September 2015: Visiting a Gerewol festival of the Wodabe tribe in Niger had long been a bucket list item for me ever since first watching documentaries about them and their festivals. Here is a tribe of handsome, warrior men, who subsequently are very vain. A Gerewol is a festival where these warrior men in order to enhance their handsome characteristics adorn effeminate clothes and make-up that their culture believes will feature their best characteristics. Then they dance, sing, and perform several feats deemed desirable by the women of the tribe. The most desirable are selected by the women and the prize is to have a night of passion and sex. The tribe and festival are fascinating, and I wanted to experience them before these customs are lost forever. To observe a Gerewol, my friend Daniela and I traveled to Niger independently for one week and hired a car and driver with the goal to attend a Gerewol. This is my story of the trials and tribulations of this experience.

About Niger

Niger is a landlocked country primarily in the Sahara Desert that remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It is named after the Niger River that runs through its south and provides the lifeblood for its agricultural crops. The southern region in Sahel-arid grassland and the north sand dunes and Sahara Desert. Niger is an ex-French colony, and the people speak French among a multitude of ither tribal languages. Two of the most interesting tribes in Niger that I came to visit are the Tuareg and Wodabe, both continue to live nomadic lives, wandering the desert to find grass for their camels, and livestock. Niger like many of the countries in the region has suffered political instability and military coups to overthrow the president have been commonplace, and the country’s stability is furtherly threatened by Islamic militants that have been known to wage insurgent attacks and kidnappings against the government and foreigners across from Mali, Libya and Nigeria. Niger has some of the most outstanding desert scenery anywhere in the Sahara Desert and sadly during the time of my visit most of it was closed by the government to foreigners due to the threat of terrorism. At the time of my visit, a USA drone base existed in the north to help provide counter terrorism support to the nation’s military and to also help protect a giant uranium mine in the north.

Our route in Niger

 

Arranging the Trip

Because of the security risks and the governments sense of heightened paranoia of foreigners being abducted, a feeling that may be well deserved, I knew going into the trip that independent travel was not going to be easy. The other option was joining a tour and having the security and permits secured in advance, but this option was ridiculously expensive and not an option. I decided it was much cheaper for us to hire our own vehicle and driver. We needed a 4 by 4 vehicle since gerewols are almost always located deep in the bush in 4 by 4 country. This was not easy to find since most 4 by 4 vehicles in the country were being used to smuggle migrants across the north of the country into Libya and onward into Europe. I had to call a number of businesses in Niamey before securing one and when I did, I needed to pay a 100 percent deposit via wire transfer, something I almost never do. Also finding a location and time of a gerewol was not easy. To do so I reached out to one of the few travel agencies that takes tourists to gerewols and I also asked my rental car agency to assist me with obtaining some information. The owner of the rental car agency eventually informed me that he had some contacts that were aware of the gerewol and that we didn’t need a security escort to reach it. This was a statement we would later discover to be false. I pinpointed the general week that the gerewol would occur and the closest one north of Abalak and from there, we operated off of a hope and a prayer. Daniella and I flew to Niamey, Niger via Casablanca, Morocco and spent one night in Niamey, where we stayed in the Gaweye Niamey hotel and organized some of the provisions for our trip. The river Niger runs through Niamey and provides some spectacular sunset photography.

 

Niger River

Niger River Sunset

W National Park

We had a few days to kill before traveling north to Abalak to find the gerewol so we decided to try our luck in finding a lion in W national park, one of the only reserves in the region that still has wild lions. We knew going into this, that spotting a lion or even an elephant would be a long shot but the only way to ensure failure is not try at all. Besides just visiting one of the wildest reserves in the country would be worth the drive. The drive from Niamey to W National Park was approx. 3 hours and there was never a dull moment. In countries like Niger, CAR, Mali where the local people live in poverty, the cost of transportation is a huge cost to them and no part of a vehicle is squandered in terms of its transportation potential and with this in mind it is common to see dozens of people seated on a vans roof, a cow, camel or multiple goats. We also attracted a lot of attention from local people unaccustomed to seeing foreigners and everywhere we went, we would meet friendly and photogenic people.

