"People of the Taboo"

At the end of the rainy season in September, Wodaabe clans gather in several traditional locations, before the beginning of their dry season migration. The best known of these is In-Gall's Cure Salée salt market, and Tuareg seasonal festival. Here the young Wodaabe men, with elaborate make-up, feathers, and other adornments, perform the Yaake: dances, and songs, to impress marriageable women. The male beauty ideal of the Wodaabe stresses tallness, white eyes, and teeth; the men will often roll their eyes, and show their teeth to emphasize these characteristics. Wodaabe clans then join for the remainder of the week-long Guérewol, a series of barters over marriage and contests, where the young men's beauty and skills are judged by young women.

I knew, before my journey to Niger in September 1999, that there would be no guarantee the festival would take place. I spent a week living with a small group of Fulani pastoral nomads, with daily temperatures exceeding 45 degrees celsius. The goal was to travel with them, if they were informed of the location. Fortunately, the word about the festivities had been relayed to them, and they packed up all their belongings to start their two-day trek.  In recent years, the Niger government has tried to promote the Cure Salée, creating a tourist festival sponsored by large international corporations, like "Coca-Cola", for western visitors, and using the cross-ethnic traditions of the Cure Salée to foster "a celebration of social cohesion in Niger". The government sets the date artificially, and decides who gets to perform. Official involvement has brought a greater emphasis on culture, common to the rest of Niger: electric pop bands, beauty contests, and the sometimes forced ending of other rituals. In 2005, armed Niger Army troops enforced a ban on a "traditional dance" that emulates self-mutilation. 

 
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

In preparation, the men spend hours applying make-up, to highlight their facial gestures. A pale yellow powder, applied to the entire face, offers a beautiful and striking contrast to a man's otherwise dark skin. Kohl, drawn around the eyes and lips, draws attention to their white, gnashing teeth, and rolling eyes, during the dance. A painted white line, which starts at the forehead, and ends at the chin, serves to elongate the nose.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

At a second dance called the "Guérewol" (for which the festival is named), the men are judged purely on their physical beauty. For this dance, they shave their foreheads, paint their faces with red ochre (iron oxide), dress their hair with ostrich feathers and cowrie shells, and decorate their chests with criss-cross patterns of white beads.

  ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved
©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

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. Women have all the power when it comes to sex in the Wodaabe tribe. Unmarried girls are allowed to have sex whenever and with whomever they wish. 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 lives with her husband until her pregnancy. Then she returns to her mother's home, where she will remain for the next three to four years.With the birth of a baby the woman becomes a boofeydo or "someone who has made an error." Being a boofeydo means that she can not see or speak with her husband. The husband can not express any interest in her or the baby. After two to three years, the woman will be able to visit her husband, but not live with him. Finally, when the woman's mother buys everything that is needed for bride's home, she and the baby return to the husband, 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.

©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved ©Kieron Nelson "Vanishing Cultures Photography" All rights reserved

                          Women have their standards of beauty, including up to eight earrings in each ear, and tattooing their faces.


Comments

Vanishing Cultures Photography
Thank you Priya for taking the time and interest to comment. I have updated the narrative to answer some of your questions.
Priya Balan(non-registered)
Kieron ! Is this the end of the story. I was hoping there would be more. What happens to the woman afterwards? Do they come back together? It is interesting about how they find their husbands because long time ago in the Mahabharata there is something like this where the princess is allowed to pick her husband based on his strength, valor ,and skill of fighting..it is interesting to find the same concept here after so many thousand years...
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