‘You dance gerewol to try and win a lover. Even if it means stealing someone else’s wife,’ Djao told photographer Timothy Allen, who travelled to Diffa, a two-day bus ride east of Niamey, Niger’s capital, to document the ceremony, which he describes as ‘one of the most mesmerising things I’ve ever seen.’
Djao’s fitful flirting and flamboyant dress sense are ancient, formal rituals of the gerewol – a dance delivered twice daily by shoulder-to-shoulder men to ululating lines of Wodaabe women during the festival. The men dress to impress: the daughters of previous Gerewol winners pick out a ‘top three most beautiful’ from the line of hopefuls. ‘It is said that the best dancers have the ability to channel the spirit of the white egret, the sacred desert bird,’ says Allen of the dancers’ jerky head movements and fluttery facial expressions.
Allen explains that the Wodaabe recognise two forms of marriage: koobgal, which is one of betrothal and is designed to safeguard a man’s lineage and wealth, and teegal, one of love, free will and passion. Gerewol is organised to stoke the latter.
Many hours of meticulous backstage scrutiny is given by all gerewol dancers to their appearance. Under the scarce shade of an acacia tree or else a sarong propped up with sticks, the Wodaabe men sit with compact mirrors, dabbing make-up on their face continuously throughout the day.
The foundation, of sorts, for the Gerewol look is obtained by mixing butter with red ochre, a naturally tinted clay with mineral oxides that produces a vibrant orange colour. ‘The entire process is associated with elaborate magical practice, so that when the red ochre is worn it will both protect the wearer from the envy of his confrères and obtain the end, so fervently desired, of fascinating women,’ writes the late anthropologist Robert Gardner in his study of Wodaabe rituals.
To the rouge, the men then apply a black lipstick and eyeliner, fashioned from either charcoal or the charred bones of a cattle egret – ‘a bird that the tribe associate with charm, their most favourable personality characteristic,’ says Allen. Black is thoughtfully chosen for the lips and eyelids in order to accentuate the whiteness of their teeth and eyeballs, a feature that Wodaabe women deem particularly appealing.
Though Wodaabe men indulge the ladies’ penchant with fixed grins and stares during the dance, much care is also taken in the months building up to the Gerewol too. ‘They use a branch from a specific tree to brush their teeth in order to make them whiter and more beautiful,’ says Kristín Loftsdóttir, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Iceland, who has spent time living with the Wodaabe.
Linear patterns of yellow, black or white are also added to the nose, forehead and chin. ‘The yellow line that runs down the forehead is supposed to make the face appear longer,’ says Loftsdóttir. Why the long face? ‘In the dance, tallness and longness are considered very beautiful,’ Loftsdóttir explains.
The Wodaabe’s efforts for a lengthy countenance are accentuated by shaving back the hairline towards the crown; any hair is plaited, usually into two larger braids that dangle at the side of the head, with multiple smaller braids at the back. ‘They shave the forehead. I think that also works to make the face look longer,’ says Loftsdóttir. The dancer will also tie a band of white cloth around his head decorated with cowrie shells, a pom pom, sometimes, and an ostrich plume hat – another trick to make him appear taller.
Down his back will hang another string of cowrie shells, often ending in a miniature calabash, or gourd. ‘Cowrie shells were used as a currency for a long time in West Africa,’ says Loftsdóttir, explaining the appearance of seashells in the Sahara. ‘It’s quite easy to find them. Most likely from their use as currency they have spread around.’
The dancers dress in beaded aprons and skirts made from an eye-catching fabric, often customised with mirrors or embroidery. ‘Some of the embroidery patterns are designed to match iconic images of their everyday life – like the legs of their tables,’ Loftsdóttir proffers as an example. Under the skirt, the men tie fetters of thin leather above the knee, inducing, as Gardner puts it, ‘a scuffling walk of a distinctly mincing quality.’
The bands may restrict the men’s movements to hobbles, but they serve to make the body appear thinner and taller. ‘The elements of clothing that others may view as feminine – the skirts and make-up – are not effeminate to the Wodaabe. It highlights their masculinity,’ says Loftsdóttir.
‘Often when people write about the Wodaabe,’ says Loftsdóttir, ‘they write as if the clothes have not changed for centuries. But, like all populations, there have been a lot of changes – the Wodaabe have always been very connected to the state, like nomadic people are everywhere.’ For example, she says, with reference to photographs she possesses from the 1950s, ‘in the past they didn’t used to wear the turbans that have become a strong symbol of the Wodaabe today.’
Allen describes the tribe as ‘quite unashamed about the notion that they consider themselves amongst the most beautiful people on the planet.’ However, Loftsdóttir stresses that it’s not only beauty that is being evaluated in the Gerewol. ‘It’s something that was emphasised very strongly to me when I was in Niger, that it was not a beauty contest but an evaluation of charm,’ she says.
‘Very often, I’ve also seen that people like to make out that Gerewol is all about getting the girl,’ she says, addressing the media’s pre and misconceptions about the Gerewol, such as the BBC’s dubbing of the ceremony as a ‘Desert Sex Factor’. ‘It’s very much about the family too – showing off one’s lineage, showing off to other men. You’re trying to enhance your status in a very patriarchal society – it’s not so much about getting a women as it is about gaining a status,’ she says.
‘It is about beauty and all that, but it’s too simplistic to reduce it to just a pageant. It makes it more exotic than it actually is.’
This article appears in the Fashion Directory: Weddings of the Middle East and North Africa.