Those of you who have known me for a long time are aware that I spent many years in academia and that my research centered around choice and decision-making. Well, I am back from a journey to the Gerewol (also called Guerewol) festival, where for once, two of my main interests (photography and decision-making) collided. At this festival, the Wodaabe, a tribe of nomadic cattle herders, meet to celebrate the end of the rainy season and enter a one-of-a-kind beauty contest. Counter to expectations, it is the Wodaabe men rather than the women who are on display. They go to great lengths to beautify themselves and then dance for hours with the Wodaabe women carefully observing to appreciate their style and skills and pick a winner among them. Furthermore, in some cases the women use the beauty contest to pick a mate, so a lot is at stake here. High-stakes decision-making with women in the driving seat! Perfect!
But before we get to the details of the festival, a little about the Wodaabe, a subgroup of the Fulani (also called Peuhl people) and the only remaining fully nomadic tribe of this ethnic group. There are 15 lineages of Wodaabe, and they live in small clans roaming around all year so that they can feed their cattle. They are mostly found in Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon, and it is reported that there only about 150,000 of them left, a rough estimate since there is no official census tracking them. The Wodaabes have an exacting view of what constitutes beauty and it impacts every aspect of their life, a surprising fact given the strenuous conditions in which they live.
Though the most famous Gerewol festival is held in Niger, there are Gerewol festivals wherever they are Wodaabe people. I attended the one in Chad, which takes place in the heart of the Sahel desert, far away from any road access. (By four-wheel-drive vehicles it took us about 9 hours to get to the festival site from the city of N’Dajema, and how we were able to find the site is beyond me. Obviously, there was no “destination” to plug into GoogleMaps, or roads for that matter, but we did have a chainsaw handy which we used to clear a path when necessary).
Amusingly enough, when we arrived we were greeted with great curiosity (curiosity reciprocated by us) not by the Wodaabes (except for a few children) as only a few families have arrived, but instead by Chadian “œbusinessmen” decked out in their attire of robes and turbans. They come to the festival to sell to or barter with the Wodaabes.
The next day, though, we see, “caravans” of people walking with children on the back of donkeys and hordes of majestic cattle making their way to the site. The first group arriving is the host clan, the Sudosukai, but other clans subsequently make their way, most notably, the colorful N’Japto. There are also performance rehearsals going on. At the end of the first afternoon, we hear singing and find the men dancing away while still dressed in everyday attire.
Then it is the “getting ready” time: attending to make-up, hair, costumes, and feathers, every man is working hard at making themselves look beautiful. This is just the final stage of preparation since they have been working on their costumes for months, embroidering their tunics with amazing skills. Every Wodaabe man involved in the festival is now preening, spending intense time staring at hand-held mirrors. Wodaabe men are known for always paying attention to their appearance, but there is extra care taken now. Everyone tries to help with the women doing their clansmen’s hair, mothers helping their sons, and men helping one another even though they are competitors at some level.
This was followed that night by a practice dance, though again without the full attire we would see the next few days. Amusingly, a few locals shine torches on the performers, a fleeting source of light in the darkness of the night for a desperate photographer. But one has to anticipate where the light will be next: it is a bit like having an assistant holding strobes but not knowing where he will aim next.
The festival goes on for seven days. The “official dance” is a form of line dancing with men swaying and singing a rather strange (for us), repetitive, almost hypnotic song while moving their eyes and teeth. The dancers look stunning. Clearly, all those preparations paid off. The Wodaabe’s criteria for judging beauty are well-defined: a handsome man has white teeth, eyes, an elongated narrow nose, and is tall. All of the make-up and costumes are designed to enhance the appearance of these dimensions. Dark lipstick and eye make-up are applied to increase the apparent whiteness of the eyes and teeth; feathers make them look taller, and a line on the nose is used to make it look finer. The dance moves also highlight the eyes and teeth. But each clan has its own particular style. While the Sudosukai paint their faces in deep hues of red and orange, the N’Japto decorate theirs with patterns of white dots and wear ostrich feathers on their heads. As our tents were “conveniently” located very near the performance site, I can personally attest that the dancing goes on ALL NIGHT, that is, until dawn. The Wodaabes’ stamina gets a little help from a magic “tea”: a fermented bark that reputedly has a hallucinogenic effect. Old ladies and the master of dance also cheer the men on from time to time. The only thing that interrupted the dancing was a rather violent wind and rain storm, but the dancers only stopped performing after everyone else had already left to find shelter.
As for the women, most of the time they stay together, giggling and watching intensely, though occasionally they form a circle and start dancing among themselves.
Finally, three young women serve as designated judges. These young women eligible for marriage pick their favorite among the line-up of dancers. (Some of the dancers are already married, but since the Wodaabe are polygamous, they are still in the game.) One by one (apparently, the daughter of the most prominent family goes first), the three young women stand in front of the line to make their selection. They do so very slowly. (I thought painfully slowly, I had already made my hypothetical pick and would have been happy to offer some advice). Finally, after assessing all the alternatives, she gently touches one of the young men’s hands. Then there is cheering from all over, the chosen young man is congratulated by his friends, and the dance continues.
What happens next is a matter of dispute. Is the chosen young man simply one of the winners of the beauty contest or is he a spouse to be for this young woman? Some articles in the popular press have claimed that this is how spouses are selected, but more rigorous publications claim that there is more to spouse selection than winning the dance. But everybody agrees that winning the contest is a huge honor and that the dance is an opportunity for women, not just the three official judges, to pick a potential mate, perhaps for a night or for life. Even married women who think they can improve on their current spouses can participate.
So clearly, there is much to learn about this beauty contest and its role in the selection of a mate as one trip does not provide all the answers. Maybe another trip for further data collection is warranted (actually it would probably take years to get this right). But one thing is sure, it was a magical thing to be part of.
P.S. For the curious ones, a very short video of the N’Japto dancing
P.S.S. On my next post, I’ll share a bit about the lifestyle of the Wodaabes.