About This Festival
If you’ve ever flipped through a National Geographic and been fascinated by the images of the tall, lithe, beautiful men of Niger, their faces painted red, white and black, their eyes wild and wide, their teeth flashing an eerie grin, you’ve already been introduced to the Wodaabe, "people of the taboo." This relatively small group of traditionally nomadic people is made up of subgroups of the Fulani and Tuareg people. The Wodaabe have been famously documented in their elaborate ceremonial costumes and face paint, which are all part of the annual male beauty pageant known as Gerewol.
Two Events in One
But Gerewol isn’t a singular event. Each year the Wodaabe people travel to the southern edge of the Sahara desert, gathering in various places for this ritual. The most famous location is In-Gall, a town known for its salt flats, and the location of the Cure Salee festival. During the Cure Salee festival in September, after the rainy season is over, this tiny town of 500 grows to upwards of 50,000. Nomads and their herds make the pilgrimage to this tiny town while tourists pack in to celebrate the annual gathering that serves as a harvest festival, a marketplace, a gathering of the tribes, and a spectacular display of peacocking in an effort to be deemed the most attractive of their clan.
Gerewol is a beauty pageant, but it is also a courtship ritual, as the pageantry often leads to flirtation and potentially a love match. Wodaabe traditionally have arranged marriages, and many are already married when the pageant takes place. It is possible that a flirtation that develops from this beauty competition could lead to a second marriage (or third), something that is not out of the realm of possibility for the Wodaabe people. In the Wodaabe culture, beauty is paramount, and so women are free to take on additional husbands, provided they are good-looking, in the hopes that they might bear more attractive children. Likewise, the more attractive men tend to have many partners. There is no double standard in that respect, and the Gerewol ritual is an expression of their cultural honesty and openness.
The Eye-Rolls Have It
As part of the pageant, Wodaabe men paint their faces, usually red or yellow with white and black accents, which serve to highlight symmetry in the facial features, something that Wodaabe women value quite highly. Wodaabe men don traditional ceremonial costumes, which, depending on the tribe, can consist of beautiful, colorful fabrics, beaded and feathered headdresses, and leather wraps or skirts. Once they have assembled, the men sing and dance in an effort to impress the female judges. Consider this the talent portion of the show, also known as the Yaake, a sort of line dancing, where men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, swaying, singing and chanting in a hypnotic fashion. Feathers fly, feet stomp, bells ring and faces are pulled. While westerners might see these faces as “silly,” something that a child would do, the Wodaabe believe this to be a display of beauty. Wide, white eyes and bright, white teeth are also considered attractive features in the Wodaabe, and crossing or rolling the eyes and flashing those mega-watt smiles is just a way to emphasize these traits.
Stamina, Stamina, Stamina
This portion of the festival can last up to a week, as the men strive to impress the women not only with their looks, but also with their stamina and dedication. The Yaake can last for hours each day, with the men dancing and singing in the hot desert sun. If this sounds a bit brutal, it can be, although some of the men have a trick up their sleeve: they will drink a tea made of fermented bark, which has been rumored to have a hallucinogenic effect, but also enables the men to dance for hours on end.
While the men perform, the women observe with discerning eyes, carefully selecting the most attractive man out of the line-up. The women slowly walk up and down the line of men. Once a female spots the man she finds most attractive, she points to him; the clan with the most men selected “wins.” If a proposal results from the pageantry, the man will take a calabash filled with milk to the female’s parents. If they give their blessing for the marriage, the man will then pay the family for the bride—typically three cows—in a sort of reverse dowry.