Hello Niger, one of the hottest countries on earth and where the Wodaabe nomads range across vast areas of the Sahel with their herds. Once a year, at the end of the rainy season, they gather for a unique beauty contest: one where women can pick the most handsome men as their husbands, even if both are already married.
My first experience of Wodaabe culture sets quite a precedent for the rest of the trip. I am standing in the Niger desert with my guide, Ali, when a man in a long dress and conical hat approaches us. While still about three meters away, he drops to one knee and begins mumbling some words while looking towards the ground. Ali starts to mimic him and, after a minute or so, the two men slowly come together in a handshake. My foreign ear picks up one particular phrase – “Jam Varaka” – repeated over and over by the two men as they hold their handshake for a further minute.
He then turns to me and my handshake begins. For another minute we are locked together mumbling. I begin repeating every word he utters, which turns out to be a good choice since he is asking me about my health and family. It has taken almost three minutes to greet one person and we are expecting more than 1,000 to come to this gathering. Afterwards, Ali says: “Sometimes it takes me half the day just to go to the shop to buy some tea.”
The Wodaabe take their greetings very seriously. That strikes me as understandable in a nomadic people whose highly ritualized culture requires that they never spend more than one week in the same place. I happen to be standing in one such place right now, a remote, nondescript patch of stony desert close to the border with Nigeria and not too many miles from Lake Chad. For the next five days, this place will be the site of Gerewol, a gathering of Wodaabe nomads during which the men and women will take part in a series of fascinating courtship rituals. Forged over many years of cultural evolution, the goal for the majority of its participants will be an intimate encounter (or two) with the opposite sex.
The first such Gerewol in over six years
However that ceremonial flirting has had to take somewhat of a back seat in this particular part of Niger for quite a while. Harsh drought has rendered the local Wodaabe population less inclined to meet in large groups amid their dwindling resources and consequently this is to be the first such Gerewol in over six years.
We set up our camp under a tree in a peaceful spot and spend the rest of the day monitoring the ranks of our congregation as they begin to swell exponentially, people materializing out of what seems like nowhere. Many hours gazing at a barren landscape through the window of our 4x4 on the way here has reinforced that opinion. However this place must be well known to the local Wodaabe. News has obviously traveled fast among these wandering people as families are arriving in droves, their worldly possessions balanced atop donkeys, huge water containers strapped on like panniers. Shimmering silhouettes of men on horseback are advancing towards us through the desert heat haze.
Two young girls scamper past me racing to grab a shady spot under one of the dwindling number of vacant acacia trees close by. A small village is growing up around us and before long our new neighbourhood is alive with activity. Pungent steam is rising from rows of huge pots cooking over family fires and children are resting on wooden beds under the dusk sky. My first night is spent on a mat outside my tent under the stars and I drift off happily, ears caressed by the gentle murmurings of our evolving settlement.
A group of women encircle me
At dawn, first light illuminates my stark new reality and I am quick to surrender the fantasy of my tranquil night-time retreat. As it turns out, I will in fact be spending the next five days sleeping near the epicenter of this gathering and not on its fringes as I had first imagined. I begin walking around and taking photos as a matter of course. Before long a group of women encircle me. They are mostly quite tall with a facial bone structure that would attract much flattery were it to be seen on a London catwalk.
Their dark skin and clothes draw attention to the large rows of golden rings hanging from their ears, hair carefully braided to form intricate patterns. It would seem that Wodaabe women are acutely conscious of their appearance since I notice that most are carrying small hand mirrors in which they are periodically addressing themselves. Each glance no doubt highlights their most striking feature which is without doubt their ubiquitous facial scar tattoos.
On such women – whose appearance would be considered so beautiful in my culture – facial scars should appear grotesque but instead they look magnificent. The age-old scarring technique involves piercing the skin in a pattern and then rubbing the wound with ash to inflame it. The resultant scar eventually heals with the motif more pronounced on the skin.
She doesn’t know what a photo is
As I take pictures I am joined by Mette Bovin, a Danish anthropologist who has been visiting the Wodaabe for many years. She is acting as a consultant and translator for our film crew on this shoot and is very much at home among the women who instantly begin talking to her and asking questions. “She doesn’t know what a photo is... I’m explaining it’s like a piece of paper...” Mette tries to mediate between myself and a striking lady who is tapping me on my shoulder. I show the lady the back of my camera in video mode and she lets out a cry at the sight of the small screen.