 

Cow on top of a minibus

Goats transported on top of a minibus

 

We checked in to the very rustic W national park Head Quarters. The park is enormous is borders Benin and Mali. According to the map there are many remote campsites within the reserve, and this looked really appealing to me, but we only had time for a day trip into the reserve. The roads were small and overgrown by vegetation. There wasn’t a soul in the reserve and the forest was too thick to see much wildlife and we only ended up seeing some antelope, birdlife and crocodiles.

 

Guinea fown on the road into the reserve

Antelope in W reserve

Nile Crocodile

Everywhere we stopped on the way back to Niamey, we would be greeted by curious locals. We ended up giving the old man in the straw hat below a ride to his village. he was hitchhiking on the side of the road. 

 

Village market on the way to Niamey

Village man we gave a rise to

Koure Giraffe Reserve

On the way to Tahoua, where we planned to spend the night, we stopped at the only West African giraffe reserve in Niger-Koure Reserve. Unlike east and south Africa, west and central Africa have very plains animals like elephants, lions and giraffes. Historically these animals were present but hunting and destruction of habitat has taken their toll. The west Africa giraffe has been nearly wiped out and only a few pockets of wild populations remain. The Koure reserve is one of them and protects a population of approx. 400 wild giraffes. The reserve is so successful, that it is exploring giraffe to other areas of central Africa to help stock new populations. After we paid the entrance fee, we were eft to our own devices, and we drive into the reserve until we spotted some giraffe. We were free to drive up near them and get out of car to approach them on foot from a safe distance. The giraffe is similar to the ones I have seen in other parts of Africa but far whiter.

 

Wesy African giraffe 

 

Stuck in Tahoua

We arrived to Tahoua in the early afternoon and decided to spend the night there since it was the only city before arriving to Abalak, a small village which would be our turn off for the bush where the gerewol would be taking place. By a lucky twist of fate, we chose the Tarka hotel to stay at. We were lucky because the owner of the Turko Hotel, a kind Tuareg man who we befriended, would become instrumental to saving our trip from becoming a failure.

The next morning when we tried to leave Tahoua, military personal at the checkpoint on the only road heading to Tabalak and Agadez to the north informed us that we were not allowed to continue further north. The officer at the checkpoint was unfettered in his response even when Daniella pleaded with him in her limited French. We returned to Tahoua feeling discouraged but hopeful that we would find a solution. Our driver tried his hardest and the owner of the rental car agency called several of his contacts in the city to try and help us and for the remainder of the day we visited one person who promised they could help us after another, but all leads fell through. We visited multiple military, police and security offices and all informed us that we were not allowed to travel north. We went to bed for a 2nd night in Tahoua now concerned that we would not see a gerewol. The next morning when we were at the hotel sulking, the owner. Saleh overheard us and promised to help. He claimed to have friends in the military, but this was a story we had become familiar with. We were running out of time, and we had to make a decision today to return or continue ahead but if we delayed any longer, we just wouldn’t have enough time to see a gerewol or do much of anything else in Niger.

Sadly, Saleh would return word that he couldn’t reach his military contacts and Daniella and I conceded that we would need to return to Niamey and from there we would try and find other interesting tribes to visit. We discovered that there was a village of Wodabe people in Tahoua so we decided to visit them for a few hours. They were not nomadic but at least we would be able to say we met some Wodabe. The village was of typical mudbrick and there was no electricity. The people were kind and invited us in their village with smiles. They all were aware of the gerewol outside of Abalak and claimed that it would occur in the next few days. We stayed a few hours in the village, while the men prepared for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha-holiday of sacrifice, probably one of the least favorite times of the year for a goat in the Muslim world. We watched as dozens of goats were lined up and slaughtered in front os with a knife to the neck. Then as we were about to leave the village, a miracle happened. Saleh called us and claimed he had great news. While he was at the mosque a military general was praying beside him and he asked if he could help, and he agreed to assist us. We would need to hire military personnel to escort us, and we would also join a convoy of other tourists that were traveling to Abalek to the gerewol. We didn’t hesitate and agreed to the cost of a few hundred dollars to pay for the escort of 3 armed soldiers that would accompany us and a few other that would drive in a jeep alongside us and the other tourist vehicles. We would leave in the afternoon and drive to Abalak and camp there for the night in a secured compound.

me being fitted for a Tuareg booboo in the local market

Wodabe village in Tuoua 

Carcasses of slughtered goats being prepared for the Eid al-Adha  festival

Village Lady

me photgraphing kids in the Wodabe village

 

