My last blog post was about the colorful Gerewol (Gerewol) festival, a unique beauty contest where men from the Wodaabe tribe prettify themselves and dance for hours on end, hoping to be picked by Wodaabe women as a winner, and possibly a mate. Though my main purpose was to witness this festival, I also tried to get a sense of daily life for a Wodaabe, particularly for a woman. Not surprisingly, the answer is that life is HARD.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Wodaabes are nomadic cattle herders, one of the few remaining nomadic groups worldwide. Nomadic herdsmen are always on the move as they depend entirely upon their herds of cattle for their existence. Sadly, however, this is a way of life that the Wodaabes may not be able to pursue much longer as many of their traditional grazing areas are now devoted to agriculture, making it harder for them to find pastures for their cattle. In the meantime, though, as it has been for hundreds of years, men are in charge of the beloved cattle, and women are in charge of, well, everything else.
As extended families of Wodaabes began arriving at the site of the festival and setting up camps, it became clear that women have enormous responsibilities. First, they must transport everything they own: pieces to put together their dwellings, mats, clothes, cooking utensils, children, newborn animals, and many large calabashes (and they have to be ready to do so frequently as the search for pastures and water may require them to move as often as every few weeks). Everything that cannot walk on its own goes on the back of a donkey or an ox.
After the chosen location is reached, donkeys are unloaded and it is time for the women to set up camp. Their main dwellings are table-like structures, called “wuros”, that can be dismantled and reassembled quickly. It basically consists of a few wood poles and two shelves. On the top shelf, the precious calabash gourds are displayed. Many of them have been beautifully carved and decorated and are the woman of the house’s pride. The second shelf is used to keep things that would be damaged if on the ground and is also where the babies sleep. The rest of the family sleeps next to the wuros on a tarp where other daily activities take place as well. An extended family has a few wuros next to one another in a specific order, starting with the one occupied by the elders.
Women are also responsible for feeding the family, so they milk the cows, the milk being their main source of food. Butter and “yogurt” are made from fresh milk by shaking a calabash for hours. Millet, a grain they typically get from bartering milk at the market, is another one of their staples. So, the women are often seen pounding millet, no doubt an exhausting task.
Women or girls are also responsible for getting water to the camp. So, they get set up daily with a donkey and a collection of yellow containers to fetch the water they need. I followed a group of young girls doing their water chores for a while amidst a lot of giggling and chatting on their part, probably wondering why I was going with them. It is also possible they were betting that I would not make it as it was too hot and too far, and if so, they were right. I abandoned them halfway to return and rest under a shady tree, which was not an option for them.
Children help with all the chores and start doing them very early. Young girls help the women take care of younger children (which there are plenty of), and young boys cannot wait to be able to help herd the cattle. Boys typically begin this job at age seven and are very proud when they have reached that stage. They looked so comfortable around the big-horned zebu cattle; I, on the other hand, was keeping my distance.
As I said earlier, the men mostly spend time with the cattle, but they enjoy drinking tea which they generously share with guests. The Wodaabe are renowned for their knowledge of “maagani”, which are traditional remedies that cure illnesses and chase away evil spirits. Hence, men are often busy making “magical” potions on the fire. Another one of their responsibilities, which they take very seriously, is that they must be beautiful as they are responsible for attracting women. So even when men are not dancing at the festival, they pay great attention to their looks.
So yes, it is hard to be a Wodaabe, but it does not prevent them from being extremely kind and welcoming to strangers. The elders teach the young ones a set of values they have to live by (refer to as Pulaaku), among others, to be honest, patient, wise, respectful, and modest, and not to bring shame to themselves or the community. No doubt that they learned their lessons quite well. On the second day there, I dropped my cell phone on the ground without noticing it and moved on in the excitement of witnessing a dance. A young man came and asked the few foreigners there which one of us had dropped this phone so that he could return it to the right person.
The main lesson learned tough? and maybe an important one for the Holiday season is the fact that the Wodaabe’s entire belongings fit on the back of a donkey and quite frankly they look as happy as we do. Maybe something we can all reflect on.
Happy Holidays to All!
P.S. My visit with the Wodaabe was clearly too short to get to know them. For those who crave more, I found two fabulous books to be very informative. The first “Nomads of Niger” is by Carol Beckwith, the well-known photographer of African tribes co-authored with Marion van Offelen, an anthropologist. The second “Nomads who Cultivate Beauty” is by Mette Boivin, also an anthropologist.