Once a year, at the end of the rainy season, the Wodaabe people of Niger gather for a unique beauty contest. The "Yaake" dance, a unique spectacle of color, energy and virile pride, is considered to be the highlight of the event.
During the so-called Gerewol, women can pick the most handsome men as their husbands, even if both are already married. 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 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 being the most beautiful man at the Gerewol. This is judged on the last day by a select group of young women.
The Yaake 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. The midday heat and exercise gradually start 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.
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.
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, devoid of any fanfare, this extraordinary spectacle is suddenly over with a graceful display of modesty. It takes me by surprise. Another year of nomadic life begins again in the morning.