered questions, but it is beautiful watching Rwanda thrive after the horror show of 1994.
How young people are changing the African narrative
For non-Africans who have never visited the continent, the perception of the second largest continent in the world has always been that of a place of impoverishment and raw savagery; a place ravaged by horrible epidemic and war.
This is largely attributable to an agenda-driven western media which sell these bogus tales about Africa to their global audience viewing the world through their reportage. Sadly, some of our local media are also guilty of this disservice to the mother continent.
As much as Africa, like other continents have its challenges, the positive stories to tell about the continent far outweighs the negativity found therein.
The good news, however, is that young Africans – the new generation, are striving to change the negative narrative of Africa through their excellence in different fields within and outside the continent.
These young Africans are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in their respective fields of interests, discovering new things and making landmark achievements. Whether in Technology, Fashion, Literature, Music and more, they are forging paths necessary for the sustenance of development in Africa. These crop of individuals are passing the message that Africa has a lot to offer the world through its rich human resources. What better way to be true ambassadors of the continent?
Let us take a look at some of the young individuals championing the change of an age-long African perception in their different fields.
Technology & Innovation
Over the years, we have seen some of the most innovative minds in technology come from Africa. Notable figures like Philip Emeagwali who invented the world’s fastest computer and who also won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize for an application of the CM-2 massively-parallel computer, Jelani Aliyu who designed the Chevrolet Volt, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, among very many others make this list.
One young African that is gradually making waves in technology is 35-year-old Jamila Abbas. Abbas is a Kenyan computer scientist and software engineer who is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of MFarm Kenya Limited. MFarm is an android application that Abbas developed to solve the challenge of lack of pricing transparency Kenyan farmers faced.
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