Seeking to get over my childhood disappointment at always coming second in Monopoly beauty contests, I travelled to Niger. More specifically to Gerewol, the festival of the Wodaabe, who number among the last nomads of Africa.
The landscape the Wodaabe inhabit is a harsh one: in central Niger, between the great Sahara Desert and the grasslands, lies an immense steppe scattered with scrawny bushes and hardy acacia trees. For nine months of the year hardly a drop of rain falls. The days are torrid, the nights sometimes freezing cold. And the harmattan, the hot wind out of the desert, blows up relentlessly, filling the air with a sandy haze. Across this no-man's land the Wodaabe herd their cattle, migrating north in the rainy season and south again in the dry months and leaving no trace of their travels as they go.
And then, every year, after the rains, the Wodaabe gather for the Gerewol, the highlight of their calendar and a celebration of male beauty, as young men paint their faces, chant, dance, bare their teeth and roll their eyeballs in an attempt to look their best.
I use ‘calendar’ in its loosest sense: being nomadic there is nothing fixed about the festival – no specific date, it is usually in September. Also, worryingly as we drove through the rolling grasslands, there is no fixed location. Goats galloped through the long grasses, camels wallowed imperiously across the horizon, donkeys stared blankly back at us. We stopped to ask young herders, we stopped at Tuareg encampments - little more than animal skins stretched over wooden platforms only a couple of feet high. Each time we were pointed vaguely onwards; each time we were given a different estimate of the time that it would take us to get there. Was that on foot? Did they have an inkling of how long it would take in a vehicle? For nomadic peoples, they were surprisingly vague about the distance but then being continuously on the move their concept of space is very different from ours.
As the light and my hope of finding the festival were fading, the empty expanse of yellowy grasses and acacia thorn bushes gave way to a bustling temporary encampment of fires, tents, laughter and dancing. Groups of people, their pace quickening in anticipation, surge forward to crowd around a dance.
I got out of the 4x4 to stretch my tired and aching legs when a deep stentorian voice grunted a greeting behind me. I spun round. My jaw dropped in surprise. Standing in front of me was a giant of a man, many inches taller than my six foot two, with a most unusual yet eye-catching face. I was not sure what to expect but not a face like this. It felt unreal – I had never before seen such curious features and I was quite simply mesmerised. Indeed I felt as though I had been momentarily transported into a Ryder Haggard novel.
Less striking but more beautiful faces of softer features emerged from the bush. All were unusual, all captivating. I stared unashamedly at their bizarre beauty in particular at one. I want to use the word effeminate to describe his features but there is nothing unmanly about him, in fact, his sword and well honed physique suggest otherwise.
I was saved by the setting sun. The fading light masked their faces and mine in darkness, saving me from further embarrassment at my wide-eyed incredulity.
But in the dark I am equally amazed. This time my surprise is not visual but oral. A short distance away from us the men break into song. They are not singing for our benefit but their own enjoyment. No instruments, only their voices and the occasional rhythmic clapping. What is unexpected is the pitch of their voices. There is not the deep resonant bass of southern Africa but a higher contralto. They sing about universal topics: women and love.
The rising sun slowly breathes life into the fringes of the camp. At dawn we rise to see the women - who are less compelling and who wear their hair bunched up into an Afro quiff as opposed to the men whose hair is plaited and hangs down the side of the face - milking cows, pounding millet, lighting fires, beginning the day’s work. Young boys take the livestock out to pasture.
Within the main encampment, fires smoulder, tea is poured ceremoniously from height, women walk into camp in a line, bringing bowls of food, millet and milk, to their men. Bands of men in flowing robes and heads covered in turbans walk quietly from area to area. They crouch down in front of one family and the gentle see-sawing of greetings begins. Respects are paid and they move on.
Later in the day, the heat is intense and sapping of energy. Yet in spite of the sun the dancing continues, the chanting floats in the stifling air. In a line they rise and fall. Crowds gather, a selection of brightly coloured umbrellas vie for position. There is no such let off for the dancers. The scrutiny of both sun and onlooker is relentless. The gerewol is a test of stamina – it goes on for hours in the afternoon despite the gruelling heat.
I am less energetic and sit watching the comings and goings. Women walk elegantly across the horizon, bowls of food balanced with grace on their heads, to fortify those sitting in the shade. Men, in turbans of white, black, green, red, carry teapots of water, swords rakishly slung across their backs. Others ready themselves for the dance. With handheld mirrors they painstakingly apply their make up. They blacken lips, rouge cheeks, apply eyeliner.
Inquisitive children gather around to gawp at the latest spectacle at the festivities – us. The young girls are in black, the borders of which are given character by embroidered colours and a white trimming. Round their necks and wrists are vivid necklaces and bracelets of yellow and red beads.
They stare at the hair on my arms. They gently press the ends of my fingers. Theirs is a genuine curiosity.
In the late afternoon there is a frenzy of last minute preening. Mirrors are held high, make-up inspected, lips puckered, teeth bared. Last minute words of advice are given. Enthusiasm, encouragement and excitement.
The dancers assemble. In a line with rhythmic chanting they click, hiss and stamp their feet. Rolling their eyes and exposing their white teeth, they try to win approval.
They dance, swaying rhythmically, rising and falling on their toes, arms rising in waves. They sing - a frenzied chanting - accompanied only by handclaps, which rises to a crescendo. They are striking and impressive with necklaces, earrings, plumes of feathers decorating their headdresses and bells on their ankles. Make-up accentuates their long faces and delicate features – red foundation, black charcoal lipstick, eyeliner – as the young men grimace to display the whites of their eyes and their teeth.
There are three score men dancing but the numbers watching far greater. Women dressed in their best robs, children running around, men strolling around, others astride their camels for extra vantage.
For the dancers the prize is to be chosen by a girl and then to pair off, perhaps for marriage, usually just for the night. The bigger prize is the social cohesion of the Wodaabe and the continuation of a way of life: collective ties are re-established; it is a fleeting chance to enjoy the pleasures of camaraderie and company before leaving with their herds.
The young woman is nervous, daunted by the choice in front of her. The decision making is made easier by a coven of old women who march up and down the line whittling down the dancers to a shortlist of a select few. A crescendo of expectation builds as everyone suspects the young woman is about to make her choice. The crowds press in. In the melee of people I do not see the final winner but am, as with everyone else, carried along in the euphoria of the moment.
Later that night I return to the dancing, which still continues as it will long into the night. The full moon bathed the scene in a soft dreamlike light. The chanting of the dancers fills the air, plumes of feathers silhouetted in the romantic light, dust rises as their shuffling steps took them anti clockwise.
Women, dressed in black, pressed in on the dancers trying to get a glimpse of a particular beau. An old woman, smiling and welcoming, tugged at my elbow trying to encourage me to dance, wanting me to enjoy. My reluctance was met with friendly laughter.
She genuinely wanted me to join in. She was proud of her festival. It is very much for the Wodaabe, it is their festival and they are happy to share it. It was indeed a privilege to be an onlooker if not a participant. Maybe next year I will put Monopoly beauty contest ghosts to rest.