The crowd parted to reveal two young women, hair covered by shawls. They had been perusing the dancers during the melée and now, chaperoned by an elder, they stepped forward. They seemed very young but, as Elena explained, they would have commenced menstruation shortly before Gerewol, and had been chosen for their ‘maturity’. They are N’japto and, to seal cross-clan alliances, they are ushered towards the caramel-faced Sudosukai boys.
The girls approached the dancers with measured steps, right arms swinging mechanically and eyes downcast, displaying semteende (reserve) – a prized trait in the Wodaabe’s pulaaku, or code of behaviour. By now the Gerewol boys had become frenzied, their eyes popping from their skulls. Yet the moment of selection itself was so tender. The first girl leaned forward to gently touch the arm of her chosen boy, then hurriedly turned away as he sank to his knees before other dancers lifted him back up. She joined a female dossa gyrating to a fast-paced clapping, while the boys kept dancing and straining as the second girl moved in to make her selection known.
What would be next for the ‘happy’ couple, I asked?
“They will go off into the bush to have sex,” said Elena. “They may decide that it’s a one-night stand, or they might work out a way to be together longterm. Wodaabe society is patrilocal, so, if they stay together, the woman will join her new partner’s family on migration.”
On that last evening, the men danced through the night, their enthusiasm undiminished till dawn, make-up smeared, larynxes strained, kids asleep in the dust around where they’d dropped.
Elena sees Gerewol as a joyous release from the rigours of the Wodaabe’s nomadic existence. “It’s become so hard for them,” she says. “There is too much grazing pressure in Chad, too many animals. They must compete with other herders for water, and the government is pressurising them to become more sedentary so they can be controlled. You are witnessing a culture at the crossroads.”
At sunrise, I watched one final selection of a beautiful boy by a female before the crowds dissolved back to their suudu and began disassembling camps, ready to migrate once more. Gerewol was over.
Elder men saddled up decorated horses and rode ahead to seek fresh grazing, followed by donkeys loaded with children and calabashes of water and milk, while cows bore the suudu mobile homes. The Gerewol dancers packed away their costumes, and younger boys who were yet to dance drove the docile bovines with sticks.
It would be another year of waiting for the boys before they would once again dance into the spotlight. In my mind’s eye, they were dancing still as I remembered an African culture at its most exhilarating. Not all of the beautiful boys had sown their wild millet, but I’d definitely found love among the acacias.