A parade of cultural costumes with basic introductions. Swimsuit category follows, and finally an evening wear segment. Elimination of participants as about five emerge as finalists. Final appearances, each one of the finalists answers a couple of quick questions. Audience waits in anticipation. Compere announces judges’ decision and the winner is crowned.
Basic routine of a beauty pageant. Whether an international one like, Miss Universe, or Miss World, or a local or national affair: Miss Nigeria, Miss Kenya, Miss Campus, etc. it’s always a female affair with the finest ladies on parade. But somewhere in Africa, a beauty pageant is organized, and the contestants are not females, but males.
Welcome to the Gerewol, an annual beauty pageant among the Wodaabe tribe, where the men wear the make-up, while the women decide the winner.
The Wodaabe are a nomadic cattle-rearing splinter of the Fulani tribe found in the Sahel region on the edge of the Sahara, mostly in Niger and Chad. As the rainy season comes to an end in September, they arrive in the town of In-Gall, about 70km from Agadez, to procure salt and celebrate the Festival of the Nomads, the annual Cure Salée with other nomadic tribes.
Cure Salée: Salt Cure
The Cure Salée (Salt Cure) is an ancient celebration of the fattening of cattle and is used to prepare for the journey further down south to survive the dry season. The official festival lasts three days featuring camel races, songs and dances, storytelling, animal trading, medicinal cures, etc. but festivities stretch on for weeks among the groups staying behind. In the ‘90s, the Niger government became involved with organizing the festival.
For the Wodaabe, the week-long Gerewol symbolizes a time for love through a courtship contest where the men beautify and adorn themselves to try and win a lady. A key part of the festival is dance. During the seven-day period, several dance routines takes place with the men standing shoulder to shoulder and moving around slowly a circle. As they go by, eligible women would tap on the shoulder of the ones they are attracted to.
“Ladies, ladies all around, who’s the finest dude in town?”
However, the highlight of Gerewol is the Yaake dance which lasts hours under the desert sun – a show of stamina, fueled by a strong fermented bark concoction with alleged hallucinogenic effect drunk by the participants.
Every guy wants to win this one and they take time to preen themselves up. Elaborate make-up, painted faces, darkened lips to emphasis their white teeth, eye shadow, plaited hair, bird plumes headgear to emphasize height, beads to show wealth, etc.
While they dance before the women, a jury of three who are usually the daughters of past winners, have the task of chosen the most attractive male. At the climax of the Yaake, each of the jury chooses a winner who she takes as her lover – an affair that might last a day, or become a marriage. Gerewol affairs carry no social stigma or moral restriction, so a married man can get picked and end up with a second wife, while sometimes a man may lose his wife to another.