Make-up! Lipstick! Mirrors! And ‘Mr Sahara’

It’s a beauty contest with a difference. The men dress up and the women judge. Poverty and bling meet in the deserts of West Africa.

Tall, slim, good teeth and bright eyes – these characteristics would be demanded by judges in beauty contests the world over. And they’re still demanded when the contestants are men in the desert.

The Wodaabe tribe are a nomadic people scattered across the sub-Saharan steppe in Niger, West Africa. But even in severe living conditions there’s a place for dressing up and flirting, and it happens at the Gerewol.

The Gerewol is a beauty pageant held to mark the end of the rainy season and to celebrate the fertility the rains bring to this parched region at the edge of the Sahara.

In preparation, the men of the tribe spend hours in front of the mirror putting on red and yellow make-up in order to be named ‘Mr Sahara’.

But it’s not just lipstick and eyeliner; charm and an ability to dance are also important. The contestants will have to dance for hours to impress the judges, who are all women.

And ‘expressivity’ is crucial, according to Mette Bovin, a Danish anthropologist who has studied the tribe since the 1970’s. ‘To have charm – that is to have expressivity and charisma – is highly valued in a young man.’

The location and date of the Gerewol are kept secret until just before the event, which lasts seven days and nights, and is considered the social highlight of the year; an opportunity for the Wodaabe to come together.

I Drought and conflict in the region are all too familiar, and mean the ceremony is rarely practiced. This year’s Gerewol was the first for six years.

For the rest of the year this nomadic tribe live in small family units, moving on every few days in search of land that can sustain their cattle.

In harsh conditions, black is also a favoured colour, used to darken the lips. It’s favoured because it is the opposite of white, which is the colour of loss and death.

Surprising flings
The Gerewol is an ancient ceremony with rather ‘modern’ outcomes: when the dancing is done, each judge chooses her champion, and may take him as a lover, even if both already have partners.

The Wodaabe are a Muslim tribe, but women have an unusual degree of freedom, and marriage vows are cast aside at the ceremony. ‘You dance the Gerewol to try and win a lover, even if it means stealing someone else’s wife,’ says Djao, a contestant. ‘You can marry her or have a fling with her.’

Amid the Saharan sand, boys dress up and girls judge them. The desert is full of surprises.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that in the West, every day is a beauty contest for girls?
  2. ‘For one night a year, there should be no rules!’ Discuss.

Activities

  1. Compose some music for a Saharan dance competition; or draw a face with tribal make-up on.
  2. Write a story or a letter to someone about what it feels like to be judged – when you don’t want to be.

Some People Say...

“What’s wrong with life being a beauty contest?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Men being judged by women? It’s a bit different from the West.
True. In the West, it’s all about the females dressing up and being judged. But at least for the men in the Sahara it’s only once a year. Some women in the West feel like they’re judged every day of the year.
And the men take make-up so seriously!
Yes, again unlike the West, where make-up tends to be associated with women. Clay of red ochre is often worn to cover the face.
Why red?
It’s the colour of blood and violence and only used on special occasions; while yellow, which they use to highlight the nose, is the colour of transformation and magic.
But marriage rules go out the window?
Yes, they do. Many cultures have festivals where the normal rules are cast aside for a while, like the Roman festival of Saturnalia. A good idea?