The Wodaabe Tribe:
The Most Beautiful People in the World
The people of the Wodaabe Tribe live in the deserts of Niger, West Africa. By size Niger, it the one of the largest countries on the continent of Africa, but also one of the most impoverished nations in the world. A land-locked Niger is bordered by Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Nigeria and Mali among and few others.
There are about 100,000 people who identify themselves are Wodaabe, however, by ethnicity, they are closely related to the Fulani people. The only difference is that they are Nomadic by nature and perhaps the last of the pastoralist on continent of Africa. They love their way of life, and value the great outdoors. The Wodaabe people roam the land along the southern edge of the Sahara close the border of Nigeria and Chad following wherever the cattle leads them, which is usually to better grasslands and waterholes. They value the great outdoors and the freedom that this kind of life affords them. While the tribe has always been cattle herders, their Nomadic way of life is a kind of cultural adaptation caused by several factors. This includes displacement caused by warfare as well as by an increase in the population of the general area in the early 1900s after French colonizers ordered slaves to be freed. The freed slaves, the Taureg became cattle herders and farmers. The competition for agricultural space and pasture caused pressure on the land which led to environmental degradation and over time pushed the tribe further south. Total devastation of the environment has lead to the demise of the Wodaabe way of life.
Their way of life has been much the same for many years, perhaps dating back to the early 20th century. They consider themselves pure, living off the land, following the cattle. Modern day Wodaabe are still untainted by automation, advances in technology and kind of consumerism that drive the economies of many city states. They have come in constant contact with civilization and many migrate to the cities during the dry season to find work so that they can buy millet and replenish their herds, however, city life does not appeal to them as they long to go back to “follow the cattle”.
Except for their cattle – the long horned Zebu – the same cattle that have been found painted on ancient rock walls – the Wodaabe have very little in the way of possessions. This is an intelligent move on their part, as traveling light is desired for people always on the move.
There are about 100,000 people who identify themselves are Wodaabe, however, by ethnicity, they are closely related to the Fulani people. The only difference is that they are Nomadic by nature and perhaps the last of the pastoralist on continent of Africa. There is no love lost between the Fulani people and Wodaabe tribe. The Fulani has dubbed the tribesmen as “Bororos: herdsmen in tatters,” while others call them “cattle Fulani” as well as “the people who do not pray.” The Wodaabe view the Fulani with equal disdain, proudly adhering to their ethnocentric views of being culturally superior to the rest of the Fulani people. In that same vein, they identify themselves as a people who are “under the taboo of purity” and believe that their adherence to ancient traditions preserves this purity. These traditions incorporate a code of conduct which includes modesty, patience, reserve and loyalty. They also value beauty and charm in their every-day interactions with each other.
For the Wodaabe Tribe, there is no holy book as their language is spoken and not written. However the beautiful story of the origin of the tribe has been told over and over for many years and in many ways. “Two children came out of the water and they made a grass house and stayed at that place. Later, some cows came out of the water…” One constant thread in the Wodaabe stories is the relationship with water or water spirits as well as the cattle’s continued involvement in their existence.
The people of the Wodaabe Tribe are loosely Islamic. Their treatment of religion would be similar to a westerner who was baptized as a baby making them of the Christian faith. However, as an adult, the person no longer adheres to the rules of the church, but will invoke the name of Jesus during times of difficulty. Along the same lines, the Wodaabe invoke the name of Allah in times of great distress as well as at births and death, therefore they are not strict or extreme in their religious practices. In addition to their Islamic beliefs, there is a certain level of animism in their culture. They in a spiritual realm and that certain spirits live in the trees and in wells, and that these spirits have been troubled by how they have been treated. They also believe that some spirits are dangerous.
The Wodaabe Tribe sticks to a strict diet dictated by religion, tradition and the requirement that they remain pure. Their staple diet consists mostly of ground millet, for which they trade butter and sometimes cows in order to acquire. Their diet also includes milk from their cows as well as yogurt. Rarely, they will eat the meat of goats of sheep, and on special occasions such as a wedding, they will eat the meat of cows.
