… The Wodaabe are a nomadic people populating the Sahel desert of West Africa. Once a year in a few select locations, their tribe gathers to celebrate the fantastic tradition of Gerewol, often referred to in the popular press as a male beauty pageant. In early 2009 I travelled to an area of Niger close to Lake Chad with a BBC Human Planet film crew in order to document this incredible spectacle.
Attending this Gerewol was a real eye opener for me. I’d seen many pictures of the Wodaabe’s beautiful pageants before and I must admit I was expecting to see a rather dumbed down version of this tradition… it’s the 21st century after all, and those of you that travel will know only too well that many of the world’s colourful cultural spectacles have been somewhat hijacked by the tourist industry of late, an inevitable result of the explosion in cheap travel and general international commerce.
Luckily for myself and the crew, we were fortunate enough to end up at a Gerewol that was completely off the tourist track. It was large, as they go (apparently) and we were the only foreign visitors who attended, a testament in most part to the fact that the BBC had been working very closely for a year with a Danish anthropologist called Mette Bovin, who had lived and worked with the Wodaabe in Niger for many years. The resulting personal invite to attend from a local Wodaabe King took us deep into the desert where we camped alongside the Wodaabe for a week. Here’s the story…
Wodaabe culture is absolutely fascinating. From their incredibly elaborate greetings (often lasting minutes each time) to the wonderful spectacle of Gerewol… all their traditions are born from a life lived on the move and in isolation. In a society such as theirs, gatherings like Gerewol are a hugely important part of what exists of their social scene, and when word gets out on the bush telegraph that a gathering is occurring, people come from many miles around to attend.
The Wodaabe are an unashamedly vain people. I love this about them. In the UK we are taught coyness and restrain from a very young age. The result in later life is a rather confusing set of cultural dating conventions, where a man is often ashamed to follow his primordial urge to show off to a woman as a ploy to attract her attentions. The Wodaabe have no such issues. Vanity is celebrated in their culture and at the Gerewol, their beautiful men prepare themselves painstakingly carefully and then perform in front of an opinionated female crowd in the hope of attracting their affectations.
Of course, the other exciting thing about Wodaabe culture is that the responsibility lands upon the men to beautify themselves and appeal to the women, a societal quirk that defies a world wide tradition of the reverse.
The dances are the focal point of any Gerewol. Aside from the main dance spectacle of Yaake during which a specially selected trio of women choose the prettiest man in any one line up, there are many secondary dances which occur in circular formations, and spring up spontaneously throughout the week.
During these dances, the men stand shoulder to shoulder and slowly move round the circle as they dance. Behind them stand the eligible women of the tribe who wait until their favourite beaux passes by, at which point they tap him on the shoulder to signal their interest.
The Yaake dance, however is the one every man wants to excel in. It’s the dance that they spend the most time preparing for, something similar to ‘Best in Show’ at Crufts… any man who is chosen as the most attractive in a Yaake line up will never be short of female amorous attention. Preparation involves the application of elaborate makeup derived from colourful desert plants and clay and the women of the tribe (often the men’s betrothed wives) plait their men’s hair with pin point precision.
When adorned and ready, the men begin their dance marathon, the boisterous, welcoming Raume dance in which they sporadically mimic the posture and movements of the magical white egret. Wodaabe women favour tallness, white eyes and teeth, and facial symmetry in their men, and both the dance and makeup job serve to accentuate these features.
Opposite the dancers stands a judgmental female entourage.
Of these women three are specially chosen as a jury to pick the most attractive male, often the daughters of previous winners.
At the height of the dance, each of the three girls shuffles painfully slowly down the line of dancing men with her arm up and head bowed and upon reaching her winner, drops her arm to point him out.
Every Wodaabe girl and boy has an arranged marriage, but there is always the possibility of a second love marriage, so Gerewol is a dangerous time. Not only may flirtation lead to romance but your own man may be stolen by another woman. All the girls remain on their guard. Such love marriages will give a man enhanced sexual and social status. They can last a day, a week or a lifetime but will never carry any social stigma.
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When I visited Niger for this Gerewol, the Canon 5D Mark II was just about to come out. I took one with me to the desert to give the video feature a test drive and together with BBC cameraman Toby Strong, we cut together a rudimentary short film of me shooting amongst a group of dancing Wodaabe women.
Obviously, things have moved on a lot since those tentative first steps with DSLR movie making, but here’s the result we got back then…
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Click HERE to see a clip of the Gerewol from Human Planet‘s ‘Deserts: Life in the Furnace’ programme
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