Gerewol: Africa's most surreal beauty pageant

On a continent where women are the backbone of African society yet receive little recognition or representation the Gerewol festival in Chad offers a unique role reversal in the process of matchmaking as the men parade in beauty contests and are selected by the women.

Every year just after the rains when the grazing is good the nomadic tribe of the Wodaabe gather to perform this unique event. I travelled down from the capital N'djamena recently with a small group tour to find where the Gerewol was being performed and enjoy what must be Africa's most extraordinary (and still unadulterated as I counted just 30 tourists) cultural display.

I'm telling the story below in pictures as the ceremony is so vivid words can scarcely describe it - although I did manage to utter a few and you can read my story in a forthcoming issue of Wanderlust travel magazine

The journey to Gerewol began with a long day's drive into the Sahel along unmade roads into the acacia scrub. The odd breakdown was dealt with in a delightfully un-health & safety fashion.

With so few travellers the reaction whenever we passed through local villages like the one below, Karnak, was warm and one of curiosity at our presence.

We found the Wodaabe unloading and constructing their Suudu (camps).

These truly nomadic people travel with only the bare necessities carried on donkeys and cattle. Our guide Elena Dacome once travelled on migration with them and said in 5 weeks they moved to find grazing eight times. "It was a psychological need to move" said Elena. Yet any suggestion that somehow the Gerewol signifies some sort of Utopian matrilineal society needs to be seen in the context of the women do everything. In this above it is the woman alone who constructs and deconstructs the Suudu.

Life for the Wodaabe revolves around their beloved cattle - known as M'bororo.

These two shots show how the young boys tend animals sometimes twice their height. The M'bororo are huge beasts with long handlebar horns but not particularly productive in meat or milk. The Wodaabe told me they like this breed for their beauty. Meanwhile the girl is drinking fresh cows milk, which is the subsistence of their diet.

The women tend huge broods of children - infant mortality remains very high and the Wodaabe have scant access (as most people in Chad) to medical facilities. Here she is proofing their calabash bowls with a sticky milk resin.

Meanwhile the young girls are sent to collect firewood from the meagre reserve of acacia scrub. Water is a major issue too. I saw the Wodaabe drinking filfthy water shared with their livestock. One man was using his cloth scarf as a filter to sip from a bowl.

After they settled in and I erected my own tent checking my boots everyday for scorpions for the next 6 days the men beautified themselves with make-up made from ochre and turmeric. They produced bright multicoloured clothing and bead necklaces and. got ready to dance Africa's most surreal beauty pageant.

There was two Wodaabe clans at the Gerewol: the Sudosukai and N'Japto. The men already look quite remarkable with their facial scarification. The man above left is N'Japto who possess heavier scarification. Those who dance the Gerewol in the hope of getting selected by a female are typically aged from mid-teens to mid-30s.

Thereafter they congregate on the Sahel and dance and sing all day. The aim is to impress watching girls with their ability to dance and sing but also their physical beauty. One of the most alluring aspects of this beauty is demonstrating how white their eyes and teeth can appear.

Once they began dancing at 7am. Inevitably they would tire in the 40ºC heat and spend time sheltering under the meagre shade of acacias. But this was just a brief hiatus ...

... and they would soon be back serenading the Sahel with hypnotic chants.

All the while the young women watched on. It was hard to decipher which of them were going to be the ones chosen to select a male dancer. Elena explained they are very young. They will have just undergone menstruation.

When the moment of selection came frenzied excitement would increase among the watching Wodaabe as usually two young women would shuffle forwards to choose.

By this stage the men are gurning intensely. Straining every facial sinew. This boy is Sudosukai. They are distinctive with their caramel ochre face paint and delicate patterning. The lipstick comes from battery grease.

The sweat glistens off their make-up. The N'japto look remarkable with their blue lips and green turbans with ostrich feathers for decoration.

Slowly a young woman edges closer to the dancers with right arm swinging and then ever so gently touches one of the dancers. She has made her choice.

When a dancer is chosen the excitement explodes. I watched one dancer sink to his knees. The emotional and physical effort seemed to overcome him.

The elegant woman N'Japto women in a chiffon turquoise shawl in the shot above and below walked away and joined other women in a circular dance known as the 'dossa'.

Elena explained that she would go into the bush that night and likely have a sexual relationship aka 'one night stand'. But it can also lead to lasting love and a long term relationship. If things work out then she will join his migration caravan and her life will become raising children and maintaining the Suudu.

For a tough nomadic people who struggle through drought, malaria, a lack of food and clean water the Gerewol is a joyous week to celebrate a rich culture before the struggles of existence recommences.

I flew to N'djamena from London with Air France

 
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This is my occasional blog focusing on my travels and at home in Dartmoor National Parks. All my journeys, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a 4-day schlepp to Pitcairn Island or a 3-week boat journey across Micronesia begin with the local country bus #173 from my home in Chagford to Exeter, where I take the train or bus to London.

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