The dating game, African-style

Photographs by John Rizzo.

Our group arrived unannounced, the only non-Wodaabe present.

There were 1,000 of them and seven of us. Speaking French and without hesitation, they invited us into their inner circle to witness, participate in and photograph the Gerewol, a courtship ceremony in which men ornament themselves and perform to vie for nubile women. It was a mind-blowing experience.

Some 150 miles north of Abalak, our driver suddenly veered off the road onto nothing but sand. No hills, no paved tracks, nothing to indicate this route had been previously traversed. Just miles of flat sand. We were weaving in and out of scrubby vegetation and stunted trees at high speeds. This continued for more than an hour, with us sometimes crossing dry creek beds that are known trouble spots for getting stuck. Four-wheel drive is mandatory here. Finally, we arrived at the festival site. While the crew set up our camp, we made our way to the biggest gathering.

The Gerewol is an annual contest of the nomadic Wodaabe people. It takes place in Niger and Chad when the rainy season ends in September. The Wodaabe, who belong to the Fulani tribe, are cattle herders who live on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and know how to survive it. Their festival is a weeklong event and began each day in the late afternoon. First, however, there was morning practice. It’s a show of stamina, a desirable trait in a competition that is often aided by homemade, mind-altering bark beverages as it continues nonstop under a desert sun that exceeded 100 degrees.

The West African state of Niger was a French colonial possession from 1900 to 1960 and also included portions of neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad. Many of the hotels there were built by the French in the classic tradition of European architecture.

As the large, orange ball of a sun rose on our campground surrounded by silhouetted camels in all sizes, camel races among suitors were taking place nearby, another tradition of the festival.

In late afternoon, the men stood shoulder to shoulder to form a large circle. None shorter than 6 feet and many taller, these thin, healthy beings began a series of songs and chants that continued until almost dawn. Directly behind the men and leaning against them were the women, shorter in stature, dressed in black shawls with necks craning to see. The Gerewol was being performed for them, to give them a chance to select the best men from the competition, with whom they hoped to spend the next year and possibly a lifetime. When a woman saw a man that attracted her, she gently tapped his shoulder. Gerewol affairs carry no social stigma or moral restriction, meaning that a married man can get picked and end up with a second wife. Creative facial expressions that emphasized their good health, including bulging white eyeballs and brilliant white teeth, were normal as the Yaake dance was performed. Yellow face paint, scraped from a natural stone found in the desert, was the makeup.

Without access to electricity from wall outlets, we used portable recharging units that connected either to our Toyota Land Cruiser’s cigarette lighter or directly to the car battery using copper alligator clips, for 1000 watt seconds of power for our cameras and computers.

During midday, when the light was without shape and too harsh to shoot with, we set up a portable studio with battery packs, photo umbrellas and a 9-by-9-foot background. We invited the men to visit us and sit for portraits.

Late one evening, as we were sitting around our table and talking, a few visitors approached. Silhouetted against the moonlight, they were imposing figures. Word had gotten around that we were traveling with a medical doctor and they had come to ask us for medication. A burned foot, an injured hand and even breast cancer were mentioned. We had brought a supply of pain killers with us that we could give to them safely, so we obliged.

In turn they gave us an experience that brought new meaning to the phrase “mating ritual.”

John Rizzo is a WAG staff photographer who offers group photography tours to see the Gerewol, Turkana and other unique events in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. For more, visit johnrizzophoto.com.

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