Beauty in equality, on the salt flat plains

By | Travel
Yaake dance demonstration. Credit@ Dan Lundberg via Flickr.com

Landlocked between seven neighbouring countries, Niger hosts the sweltering, desert plains and stark landscapes expected of a West African country. Named after the Niger River, this dry land country is dominated by the Sahara desert, influencing heavily, the way of life for the Nigerian people.

Niger resides within the Sahel belt of Northern Africa, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, including the Sahara desert in the north and the Sudanian Savanna in the south. Creating a heavy culture of typically nomadic tribes, known as Fula. One particular subgroup of the African Fula people, are the nomadic cattle herders known as Wodaabe.

Herding and trading on the Sahel belt within Niger, the Wodaabe people follow the rain from south to north, annually travelling in large groups of relatives. Surviving on milk, yoghurt, ground millet and goat meat, this loosely Islamic tribe of Nigerians are both unique and inspiring.

Giraffe rock carving in Tenere Desert, Niger. Credit@Matthew Paulson vai Flickr.com

Giraffe rock carving in Tenere Desert, Niger. Credit@Matthew Paulson vai Flickr.com

The Wodaabe people place heavy cultural importance in beauty and charm. They have developed a code of behaviour that emphasises; reserve, modesty, patience care, forethought, loyalty and fortitude. Women share the same rights as men within this population. Demonstrated perfectly by the Wodaabe Gerewol festival held every September.

Every year nearly halfway through September, the nomads of the Wodaabe tribe make their pilgrimage to the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Particularly in the salt flat plains of In-Gall, this 500 strong town swells to over 50,000 tribe members who gather after the rainy season has finished, to celebrate before dispersing to their dry season pastures. Most commonly known as Cure Salee festival, the town of In-Gall becomes a; marketplace, gathering of different tribes, varied camel races and the ultimate African beauty pageant, the Gerewol.

The Wodaabe Gerewol is unique in many ways. One significant factor is its’ typical role reverse. The tall, nimble men of the Wodaabe are the contestants of this beauty pageant judged by the tribal woman. Faces are pained red, white or yellow with black or white used to accent the lines of symmetry that the Niger locals consider an important aspect of facial beauty.

Wodaabe men in Geerewol Line-up at Festival Tamadacht, Anderamboukane, Mali credit@chris images via flickr.com

Wodaabe men in Geerewol Line-up at Festival Tamadacht, Anderamboukane, Mali credit@chris images via flickr.com

With beauty being paramount to the Wodaabe, along with their beliefs in gender equality, women are encouraged to take many male partners to increase the production of beautiful children. Many Gerewol’s often lead to marriage proposals between the contestants and the judges, the Gerewol is considered one of the most important courtship rituals that birth the traditions of marriage and betrothal this tribe adheres to.

Donned in the traditional ceremonial costumes of their tribe, the men stand shoulder to shoulder and begin to dance and sing to impress their female judges. This is called Yaake, the swaying, singing and chanting in an almost hypnotic fashion. Yaake is carried out all week under the hot desert sun for hours on end, displaying the stamina and determination of the Wodaabe men.

The traditional costume and face paint of the Gerewol pageant. Credit@ Dan Lundberg via Flickr.com

The traditional costume and face paint of the Gerewol pageant. Credit@ Dan Lundberg via Flickr.com

Through out the performance, the women walk along the lines and judge the dancers with a critic’s eye. Each female then points to the man they deem the most attractive, with the clan with the highest number becoming the winners. The women themselves often undergo scarification, a tribal tradition that demonstrates a woman’s tribal affiliations, personal strength and valour.

The Wodaabe Gerewol and Cure Salee festivals are true representations of the values and beliefs this Niger nation holds sacred. These celebrations have become integral parts of their courtship and livelihood. This culture founded on openness, beauty and valour is evident to see, in the Wodaabe people and their way of life.

What might be learnt from the Wodaabe people and their views on gender and culture?

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