“What’s up with the mark under your eye? What does it mean?”

That’s a question that my musician husband, Alex Boyé, is commonly asked when he steps off stage.

He’s known for it, and until I knew the whole story, I saw the mark as simply branding. He takes white makeup (or whatever he can find — eye liner, a white marker, kid’s play makeup, if he’s desperate) and draws a thick white line under his right eye, right on top of the cheekbone. It’s similar to how football players wear “eye black.”

But one day while we were dating, Alex explained to me why he wears the mark, and my outlook was forever changed. It represents a different kind of branding — one that originated during times of slave trading, and as horrific as it seems, the mark was designed to keep families together.

For Nigerian mothers, cutting or burning stripes or patterns into their children’s faces was a way they could later recognize their children if they were kidnapped or otherwise separated during ethnic wars. It’s something hard for me to wrap my mind around.

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My husband’s parents are Nigerian, and Alex told me that when he was a young boy, he fought as his uncle tried to pin him down to mark his face to represent the Yoruba tribe. At that point, it was more for tradition than safety. Because he fought so hard, his mother told his uncle to stop, although he was marked on his arms, near his elbows.

Today, he paints on a mark mark to pay homage to his native land and to always remember who and where he came from.

British-American singer Alex Boyé has changed the white mark he usually wears on his face while performing to yellow and blue, the colors of Ukraine.
British American singer Alex Boyé has changed the white mark he usually wears on his face while performing to yellow and blue, the colors of Ukraine. | Erin Holmstead Photography

As I see what’s happening in Ukraine, I think of the desperate Nigerian mothers — in fact, mothers the world over who have had to do unthinkable things to protect their children.

I watch the Ukrainian mothers fleeing the war with children in their arms as bombs explode, while my toddlers nap peacefully in their beds with white noise playing in the background.

I see social media posts about families who are trapped in Kyiv and mothers who are trying to make a bottle or nurse during the ongoing attacks, while I get to nurse my babies in a comfortable recliner while mindlessly scrolling on my phone. 

I see good people raising money to send essential supplies to Ukrainian families — like formula and diapers and emergency thermal blankets — while I warm a bottle in the microwave and grab a disposable diaper in my heated house. 

I wish I could swoop up all the babies and assist those exhausted mothers; I wish I could cuddle and sing lullabies to them. I wish I could put my arms around all the mothers: the mothers of scared Ukrainian children, the protesting mothers of Russian soldiers, the mothers leaving their sons behind to defend their homeland, and the mothers everywhere just wishing to raise their babies in a safe world. 

Motherhood is hard enough when all is right in the world. 

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It’s an eery realization to know that just as Nigerian babies were marked for identification so that their mothers could recognize them as adults, Ukrainian babies, too, will be marked with the scars from shelling, air raids, hunger and heartbreak. 

People all over the world are proudly displaying the colors of Ukraine in solidarity with those suffering there. My husband, too, has changed the white mark on his face to yellow and blue. Today we pay homage to Ukraine.

Their marks are now the world’s marks.

Julie Boyé and her husband, Alex, live in Sandy, Utah, with their eight kids and goldendoodle. They have a family website, theboyefamilyjewels.com. Find them on Instagram or YouTube @theboyefamilyjewels.

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