Around early October, the nomadic Wodaabe people gather in south-western Chad for Gerewol – a unique festival at which young men beautify themselves and dance through the night to win love…
The beautiful boys shimmied at sunrise. Eyes shone brightly that should have been bloodshot from dancing through the night. Ivory-white teeth were clenched between rictus lips, fixed in endless grins to drive the watching Wodaabe women wild with desire.
The circadian rhythm of Chad continued its endless pulse, a rhythm of dance and love, fading stars and throbbing heat. And at 7am, the Gerewol glamour boys were at it yet again.
After a sticky night sweltering under the constellation of Scorpius, I unzipped my tent and traipsed across the sandy dirt to the mess tent where Hugo, our chef, was rustling up some much needed coffee. I grabbed a cup and my camera, and set out to join the audience at Africa’s most surreal beauty pageant.
Already, half a dozen young men of the Sudosukai clan were performing a psychedelic line dance, their faces painted caramel and speckled with little white motifs and dots, sporting sleeveless Technicolor dreamcoats adorned with beads and magical gris-gris amulets reflecting animist beliefs. By contrast, the more heavily scarified N’japto boys plumped for a fetching scarlet rouge with blue-painted lips; they’d donned lime-green turbans with ostrich feathers, and homemade sashes hung with cheap plastic whistles that jangled as they pogoed in the early morning light.
It was going to be a long final 24 hours at the Gerewol. I headed back to camp for breakfast, safe in the knowledge that the boys would be dancing well into the night in the pursuit of love – or, at the very least, a one-night stand amid the acacias.
The nomadic Wodaabe are an ethnic Fulani people who range across the Sahel grasslands of Chad and Niger, grazing the long-horned m’bororo cattle that are the apple of their eye. Each year Wodaabe gather to perform Gerewol – an extraordinary courtship ritual during which young males woo females with displays of their beauty. Over past years this festival has been more commonly associated with neighbouring Niger, but most of that country is currently off-limits to visitors as a result of increasing numbers of incidents related to Islamic insurgency. Chad offers a somewhat safer alternative.
My quest to experience Gerewol began in Chad’s capital, N’djaména. Finding the event is difficult – there is no fixed location, precise timing is hazy (it might not happen at all after drought), and exploring rural Chad calls for a 4WD – so I joined a small-group tour led by Elena Dacome, an Italian anthropologist. As we set out on our expedition, Elena, who has written a book about her migration with the Wodaabe, shared her vast knowledge of this people. First she described their nomadic lifestyle: they travel in subgroups of 15 to 20 families, each with some 50 to 70 head of cattle, these disparate clans congregating around early October each year for the Gerewol.
“It’s a rites-of-passage ceremony during which the girl has a right to choose a boy,” she explained. The girls choose the young men after assessing their ‘beauty’, according to distinct Wodaabe criteria: how well they dance and strike a pose, and particularly how they display the whiteness of their eyes and teeth. “A girl may spend one night with a boy she chooses at the Gerewol, or the rest of her life,” added Elena. So much for romance; our briefing continued with more prosaic warnings: to check our boots for scorpions when camping, and to look out for snakes when squatting in the bush.
Our long drive south into the Dourbali region began with a trundle through the unkempt streets of N’djaména. The capital is no great shakes, its roads clogged by motorcycles and taxis, and lined with half-finished buildings and restaurants on whose walls murals of camels leave few doubts about the dish of the day. Frequent military checkpoints were sobering reminders that the borders with Nigeria and northern Cameroon, where Boko Haram militants launch frequent attacks, are just a few kilometres from Chad’s capital. But we never felt in any danger.
Some 50km south of N’djaména, the tarmac ran out. The flat Sahel stretching away to either side of the track was checkered with irregular fields of red-tinted millet; zebu cattle grazed sandy grassland whose soils simply crumble away if the rains are delayed. Local transport is almost exclusively donkey or ox-cart, and I saw no functioning hospitals or schools in the mud-brick villages.
At Karnak we obtained police permits to continue, then bumped onwards through the bush – then broke down. It was pitch black by the time we finally arrived at the Gerewol gathering and pitched our tents. A thick mass of distant galaxies twinkled above the shadowy outlines of m’bororo cattle and clusters of Wodaabe sitting around flickering fires.
We quickly settled into a steady groove. Each of our six days at the Gerewol would follow a familiar rhythm set by the waves of energetic performance in ferocious heat.
Typically, after an early morning dance, the boys slunk back to the shade to repair their make-up. We took the opportunity to follow Elena on a daily post-breakfast stroll around the suudu (tents or nomadic houses) of the Wodaabe camps. I’d never before had such intimate access to a tribe; I felt like an anthropologist observing a people whose whole life is laid out in a display to be examined. The Wodaabe, particularly the children, were hospitable and engagingly curious about the strange foreigners who made such a woeful effort at cosmetic decoration, adorned only in suncream. These people live lives far removed from our modern world – a point brought into sharp focus when one Wodaabe man asked me if I was of the same clan as my fellow travellers.