Wodaabe Marriage Practices
Among the Wodaabe tribe, there are fifteen sub-groups. Membership in a group is by way of kinship whether by birth or marriage. Your membership in a particular group also dictates who you will marry. Polygamy is part of the Wodaabe status quo and marriages are arranged among member of the same lineage by the bride and groom’s parents while they are still infants. Even though the wedding is conducted while both children are pre-pubescent, they normally remain with their families until they become adolescents. There are also different kinds of marriages. An arranged marriage is called koogal, while a love match is called a teegal. Wodaabe married women receives a dory of cattle from her husband’s family. This belongs to her and to her only. Therefore, if she leaves her husband, then she is free to keep the cattle as they are hers.
The Wodaabe are sexually liberal, young girls are free to have sex with whoever they please. Even though this is so, members of the tribe would not dream of carrying on amorous activity in full view of everyone. Husbands and wives do not touch each other in public. This seems to be in direct contrast with their liberal nature. In a video taken of Wodaabe men during the time of their annual festivities, one young man who seemed painfully shy tells another that he was touched by women in plain view of everyone. This is obviously unusual. Therefore, the Wodaabe’s concept of privacy is highly evolved even if their view of sexuality is more broadminded than that of western culture.
The Wodaabe Beauty Contest
One important cultural event for the Wodaabe people is the annual Geerewol; a week of festivities that takes place during the rainy season. It is an opportunity for all the groups within a particular lineage to come together in fellowship. Since lineage is an important ingredient in your ability to marry someone, the Geerewol is also an important marriage market of sort. Central to the Geerewol and perhaps the high-point of the celebration is a beauty contest for men. In this regard, the Wodaabe has turned western concepts of beauty and power on its head. For the Wodaabe, it is the men who are objectified and are left to the mercy of the women. The men participating in the contest are judged by a set rules and values which are fundamental to the Wodaabe culture. They see themselves as the most beautiful people on earth, however, their beauty is judged by a different set of rules than that of westernized customs. The women judging the contest look for this beauty discernible through tallness, sparkling white teeth, pronounced white of the eyes, a perfectly spherical head, a long nose, dancing ability, patience, strength and endurance. Endurance is a particularly important part of the event, as men who are unable to withstand five to seven grueling hours of tribal dances (Yaake), would not be in the running to be chosen as the winner. At the Geerewol, there are no runners-up.
Preparation for the Gerewol sometimes takes several hours. The men help each other to get ready even though they will be competing against their friends later. The men use make-up to accentuate their eyes, nose and paint their faces red. Some of the make-up comes from natural sources, but their eyeliner comes from carbon of used flashlight batteries. The costumes are bright and colorful consisting of white beads attached to elaborate head-pieces in which is stuck a white ostrich feather. The entire clan, including the elderly and children watch the contestants are they compete. The winner’s prize is not money or material gain, but the fact that he might find a wife, and in most cases second wife.
Wodaabe Migration to the Cities
Member of the Wodaabe Tribe began migrating to other are in the late 1960s because of severe recurring drought which killed off their cattle. Some were able to hire themselves out as herdsmen because of skills with cattle, while other moved to major cities. In the city, the Wodaabe use their knowledge of herbs to make and sell concoction. They also make and sell craft items. They also braid the hair of women from other ethnic groups. The main motivation for Wodaabe migration is to find money in order to reconstitute the herd this has not been a very successful venture on their part. Today, there is very little of purely Wodaabe people left and they continue to be marginalized by the Niger power structure as well as environmental degradation.
German Postcard 2007 distributed by Changing World, Germany
The Holy Bible: New International Version, Genesis 1 vs 24-26: December 10, 2012
Loftsdóttir, Kristín: The Place of Birth: Wodaabe Changing Histories of Origin (2002) December 14, 2012
Boesen; Elisabeth: Gleaming like the sun: Aesthetic values in Wodaabe Material Culture (2008) December 8, 2012
Herzog. Werner: Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989)