When we are approaching the place where the Gerewol festivities will be held, I feel excitement and anticipation. I have heard many good stories about this traditional courtship competition, seen pictures - and now I am about to see this unique event with my own eyes. We have traveled more than six hours from Agadez, and first have lunch. Then, we are invited to come with our guide (unfortunately, it is mandatory to go with a guide and a group to see Gerewol). It turns out the Tuaregs are camping just a few minutes walking distance. While we see many Wodaabe Fulani people around in their daily attire of enveloping clothes and turbans, we also see groups of young men with their upper bodies partly uncovered, and wearing white skirts. They also have feathers sticking above their heads, they wear jewellery around their necks and around their heads, and their faces are painted red, brown or yellow.
Even though I have seen photos, I am overwhelmed by what I see. I watch one man with deep red paint on his face, his lips painted pitch black, with decorative jewellery made of shells hanging on both sides of his face. Like the other guys around, he looks very serious, very focused, very determined. As if he is ready for a battle. In fact, in a way he is. Gerewol is a festival where these young Wodaabe men compete to atrract young women. It happens only once a year, at the end of summer, when the Tuaregs are on their way to dry pastures in the south. There are more festivities in this period: the courtship part is only one of them. I am extremely curious about these men, and would love to know how they feel, how they prepare, how they see their rivals, how they see their future, and what it feels like to have a painted face under the scorching sun. But they are all immersed in their thoughts, and appear to be in their own world. I cannot help but think back of the peacock I saw in Niamey a few days earlier: probably the most famous bird where the male makes himself beautiful by showing his feathers to females.
We follow the men to an open space. There is a crowd surrounding it. On one side, we see men wrapped up in their mostly blue garb with white turbans. Above them, we see the heads of camels, and men sitting on top of them. They have the best view. On the other side, we see women and children, all waiting in anticipation about what is to come. Tuareg men walk around with wooden sticks, to control the crowd and make sure they respect distance to the young guys who are about to perform. They stand in a long line, and start singing and dancing, tilting back and forth on their feet, making their eyes big (some even manage to make their pupils disappear altogether) and showing off their teeth. Tallness, teeth and eyes are all considered beautiful. The men seem to loosen up, some are even laughing. Two old women walk the line, again and again, inspecting the men and their performance. One of them drags a wooden object behind her on a rope. When she eventually places it in front of a man, he knows that he is out of competition. Then, two young women (or are they still girls?) appear, also wearing jewellery. They look as serious as the men before they started their dance. They hold their right hand against their ear and their elbow with the other hand as they walk past the row of men. These women have been selected as the most beautiful by the old women, and they get the first pick. Then, they turn towards the men, and kneel before them. Then, they stand again, and move towards the line of decorated men who look with eager eyes towards these beauties. Suddenly, they make their choice. The man can now choose whether he wants to marry one, or both ladies. A roar breaks loose in the crowd, who now pushes forward. Suddenly, they disperse, and the competition is over. But not the event. The entire evening, we hear singing and see fires in the distance. Some of our group who go over to see, are sent back. The next day, there are more competitions, there are more beautiful men, and more women. This is one big open air matching event for youngsters, and it lasts for days. In fact, we understand that the men drink a fermented concoction which has a stimulating effect and keeps them going for days. I wish both young women and men find their match, and will have a fruitful marriage - although it is hard, if not impossible, for me to imagine how their lives look like.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Gerewol (Niger). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Gerewol. Read more about this site.