“Oh! This is the first time she has seen it...” explains Mette. “She must really be from the bush!” I am reminded how ridiculous I must look to some here when I hold a small black box up to my eye all the time. Fortunately, the novelty is short-lived as the Gerewol is beginning to gain momentum and people have far more pressing things to attend to.
We walk over to a small camp of makeshift tents. Brightly coloured sarongs are suspended from upright sticks creating a harlequin canopy that is sheltering a group of 30 or so men from the ascending sun. Some are drinking tea while others are unpacking the contents of battered old suitcases and passing them round to agreeable nods.
The most beautiful people on the planet
Djao is a tall, striking man. In most cultures I think it is fair to say that he would be considered good-looking. He is Wodaabe however, the member of a tribe who are quite unashamed about the notion that they consider themselves among the most beautiful people on the planet. Djao does not appear gregarious and, in fact his mannerisms are decidedly coy. He is sitting in the shade and begins applying makeup to his face.
“You dance Gerewol to try and win a lover. Even if it means stealing someone else’s wife” he says. Djao’s wife Tembe is close by. She is graceful, tall and strikingly beautiful. I feel uncomfortable with his words but my naivety is short-lived. She is quite candid and quickly says that she has spotted three men here that she likes herself. Later I discover that she is Djao’s second wife who he met at a previous Gerewol.
For centuries, Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes have gathered near the northern town of Ingall at the end of each rainy season in September to let their herds drink the salt-rich water. This Cure Salée or “Salt Cure” is also a time of courtship and marriage in events such as the Gerewol, with the nomads often staying for weeks. In more recent years, the government of Niger has been promoting it as a “Festival of the Nomads”, with a three-day tourism spectacle that includes electronic music, commercial sponsors and beauty contests.
“Teegal” is a love marriage
Traditionalists resented seeing aspects of their own culture suppressed during an event that they felt central government was using to try and impose a national identity on the various tribes. The Wodaabe responded by organizing their own Gerewol in a different place every year. In turn, that has seen the Cure Salée returning more to its roots, while the government and NGOs have also made greater efforts to provide medical outreach to the nomadic families and their herds.
The Wodaabe recognize two forms of partnership between the sexes. “Koobgal” is betrothed marriage, normally arranged before puberty and apparently designed to safeguard a man’s lineage and wealth. “Teegal” on the other hand is a love marriage, the kind that involves the free will of its participants, the passionate flames of which are most definitely fanned within the confines of a Gerewol. While openly celebrating vanity, Gerewol etiquette also allows both men and women to set aside marriage vows without stigma. The absence of this taboo means that everyone is fair game during the festival and no man or woman can take their partner for granted.
The irony of Djao having to apply make-up to himself in order to appeal to women does not go unnoticed by the females in our film crew. Djao on the other hand is far less philosophical. “I’m painting myself because I want to win a girl,” he says.
Tallness is high on the list
His honesty is refreshing. He is not alone. Wodaabe girls turn out to be equally as down to earth, swift to tell me what they consider attractive in a man. Evidently, tallness is high on the list, as are facial symmetry, aquiline nose, white eyes and white teeth. Djao’s make-up and fine costume will help accentuate all these factors as will his style of dance later in the day. For the time being he is applying black lipstick and eyeliner produced from the charred bones of the cattle egret, a bird that the tribe associate with charm, their most favourable personality characteristic. His face paint is prepared from red ochre, a naturally tinted clay containing mineral oxides which produce the vibrant orange colour that the Wodaabe only use on special occasions.
By late afternoon on the first day the party is in full swing. Dotted around the site, small groups of men are gathered, arms linked together and dancing in circles. As they bob up and down they shuffle a little to the left and slowly their circles revolve. Around the perimeter, groups of young girls watch intently. They are poised, shoulder to shoulder, whispering in each other’s ears and laughing. The rules are simple: When the guy you like arrives in front of you, you tap him on the shoulder. The ball is then in his court. If he likes you he can leave the circle and you are both free to elope. Few men resist the call.
