ABUJA, Nigeria – Masturah Musa kneads a ball of halawa with her fingers. As it begins to soften, she spreads the sticky caramel across her customer’s leg, then pulls it upward. She repeats the motion all over the client’s body until the woman is left with smooth, hairless skin.
Halawa is a hair-removal wax made from melted sugar. Musa adds honey and lime to her mix the way her grandmother taught her. Traditional beauty rituals like halawa, and dilke – a body scrub made with potatoes, cloves, turmeric and oils – as well as durkhaan, a smoke bath made from sandalwood to tighten skin, have been staples in the lives of women in northern Nigeria for countless years.
In the not-so-distant past, such beauty rituals would have been familiar only to the people of the region. Local beauticians have been known to move in with would-be brides for as long as two weeks, administering these treatments in the lead up to wedding celebrations. Their origins can be traced to Sudan and Chad, from where they made their way into most of northern Nigeria.
Now, with the growth of social media and the movement of people between the north and Nigeria’s big cities, these secrets have begun making their way into homes and spas across the country.
Growing Demand for Northern Rituals
“If my grandmother wanted to visit her people or travel, she would do the smoke for three days, after which she would do the halawa wax,” Musa said. “My stepmother, when she wanted to travel, she would do it as well. Or before a wedding, she would say, ‘Let me take care of my body so when I enter the place, I will look good.’”
Musa grew up in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, now most familiar for the Boko Haram insurgency, including the kidnapping of 276 girls from their school in Chibok in 2014.
Her mother died when she was 3 years old, and she was raised by her Sudanese grandmother. Married at 13, she gave birth to her first son, Mustapha, before moving with her new family to Abuja, the country’s capital. In Abuja, word spread quickly among neighbors and friends about her skill as a traditional beautician. By then, she had added henna design and hair-braiding to her repertoire.
“I met a woman whose husband was a senator, and then I started knowing more important people from her,” Musa said. “They would encourage me. I just learned this thing. I didn’t know that one day it would help me.”
Today, Musa, 33 with four children, travels around Nigeria training beauticians in rituals once known only to the cultures of the north. Her earnings help her family with school fees and general household costs. Sometimes her husband doesn’t get paid for months at work, she says, so her income also looks after the household in those times.
In Search of the Northern Glow
When Hadiza Nyako Tukur got married and moved to Lagos from Adamawa State in northeastern Nigeria, she and her business partner, Fatima Waziri Wafailu, wanted to create a place where other northern women could access beauty treatments and rituals in the city.
But after opening the Henna Place in 2014, they were surprised to discover that local women were even more curious than their targeted customers.
“With social media now, everybody sees northern brides, and they come out with a certain glow, and people are asking what these northern girls are doing that is different,” Tukur said.
Placing a basket spread with pastes, powders, seeds, oils and bark on the floor, she explained that the ingredients that have been used for centuries are responsible for that glow.
Musa says she welcomes the addition of formal spas to the northern beauty scene. “I don’t think it takes away business from me,” Musa said. “I actually like it because when people open spas, it means more people know about the business. It means I can teach more people.”
Tukur says the spas also help women back home. Her products are sourced from women living in Maiduguri in Borno State, providing them with a source of income direct from Lagos. She believes that as the demand for the treatments and services grows, it will create a trickle-down effect for women in an unstable area. She also works with women who have fled the conflict.
“A lot of the girls we hire had run away from the insurgency,” she said. “There were so many girls living in Lagos unemployed. So we started training them. We told them that if they can learn to make the products, we can buy from them.”
A Positive Story for a Troubled Region
For many years, northern Nigeria has been fraught with problems, from child marriage and underdevelopment to extremism and sectarian violence.
Though Tukur and Musa are economically worlds apart – Tukur is from a financially comfortable middle-class background, while Musa is working class – they share the belief that opening up beauty practices has been a way to share the positive aspects of their culture with the rest of Nigeria and consequently the world.
“For us, there had been so many negative things coming from the northeast in particular,” Tukur said. “We wanted people to see some kind of positive light.”
Back in Abuja, Musa is raising her four children with her husband, now in his 50s, as well as running her business. Three years ago, she embarked on adult education.
“I still have the hope to study business at university,” she said. “I pray every day. I want to finish school before I open my shop. I will open my own spa. I will teach about three people and still do my home service.”
She also intends to pass on the traditions by teaching her twin daughters, Hassana and Hussaina, just the way her grandmother taught her in Borno State.