The Wodaabe Tribe is a small subgroup of the Fulani ethnic group and can be found in the northern parts of Nigeria as well as northeastern Cameroon, southwestern Chad and the western region of the Central African Republic.
The Wodaabe have a festival called the Gerewol Festival which calls for members of the tribe dancing at night. The dancing is not strange except for it also allows for men of the tribe to steal women from the tribe. It doesn’t matter if the woman is married or not, the tribe recognizes the new union as a legitimate marriage except on the grounds that the woman refuses or her husband catches the man while he is trying to steal the woman.
The Wodaabe are a nomadic people populating the Sahel desert of West Africa. Once a year in a few select locations, their tribe gathers to celebrate the fantastic tradition of Gerewol, often referred to in the popular press as a male beauty pageant. In early 2009 I travelled to an area of Niger close to Lake Chad with a BBC Human Planet film crew in order to document this incredible spectacle.
Attending this Gerewol was a real eye opener for me. I’d seen many pictures of the Wodaabe’s beautiful pageants before and I must admit I was expecting to see a rather dumbed down version of this tradition… it’s the 21st century after all, and those of you that travel will know only too well that many of the world’s colourful cultural spectacles have been somewhat hijacked by the tourist industry of late, an inevitable result of the explosion in cheap travel and general international commerce.
Wodaabe culture is absolutely fascinating. From their incredibly elaborate greetings (often lasting minutes each time) to the wonderful spectacle of Gerewol… all their traditions are born from a life lived on the move and in isolation. In a society such as theirs, gatherings like Gerewol are a hugely important part of what exists of their social scene, and when word gets out on the bush telegraph that a gathering is occurring, people come from many miles around to attend.
The Wodaabe are an unashamedly vain people. I love this about them. In the UK we are taught coyness and restrain from a very young age. The result in later life is a rather confusing set of cultural dating conventions, where a man is often ashamed to follow his primordial urge to show off to a woman as a ploy to attract her attentions. The Wodaabe have no such issues. Vanity is celebrated in their culture and at theGerewol, their beautiful men prepare themselves painstakingly carefully and then perform in front of an opinionated female crowd in the hope of attracting their affectations.