Wearing tradition, thanaka paste in a Rohingya camp

A Rohingya refugee girl named Majuma, aged 10, poses for a photograph as she wears thanaka paste at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne.

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Swirls of yellow paste made from ground tree bark decorate the cheeks of Rohingya Muslim women and girls in the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.

Thanaka, a type of sun protection that dates back centuries, is a common sight on the faces of the women, who say the use of the traditional cooling paste helps bring a sense of normality to their difficult lives in the camps.

“The make-up is my hobby, and it’s our tradition,” said Juhara Begum, 13, who arrived in Cox’s Bazar in September last year after fleeing a military attack on her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“The military fired guns and slaughtered us,” said Juhara, who had to walk for five days to reach the border. Now, she lives on a hilltop in the crowded refugee camp of Jamtoli.

“I live on top of the hill and it is too hot with the strong sun,” said Juhara, who wore the protective paste on her face.

She is among more than 700,000 Rohingya who have taken shelter in the district after fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar last year, the United Nations and human rights groups say.

Reuters photographed some of the refugees who believe the use of the paste keeps their skin smooth and cool, safe from exposure to the sun, and fends off acne.

Zannat Ara, a nine-year-old Rohingya girl, said the paste protected her against the swarms of insects in the Kutupalong refugee camp where she now lives.

“I wear make-up to keep my face clean and there are some insects that bite my face and this keeps them away, so this protects me,” she said.

Thanaka is produced from the bark of a tree found in the dry central parts of Myanmar. A flat stone called a kyauk pyin is used to grind the bark into a milky yellow paste.

The paste is applied to the face in various patterns and dries into a protective layer. While it is used medicinally elsewhere in Asia, women in Myanmar also use it as a cosmetic.

Rohingya girls and women use traditional methods to make the paste from thanaka tree bark which is sold in the camps.

“I can live without eating rice but I cannot live without makeup,” said Juhara, to whom the paste brings some comfort amid a grueling life in the camps.