The Wodaabe tribe is a nomadic tribe which is both islamic and polygamous in nature. The Wodaabe tribe is an ancient group of nomadic cattle herders who are the vainest and most beautiful people on earth, so they say.
Most of the time, they spend their time in smaller family groups travelling across the harsh Sahel desert, mainly in Niger. They can also be found in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria.
The most important date in the Wodaabe calendar is September at the end of the rainy season when sexually liberated tribe gathers ahead of their transhumance migration – to celebrate Gerewo which consists of some unusual beauty contests to celebrate the fertility the rains bring to the parched edge of the Sahara.
After months of trekking through miles of arid desert, Gerewol is the chance for them to come together for a traditional catch up – a festival of music and dance, which last for seven days and nights.
Its location is usually kept a closely guarded secret – and is only revealed days before the event is due to take place.
And by far the most eye-catching of all the dances is the Yaake – a mating call for men to battle it out for sexual supremacy, perform in front of three female judges.
In the ultimate test of male prowess, the Yakke is the highlight of Gerewol, where men’s status as sex gods are set in stone or lie in tatters.
It’s the world’s most spectacular beauty pageant – that is more fiercely contested than Miss World.
At stake? The chance to go down in folklore – and to win the heart of a new wife.
Because this competition is not for women, but for the men of the Wodaabe tribe.
The men spend six hours preparing themselves for their big moment when, like peacocks they can dance and show off in all their finery.
They paint red clay onto their faces, applying thick, black eyeliner to highlight the whites of their eyes and matching lipstick to show off their teeth. Even though Lipstick and beads may be associated with femininity in Western eyes, but the ceremonial costumes aim to emphasise male beauty:
WHAT ARE THE TRAITS THAT ARE USED TO JUDGE MASCULINE BEAUTY IN THE WODAABE TRIBE?
Tall and athletic: Ostrich plumes and pompoms emphasise height
Narrow face: Decorated with red ochre
Wide eyes: Black eyeliner made from charred egret bones
Facial symmetry: Enhanced with black, yellow and white patterns
Aquiline nose: White clay arrow stripe to look more streamlined
Long braids and cowrie shells: Symbolise fertility and wealth
White and regular teeth: Bared and emphasised with black lipstick
Being A Good dancer: Beaded necklaces and bodices jangle against chest in time to the beat
The colours used are symbolic too, says Mette Bovin, a Danish anthropologist who has worked with the Wodaabe since the 1970s.
Red ochre, which coats the face, is associated with blood and violence and so only used on special occasions. Yellow clay, used by some dancers to paint patterns on the face, is the colour of magic and transformation.
And black, to darken lips and emphasise eyes, is a favourite hue, partly because it is the opposite of white – the colour of loss and death, says Bovin in her book Nomads Who Cultivate Beauty. Adding to the black lipstick’s significance, it is made from the charred bones of the cattle egret, a bird the Wodaabe associate with “expressivity”, says Bovin. “To have charm – that is to have expressivity and charisma – is highly valued in a young man.”
The dance moves emulate the poise of the egret, and the men sing by vibrating lips painted with this “bird-lipstick”, as Bovin describes it.
As part of the ritual they bare their teeth, which can look like an aggressive grimace.
The time is worth it: when they step out in front of the expert eyes of the women who line up to watch the display, they are truly spectacular.
During the dance the men stand shoulder to shoulder and slowly move in a circle.
The men are judged by three of the tribe’s most beautiful women, chosen, normally, because their fathers have won previously won the Yaake.
Each female judge gets to choose her own winner –
And the prize? Each judge chooses her champion and may take him as her lover – even if both already have partners – and the winners are celebrated for years to come. Nor is the potential for match-making limited to judges and winners. Other pecks includes having their pick of women in the tribe.
Watching on are also the tribe’s most eligible women who are looking for their next husband.
If they like a man, the women can chose to be ‘stolen’ by one of the better-looking men, leaving their husbands behind.
Those who wish to be stolen wait until their favourite man passes by and tap them on the shoulder.
‘We love to go and watch the men at the Gerewol – one look and they know that you like them,’ one of the women told the documentary ‘Wodaabe Dance of Warriors’.
The fact that the women watching may already have a husband is not important to this polygamous tribe – because in the Wodaabe women have all the sexual freedom and all the power when it comes to sex in the Wodaabe tribe. they can also marry and divorce at will. Even
Unmarried girls are allowed to have sex whenever and with whomever they wish.
No stigma is attached to setting aside one’s marriage vows at Gerewol whether temporarily or permanently, says Human Planet director Tuppence Stone.This is not a polygamous culture – marrying a new partner means leaving the old.
Their first marriage is traditionally arranged by their families when the couple are children – called koogal – or they can marry because of love and attractions, called teegal.
A bride stays with her husband until she becomes pregnant, after which goes to live with her mother.
She delivers the baby at her mother’s home when she becomes a ‘boofeydo’, which literally means ‘someone who has committed an error’.
While she is boofeydo, she is not allowed to have any contact with her husband, and he is not allowed to express any interest in either her or the child.
After two to three years, she is permitted to visit her husband, but it is still taboo that she should live with him or bring the child with her; this only becomes permissible when her mother has managed to purchase all the items that are necessary for her home.
But by then the woman maybe ready for her second marriage – likely to be men of their own choosing at the Gerewol – and it is all about the looks.
Wodaabe, who speak the Fula language and herd long-horned Zebu cattle, is the vainest of the African tribes and consider themselves the most beautiful.
No self-respecting man, it is said, would be without his pocket mirror.
‘A woman with an ugly husband will try to escape,’ a tribal woman observed.
‘If she doesn’t, it is because she really loves her husband!’
Unlike the women, the men have relatively little control when it comes to sex.
They have no say in whether a woman will run off with them – and even less on whether their own wives will leave them for another man.
For this reason not every man allows his wife attend the Gerewol.
‘We go to the Gerewol for pleasure,’ a Wodaabe male told National Geographic. ‘If I get a woman then fine, it’s a bonus.’
Another, however, was far keener on the wife stealing.
‘We all wear make up and dresses. But what I like most is finding other women and taking them into the bush.’
One man proudly revealed he had stolen 30 wives in his life – but it is not all fun and games.
‘You know, stealing wives is not an easy thing,’ one tribesman said. ‘Only the Wodaabe know! You steal a woman from others and she will give sons to your lineage, even grandsons. Only the Wodaabe know how to do that.’
Drought, conflict and, more recently, insurgency from al-Qaeda’s North African offshoot means this traditional celebration is rarely practised – except at tourist hotels in eastern Niger, where Wodaabe troops may demonstrate the dances.
For the clans filmed by the BBC, who live in small, nomadic groups on the borders of Chad and Niger, it was their first Gerewol after six years of drought. Only when there is enough water to support several hundred people in one place do the normally isolated Wodaabe gather.