The Gerewol Festival: Not Your Typical Beauty Pageant

Photo by Dan Lunderg

At the southern edge of the Sahara nomadic Wodaabe cattle herders gather for a very special occasion, The Gerewol Festival. Throughout the rest of the year these nomadic people have been covering the expanse of Northern Africa with their cattle and families, traveling across the deserts of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad  and the Central African Republic. They are considered a primitive isolated tribe, and a branch of the Fulani ethnic group. They are labeled as Mbororo, “cattle Fulani” and they dwell in cattle camps.

They speak Fula, but they do not read or write the language. Wodaabe means “people of taboo” which adds to their mystery, intrigue and makes us all want to know more.

They are loosely Islamic, polygamous and are considered some of the most beautiful people on earth. They carry the features sought after by modeling agencies. Tall, thin, beautiful skin, symmetrical features and straight white teeth. And they know it. Beauty is revered, and they have the pocket mirrors to prove it. You will find the men peering at their image many times throughout the day.

The Gerewol Festival is as spectacular as any modern day beauty pageant, but this pageant is not all about women like we are accustomed to in the modern world. This pageant is all about the MEN. And they are competing for love.

The men have spent a year creating their garments. Painstakingly they have been embroidering, adding beads, small trinkets, and feathers to their tunics to create an explosion of color for the occasion. They adorn hats the same way, and proudly wear them to enhance their height. The makeup is spectacular, and only enhances the natural beauty of these people. So beautiful in fact that many times it is hard to tell the men are not elegant women with their delicately contoured faces. The makeup is all the more interesting because it is made from grinding chalk, stones and animal bones. Red ochre from the ground is used to paint the faces orange and the effect emphasizes the symmetry of their features, and when found, battery acid darkens their lips.

Photo by BBC Human Planet

The highlight of the festival is the Yaake, or what we call a dance competition. It will last 1 week, and may involve as many as 1000 men. The judges? They will be 3 of the most beautiful unmarried girls.

The women gather at the festival to watch and flirt with the dancers. They wear dark colors without as much adornment. The subtleness of these beautiful women is striking against the backdrop of the flashy dancers. Their beauty is enhanced by facial tattoos which they’ve achieved through scarification. They are the reserved beauties witnessing the dancing chanting performers.

The men dance for hours. They perform by rolling their eyes to show the healthy white of their eyes, they bare their teeth and chant. They do all of this with a little help of a drink made from fermented bark which is also reportedly complete with hallucinogenic properties. The goal? To be judged as the most beautiful by the women. The women have the power and will take the lead in choosing their husbands. Or at least in hooking up. The Wodaabe are very liberal when it comes to sex.

Does this seem foreign to you? Tribal perhaps? Barbaric? Exotic?

It shouldn’t, because our behaviors are the same. We have just normalized the behavior, and instead of it being a once a year party we are performing, judging and being judged every day. 

What did you do when you woke up this morning? Most of us looked in a mirror at some point, and we will probably look in a mirror many times throughout the day. Just like the men of Wodaabe looking into their pocket mirrors. Somehow the two seem so different, but if we think deeply enough there is no difference. We are the same.

When we woke up we may have showered, put on some makeup, and put some thought into how we dressed. It’s routine, normal right? We did it to feel good about ourselves, to project an image that tells others a bit more about who we are. Maybe to even be seen as attractive. We prepare ourselves for the Gerewol Festival EVERY DAY.

Now what if we are going out for a night, let’s say to a club or on a date. We take even more care as we get ready for the event. We’ll probably drink alcohol (our version of the fermented bark). We will dance with a little bit less inhibition, talk to people we are attracted to a bit more easily, and in our minds help us have a bit more fun. When we got ready for the night we dressed up, maybe thought well in advance of what we are going to wear. We did our hair, some put makeup on in order to feel more attractive, to attract someone else. We are at a Yaake, doing the dance of humanity without even knowing it, or thinking about it, or realizing it. We are tribal at our core. 

We are no different from the Wodaabe people, or from the red capped manakin who moonwalks among branches to impress the females, the peacock that fans his brilliant feathers, or the blue footed booby that dances from one foot to the other and points his wings to the sky. We may have different ways to make ourselves be seen, to be admired, to be wanted, but in the end that is what is inside us. We just have different ways of achieving this ancient and sacred goal which at the purest form is the need to procreate. That’s what all this hoopla is about at the end of the day anyways. We just constantly forget.

So it’s the sameness I’d like to focus on for a moment. The picture that was drawn at the beginning of this article was fascinating and foreign. Something from National Geographic, or a documentary on Netflix depicting ways of life that seem so different from our own. But it’s not, and the similarities of the needs of living creatures are all around us if we look for how we are all alike and connected instead of looking for how we are different. 

Let’s take this briefest moment to celebrate our sameness, and strip down the dusty stagnant layers of our modern beliefs. We are no different from the Wodaabe people, from the red capped manakin who moonwalks among branches to impress the females, the peacock that fans his brilliant feathers, or the blue footed booby that dances from one foot to the other and points his wings to the sky. We may have different ways to make ourselves be seen, to be admired, to be wanted, but in the end that is what is inside us. We just have different ways of achieving this ancient and sacred goal. It guarantees the ongoing generation of our species and places us firmly in the universe. Our stories, our pictures, our ways may all have drama and decadence and meaning, and that makes it all even the more richer as we get deeper and see how underneath all the pageantry we are at the core all the same. Now let’s go get our Yaake on!

Kelly Blieden
Kelly Blieden

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
– Rumi

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