Our Military Escort

We waited at our hotel until the group of foreign tourists arrived from Niamey. There was about 6 of them, the real intrepid type of tourist that tends to travel to really exotic hard to get to destinations. One guy in the group had even been to the Yamal peninsula and stayed with the Nenet reindeer herders like I did. The group was a little shocked to discovered Daniella and I traveling independently without an expensive tour package such as the one they paid for. One member was not very pleased that we would be joining them since we not part of their group, but it didn’t matter because we weren’t joining them. We shared the security escort with them, but we were paying for this, we had our own vehicle, food and the gerewol was open to anyone that wanted to attend.  We set off in the afternoon on a lonely desolate road watching lightening illuminating the distant desert sky. Normally driving at night was ill advised in a place like this due to the threat of a bandit or terrorist ambush but we had dozens of military personnel with us, and we also had one very, very large gun mounted on the back of a jeep.

me with oiur security escort

Daniella with one of the commanding soldiers

Our driver had one mixed tape of music and the driver and I really liked the song, “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam, and we played this song at least 100 times during the week in Niger. In this video, we started our drive finally passing the military checkpoint with soldiers in our vehicle listening to Just Breathe. 

The soldiers escorting us definitely weren’t lacking in the ego catagory 

Camping in Abalak

We arrived in the small Tuareg village of Abalak in the evening in the dark and stayed in a secure mud brick walled compound. It was miserably hot, and we slept in our tents for the night. As we were about to go to bed, we heard drumming and Arabic yodeling or Ululation. Daniela and I were drawn to the sound and wanted nothing more than to visit the wedding, but the soldiers were adamantly opposed to it. Daniella and I even walked to the other end of the compound to see if we could sneak out to the wedding but when we turned around one of the soldiers followed us. We weren’t going anywhere. Understandably so, even though we paid for the soldiers to escort us, we were their responsibility and if anything, happened to us they would be held liable and they would even potentially have to die to protect us. Even though Abalak appeared peaceful we were not far from the remote border of Mali and there were many insurgents operating in this region and not long after our visit to Abalak, I found out that an American missionary, who was living in Abalak and running a medical clinic was kidnapped by insurgents in Abalak in his home in a brazen night attack that left a few of his bodyguards dead. 

The next morning, with our escorts we were allowed to explore Abalak and visit the friendly Tuareg people, semi-nomadic and nomadic people of the desert. We also met the Wodabe chief who was going to drive with us to show us the location of the gerewol in the bush. Without him, we would not know where to find it. 

me and the Wodabae Chief. The Chief presented me with a gift, a kind gesture on his part and I presented him with a polroid photo of himself

Tuereg children with their customary camel leather necklaces of beautiful colors and beadery

Gerewol with the Wodabe Tribe

We set off into the bush beyond any roads into 4 by 4 tracks. The bush was a mix of thorn forest, sand and muddy lake beds since the rainy season was coming to an end and just barren endless desert scrubland. We drove for a few hours before we arrived in the middle of nowhere where a few camps of Wodabe with their livestock and camels were gathered near a muddy drinking pool. The location was remote and without the Wodabe we would have no way of finding our way out of this place. It was mid-day, and the sun was blazing, and the temperatures were easily north of 110 degrees F. The gerewol is a traditional celebration of the Wodabe people that draws groups of nomadic Wodabe together from all around the desert. It may be one of the only times in the year when some bands of Wodabe see each other and it is a special occasion for them to mingle and compete. The Wodabe are extremely vainful and consider themselves to be the most beautiful people on the planet. The truth is with their blend of Arabic and Sub-Sahelian African features, they are very handsome people. Many of them have green eyes and facial tattoos with beautiful patterns. The gerewol is not just a meeting for the gerewol, it is a kind of beauty contest for me. The men compete by showing off what they believe are their best attributes, white pearly teeth, whites of their eyes and their long angular faces. They do this by putting on makeup made from the seeds and flowers of local trees and plants to enhance their facial features and by dancing and singing in a manner that highlights their eyes and teeth. After the gerewol is concluded, a group of women judges, some barely passed the age of puberty will choose a man they deem the most desirable and the two will spend a night of passion together. The Wodabe have strict customs when it comes to marriage but the night of sex in a gerewol is an exemption from the strict protocols of marriage. A gerewol can last days and up to a week and many nomads can come and go and there are bonfires, singing and camel riding competitions as well. As foreigners, we were expected to pay a fee to the Wodabe chief for attending but it was clear by the number of people in attendance that the Wodabe was not just being performed only for us. Sadly, Daniella and I did not have enough time to spend the night and camp at the gerewol. The other foreigners were planning to stay at least two nights, but Daniella and I had to return to Touala by night fall because our trip was coming to an end and we needed to drive all the way back to Niamey to catch our evening flight the next day. We were still able to spend the day watching the gerewol preparation, visit the friendly Wodabe and even watch some of the dancing and singing before we headed back to Touala in the late afternoon with our military escort.

