The Wodaabe tribe are the herdsmen of the Sahel region in Africa.
Their migratory journeys cover the large number of northern Africa, where they travel with their cattle and families across the arid areas of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic. They are a small, isolated branch of the Fulani ethnic group and are considered by neighbouring tribes as wild, uncivilised people and they speak Fula, but do not read or write the language.
However, the Wodaabe people place great emphasis on beauty and charm, as this plays a vital role in their culture. Each year, the people gather for one week of incredible celebrations known as the GUÉREWOL. This colourful festival is one of Africa’s most spectacular and few westerners are privileged to see it. When it comes to establishing relationships, the responsibility falls to the man who is required to attract the attention of a woman. Because of this, men invest large amounts of time, money, and effort into beautifying themselves. The men dress lavishly and apply makeup to impress and hopefully steal a woman, which also includes other men’s wives. The makeup is meant to accentuate their white teeth, bright eyes and sharp nose, which they believe makes a man attractive. It is always held at the end of the rainy season in the Sahelian zone, which has seasonal rainfall and grass that provides grazing for the cattle.
During this festival, young suitors perform the Yaake dance and it’s been described as the focal point of the festival. Thus, the men will line up and put on their best show, while three women that are specially chosen as judges by the male tribal elders based on their fortitude and patience picks the most attractive male.
The men will often roll their eyes and show their teeth, which they consider the embodiment of male beauty. The participating men dance to the admiration of eligible women in the community looking for their new or next husband, and once a woman is stolen by a lucky man, the new union is accepted by the community except the woman’s husband catches the man in the stealing process or the woman rejects the man in question. Women also offer by themselves to be stolen by any of the participating men they find attractive, leaving their previous husbands behind. The men are seen as a fair game in a society which is polygamous and polygynous.
The women are usually younger and in some cases they may be as young as 12 or 13. For them to take part fully in the GUÉREWOL, the women must have menstruated before the festival and fortunately when choices are made, the women are expected to have sex with the chosen Wodaabe male which they are already aware of but only if the male accepts them. In this case, it may be a one-night affair or may last for longer or most times leading to marriage.
The men dress themselves using a lot of colourful face paints. Their outfits are also vibrantly decorated, embellished with beads, feathers, buttons and baubles in the brightest of colours. Mirrored tunics and hats add to the quality of the cheerful and adorning attires. From a cultural perspective, the overall appearance of these men with the paint, makeup and outfits can only be described as feminine. They dance like male peacocks or birds of paradise, which exhibit their plumage to attract females. They dance endlessly at this festival, along with their ancient rhythms, which are repeated over and over. Overtime, when it getting too hot, they take breaks, but on the last night, they will dance continuously until dawn. The dancers often drink a fermented concoction that has a hallucinogen effects to provide them with the energy they need to dance for long periods. If a husband is infertile, he may ask a fellow tribesman to impregnate his wife. Also, in some cases, men will allow their wives to have sex with more handsome men so they can have more handsome children.
The main purpose of these unusual beauty contests, known as GUÉREWOL, has always been to celebrate the fertility the rains bring to the Wodaabe tribe. As a tribe, they perform the GUÉREWOL for themselves and not for any visitors and this makes this piece of their culture unique. At the same time, it has created an interesting platform or avenue were tourist, researchers or other interested groups or individuals to have built up an excellent local contacts over the years and which has taken them to this remote part of Wodaabe tribe. To stay with these deeply traditional people and also to join them as they come together for feasting, racing, dancing and finding lovers.