I am fascinated by the beautiful costumes and rhythmic acapella, but I’m told that this is only the start. Tomorrow the main events will begin. For now, we choose to settle down under a tree and drink tea around a fire. When I finally lay my head down I am carried off by the rhythmic chants of distant dances.
As much a competition as a flirtation
The second day heralds the start of the centerpiece of the festivities. Unlike the informal circular dances I witnessed yesterday, today the men will be dancing the “Yaake”, a much more regimented and formal expression of their vanity. Yaake is as much a competition as a flirtation. It is the chance for the men to out- and-out compete with each other, not only for the affections of women but also for the cultural accolade of most beautiful man at the Gerewol. This is judged on the last day by a select group of young women.
Yaake is the dance that all the men most wish to excel in. They begin with the obligatory make-up as well as an elaborate haircut both shaved and plaited. Often wives play a vital part in helping their men prepare. It is a cruel paradox of the culture that a Wodaabe woman can be both proud of the husband that she herself has helped to beautify while at the same time run the risk of losing him to another woman for the exact same reason.
Tembe is not reticent. “Djao is handsome,” she says. “He’s tall and a great singer. That’s why I chose him!” There is no doubt that Wodaabe men have a certain grace when they move. A lithe body form is certainly one of the defining characteristics of their gene pool and the addition of tall ostrich plume hats and flowing garments will help accentuate the trait. They adorn themselves with beads and cowry shells and attach small metal tambourines to their ankles to complete the ensemble.
Many appear to have entered a trance-like state
The “Yaak”e dance is one of the most mesmerizing things I have ever seen. Men arrive at the dance site in small groups and take it in turn to stand in line to perform. Opposing them are the foreboding ranks of opinionated women. As the men begin singing, a rhythm quickly evolves and the group begins bouncing up and down in unison, a pulse created by the noise of their ankle bracelets hitting the ground. After 20 or so minutes, the midday heat and exercise are starting to take effect and many of the men appear to have entered a trance-like state.
Then, without warning, the rhythm suddenly halts and the men begin the unusual spectacle of Yaake. Eyes widen, mouths open, lips fluttering to reveal teeth, their heads darting from side to side, nodding like an agitated bird. Shoulder to shoulder, the men struggle for a position at the forefront of the line as their chants turn to indecipherable murmurs. It is said that the best dancers have the ability to channel the spirit of the white egret, a sacred desert bird that forms the inspiration for much of the men’s movements during a Yaake dance. After a few minutes, this performance dies down and the men go back to their singing and hypnotic gyrations.
This circle of events may last for many hours. Spurring on the dancers, older men stand at the front of the lines acting as choreographers, fending off the mischievous old ladies who come forward sporadically from the crowd of women in order to taunt any young men who are showing signs of fatigue. As the men dance, from the women opposite them, eye flutters and subtle gestures signal unspoken affections. The spectacle carries on into the night.
Three are selected as the most appealing
The culmination of the Gerewol is the final Yaake, the “best in show” during which three males are selected as the most appealing. For this, every male at the gathering is expected to come and dance at one time. Three young women, the daughters of previous winners, have been selected as judges. The line-up of men is impressive. Standing three rows deep, they take their turn in the spotlight as the dying sun throws its rays through a dust storm kicked up by their constant jostling for position.
At its climax, the ranks combine to form one magnificent line as the judges begin the highly ceremonial process of picking their winners. Heads bowed down, one arm folded across their bellies, the other with fist pointed to the sky they begin shuffling painfully slowly down the line of cavorting men. As they do so the intensity of the dance builds as each man desperately tries one last ditch attempt to capture their attention. Then all three judges turn and face the line-up, spending a few final considered moments absorbing its affections before one by one they walk towards it.
As the climax arrives, the final victory signal is actually a very understated motion of the woman’s arm towards the man she has chosen. In recognition, the winner bows his head and retreats from the line, revealing no hint of elation or jubilation. Eyes still cast downward, the judges then quietly disappear back into the crowd of women.
And so, void of any fanfare, this extraordinary spectacle is suddenly over with a gaceful display of modesty. It takes me by surprise. Another year of nomadic life begins again in the morning.