We watched preening males as they beautified themselves in front of hand mirrors, smearing their faces with ochre-based foundation and reapplying charcoal mascara or toxic battery grease to blacken their lips. They rummaged through gaudy collections of pillbox hats and necklaces, many of them fashioned from bead-encased throwaways such as lighters or medicine vials. Elena compared their beautification to the courtship of a male bird attempting to attract a mate with resplendent plumage.
The women’s beauty seemed a prize worth gurning for. The girls were swathed in brightly patterned wraps, their kohl-rimmed eyes smouldering, hair plaited or undone at the front to create an afro-quiff; married women can be identified by permanently black-tattooed lips. Their faces are marked with geometric patterns created through facial scarification that begins at a very young age in infants of both sexes; the faces of the N’japto clan are more heavily scarified than those of the Sudosukai. Wodaabe of all clans defer to a casually elected elder known as the lamido (sultan), who has the wisdom to solve disputes and the knowledge of herbs to heal.
While the younger males admired themselves and the older ones sat around on carpets drinking sweet tea, the women managed the suudu, tending huge broods of children, collecting firewood and milking cattle. “The women’s life is hard, working from sunrise to sunset,” said Elena. When they migrate, it’s the responsibility of the women to deconstruct the suudu, a two-storey structure comprising ten upright sticks supporting a middle platform for sleeping and a top deck piled with calabashes, millet and the magpie males’ treasure chests.
There is, though, a way of reducing a woman’s burden: each polygamous male can be chosen multiple times during Gerewol. “The original wife often welcomes another, because it halves her workload,” said Elena. “And if she has had enough of her husband, it’s socially acceptable at Gerewol for her to ‘divorce’ him by choosing another dancer – though she must leave her children to his family.”
Wandering between camps, we skirted around the tall, elegant m’bororo zebu, whose fearsome horns bely the poor yields of meat and milk. In keeping with the philosophy of the Wodaabe, they love this breed of cattle because they look great. Wodaabe rarely kill or sell their livestock, preferring to eat a diet of milk, millet and the yoghurt we see women churning in calabashes.
“They see killing a cow as destroying their own richness,” said Elena.
Living a pastoral life in such arid climes has a big impact on the lifestyle of the Wodaabe. Elena recalled that, when she spent time migrating with a clan a few years ago, they dismantled their suudu and travelled in search of fresh grazing for their cattle eight times in just five weeks. “For them, migration is a psychological urge: they need to keep moving.”
Unlike me. By noon on our final day at the Gerewol, in soporifi c 42ºC heat, I had no energy to move anywhere, except to retreat to the dappled shade of a nearby acacia. Even the boys had stopped dancing – though not for long.
By late afternoon, an expectant murmur among the milling crowds swelled to a cacophony, the costumes more dazzling than ever. For each boy, it could be the night of his young life.
Each performance typically started with a dossa – a whirling, circular aff air that began with a small nebula of dancers, then with gravitational pull sucked in more to expand into a trance-inducing supernova. Clapping hands, the boys sashayed slowly sideways, stamping feet resonating with the beat of a drum as the N’japto waved feather dusters on poles. The chanting became rhythmic white noise. Elders inside the circle exhorted greater effort and chased out small kids who had ducked inside. Perhaps 100 dancers eventually gyrated in time as the dust on the Sahel rose like a cloud, and watching women clapped and sang, their higher-pitched voices adding a hair-raising dissonance.
Sometimes it became simply too intense, and a dancer staggered out of the circle, shaking uncontrollably. “I feel the energy inside me; dancing and watching the crowd enjoy us makes me happier,” an older dancer called Hahire told me. “If we have good health and a full stomach, there is nothing better than to dance,” he purred. Now 35, he says he’s not looking for wife number three, but had been chosen many times at Gerewol since his first performance at the age of 14.
Gradually the circle unravelled into lines called yake, and the beauty contest heated up. During performances lasting many hours and stretching into the night, with torchlights emphasising the white-eyed stares and manic grins, N’japto and Sudosukai clans mixed together, swaying and jigging in hypnotic harmony.
Dancers emerged from the line in twos to perform duets of facial posturing. Displaying the skills of a ventriloquist, N’japto boys emitted a fluting ‘hee-hee’ through clenched teeth, while the Sudosukai lads chattered “a-da-da-na-na-nana”, their faces – at least, to non-aficionados of male Wodaabe beauty like me – reminiscent of gruesome skull masks worn during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. As the evening reached its climax, expectation rose to fever pitch before the ultimate moment of pure and intimate drama.
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.
The author travelled with Native Eye, which offers an annual eight-day Gerewol trip. The next departure is scheduled for 29 September 2019, though the exact date of Gerewol is determined by Wodaabe elders around June. The trip cost includes one night in a hotel in N’djaména and seven nights camping, all meals, transportation and guides.
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