Wodabe men with their swords gathering in attendance for the gerewol

Wodabe boy

Wodabe boy

Wodabe Boy

Arriving Wodabe men in their tradition Fulu Bowl hats

Wodabe woman

Wodabe man with a turban

Young Tuereg boy

Groups of nomadic Tuareg and Wodabe begin forming and gathering for the gerewol. Daniella visited one camp of Wodabe woman and was heartbroken to see be greeted by a group pf wailing women holding the lifeless body of a newborn baby. It was always important to remember that we were visiting people, real people who live a hard life in a hard world and they face very real medical challenges. It was important to know when to stop being a tourist and to be a fellow human and show empathy. We were also approached by other Wodabe with waterborne illnesses asking us for medicine and I shared the little medicine I had.

Several Wodabe men under the shade of a tree groomed themselves and painted each other in make-up from traditional flowers and seeds. It was clear they were taking this act very seriously and I tried to avoid disrupting them. They prepared their make-up and ceremonial clothes only used for the gerewol and the process of preparation took a few hours. Each man inspected himself with a small handheld mirror and they were very appreciative of the polaroid photos I presented to them.

Wodabe men preparing make-up for gerewol

Wodabe men preparing make-up for gerewol

Wodabe men preparing for Gerewol

Wodabe men preparing for Gerewol

Daniella with one of the gerewol dancers

Tuareg and Wodabe men gathered to observe the dancing of the Wodabe men. The Wodabe men in make-up and the way they moved and expressed themselves appeared very effeminate. They weren’t attempting to look like women, all of this was an attempt to feature what they believe to be their most attractive qualities and it was all being done to hopefully secure a night of debauchery with a Wodabe woman. The Wodabe despite the make-up and effeminate looking dance are well known throughout the region for being famed warriors. Despite their reputation as warriors, the men were competing for women not through the traditional acts of masculinity or muscle contests, acts of bravery. Ironically instead they were dancing and displaying almost female like qualities.

Audiance of Wodabe and Turage Men

Audiance of Wodabe and Turage Men

Wodabe man

We watched a group of men dance for approx. 30 minutes before the skies darkened from a sandstorm and the sipping wind and sand sent everyone including the dancers scrambling for cover under the trees an in their tents. Soon after the wind, came a torrential rain and thunder and lightning. But before the dancing ended, we had a great opportunity to watch the gerewol.

Wodabe man

men dancing as the sandstorm approached

Gerewol Dance

Gerewol Dance

Wodabe men dancing showing off the whites of their eyes by rolling the eyes and grimacing their teeth to show off the white of their teeth

Women judging the men. Each woman will select a man to sleep with at the end of the night

The females that judge the men and eventually choose one to sleep with are separate from the men and no one is allowed to speak with them. They were intense and had an air of arrogance about them. I didn’t speak to them, and I felt as if they wanted nothing to do with me. They have tattoos on their faces and some of them were barely post pubescent looking. But in a world where most people live barely into their 40’s, women start baring children early in life. Some young girls are just there to help their older sisters and to watch the competition.

Female judge

Female judge

Female judge

Female judge

After the dancing was postponed due to the sandstorm, we decided we had to drive back to Touha for the night before the weather worsened. To find our way back we needed to pay a Wodabe man to join us in our already crowded jeep with our soldier escorts and he guides us back to Abalak. We did get stuck once in the mud of a lakebed but luckily, we were able to get out after a few attempts. From Touha, we continued back to Niamey and home. We later heard from some of the tourists that stayed at the gerewol that gerewol lasted for many days and there were more competitions, bonfires, singing and that even after the foreigners left, the gerewol continued on its own. 

 

Sandstorm

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