The Wodaabe Beauty Contest called Geerewol


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Niger near the town of Agadez

Related to the Fulani tribe, the Wodaabe of Niger have a tradition of holding ‘beauty contests’ for their young men. Although it seems incongruous to say that warriors have beauty contests, that is what they do. Once the Wodaabe were warriors and to this day the men will not step foot outside their hut, tent or camp without their sword strapped to their hip.

Bororo are a division of Wodaabe. Bororo means cattle herder and the Toureg sometimes use the word Bororo to taunt a Wodaabe. The Touareg, a Berber tribe who live in Niger as well, disdain manual labor and have earned their livelihood as raiders and caravan leaders. The Bororo live true to their ancient nomadic heritage and like the Touareg, do not practice farming or work for wages, something they equate with slavery.

The Bororo prize three things in life: beauty, cattle and family. Beauty is number one. They prefer light skin, long straight noses, even white teeth and clear whites of the eyes. They want to be tall and slender with lean, long limbs. Fine featured with thin lips, the Fulani women are considered to be the most beautiful in Western Africa.

To enhance the desired physical traits, the women’s lips are tattooed a blue color that extends beyond the lips and into the skin. This is to make their skin appear lighter. The men may paint their faces with a yellow ochre and outline their eyes with kohl for the same reason.

Each year thousands of cattle belonging to the Bororo are brought to an area in Niger that is known for the salinity of the soil. This is called the “Cure Sale”. This is a time of celebration as all the groups will be in one place. The “Beauty Contests” are held at the time of the Cure Salee.  They young men will compete for the best looking man in his tribe. They will make up their faces with the yellow ochre, paint their lips black, outline their eyes, and fashion their hair in their traditional style with the forehead shaven and 6 or 8 short pigtails at the nape of the neck. They will don their best embroidered clothing which they keep aside for this occasion.

They are always on the look out to find some object that is shiny, colorful or in any way decorative to enhance their costume and to look distinctive. I saw a man with a plastic ukulele swinging from his shoulder. Safety pins, buttons, cowrie shells, strands of beads are choice items. While I was there, I had a birthday and the group leader had planned a birthday party for me complete with colorful paper plates. One young man wanted one of those plates desperately. We gave him one and we saw him the next day at the Geerewol (beauty contest) holding it as part of his costume. It is hard to make a piece of apparel from a paper plate, after all.

The tribe we visited were not terribly tall as you will sometimes read. They were mostly under 6 feet tall with many about 5’6” or so. They are slender to the point of looking emaciated, but they are strong. They walk everywhere and can endure the punishing Saharan sun because they wear a chech (turban) of 13 meters of cotton plus a large straw hat with a brim that covers their shoulders.

Their food consists of milk from their cattle supplemented with millet. This they keep in the calabashes that the women carve so beautifully. There is no refrigeration.

Once I was invited to the ‘home’ of a Bororo man. We walked for about a mile and a half to his home. As we walked I told myself that if asked to eat something…milk and millet, perhaps? I would eat it with evident relish.

We arrived at his home. It consisted of a bed with a piece of fabric strung over some acacia tree branches.  There was a ‘rug’ (a blanket) on the ground. His wife, brother and children were present. They invited me to eat. I sat on the blanket careful to keep my shoes off the fabric as sitting there was the same as entering his house, or tent. His wife fetched a calabash of sour milk and millet. There was a large wooden spoon in the bowl. It was passed first to his brother who took a slurp and then it was my turn. Did I tell you that I hate milk? Did I tell you that I have a phobia about sour milk? Did I tell you that I am a nurse and am as germ conscious as you can get?

I took the bowl, lifted the spoon and slurped a big mouthful of milk and millet. I swallowed it and smiled. “Good.” My host looked pleased. We made another round with the bowl and then I said I was full by patting my stomach. My friend got the message immediately and that was that.

His wife presented me with some embroidery and some plastic containers she had scavenged and decorated. I was non-plussed. No one, but no one in these parts gives the tourist a gift. I still have those trinkets and they remind me of my friend in the bush.

I reciprocated with my scarf and we returned to the other tourists.  This was the highlight of my trip!

Please click here to see my photos. I have more than 100 photos of the Wodaabe and I tell about their culture.

6 Responses to The Wodaabe Beauty Contest called Geerewol

  1. Ronda says:

    I am so interested in learning about the Wadaabe tribe. I saw a television show called “Taboo” and this tribe were feature on it. They are such beautiful people. I am so confused about how they keep their teeth and gums so beautiful for this beauty contest with out the aid of dential care. ???????? I have so many questions about this group of wonderful people.

    • Rosemary says:

      Hi, Ronda.
      Thanks for visiting my site. Did you click on ‘Portfolio” ? I have more than a hundred photos of the Wodaabe, one section of color and one of black and white. I think you will like them. I have information under each photo.
      I agree the Wodaabe are fascinating. I’m not an expert, but I do know they use a twig from a certain tree to clean their teeth. They chew on the twig and it frays and becomes like a brush which they scrub their teeth with. They don’t eat sweets as they don’t have them. And they drink lots of milk. They marry other Wodaabe and so the children have two parents with good teeth is another reason.

      I can understand your curiousity about this tribe. I’ve read one book about them written by an anthropologist. It was about Wodaabe, but not the Bororo in Niger. Maybe you can find a book on Amazon or ask your library.

  2. Thanks very interesting blog!

  3. Edmund says:

    Do you know the name of the tree they pluck its twigs to whiten their teeth and where it can be found?

    • Rosemary says:

      Hi, Edmund.
      Thanks for checking my blog. No. I don’t know the name of the tree that the Bororo get the teeth-cleaning twigs from. Many countries use some kind of dried twig or plant to clean their teeth. Mauritanians use the twig as the Wodaabe do, but Moroccans use some kind of plant. I don’t know where to find it, but if you go to an African or Middle Eastern country, you will find something in the souk.

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