Every September, the last of the rain falls on the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa, and the landscape transitions from a muddy green to the stereotypical dusty palette of the Sahel. As in most parts of Africa, rain governs life, and it is during this chromatic change that thousands of nomadic Fulata people prepare for their transhumance migration south.
The Woodabe, a sub-group of the Fulata, call some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the African continent home. From Niger to southwestern Chad, and into the western parts of the Central African Republic, these nomadic clans move with their livestock in much the same way as their forefathers did. But before packing up their oxen caravans and moving south for the dry season, the Woodabe clans gather for the annual Guérewol Festival – a refreshing twist on marital selection, where men do the impressing and women do the choosing. In September of last year I spent a week with these extraordinary people.
Road trips from N’Djamena (Chad’s unassuming capital) normally begin with almond croissants and pain au chocolat from Le Boulangerie de L’Amandine on Rue du Havre. Fresh fruit and baguettes are bought on the side of the Neem lined boulevards, and a quick stop at the Grande Marché is made to pick up essentials forgotten in the haste of packing.
The drive out of N’Djamena follows the languid Chari River before parting ways and heading into the open plains and sorghum fields of southwestern Chad. It’s flat country. And flat country towards the end of a rain season means mud and waterlogged sand disguised as a pleasant country lane.
What ensued was an eclectic eight hours of colorful language, pushing and towing, revving and sweating. Fortunately, we were among the convoy our good friend Rocco, co-owner of SVS Tchad and arguably the best tourist outfitter in the country, was leading. In convoys, getting stuck together also means getting un-stuck together.
When we crossed the last dry stream before arriving at the main Woodabe camp, it was as if we had traversed an imaginary line between two worlds. Reality and normalcy were left behind, replaced with a mystical world of dust-filled last light, cattle herds spread out between stilted bed huts, smoking dung fires, indigo and turbans, and children weaving in and out of it all – Sudanese love ballads playing from stereos casually draped over their shoulders.
The Woodabe still follow a strict and complex ethical code known as “Pulaku.” Formed by the five ‘pillars’ — respect, patience, beauty, intelligence, and doing nothing that will bring one shame — the pillars echoe the basis of what many of us would hope for humanity, and one can’t help but be humbled by seeing this code of ethics followed so precisely.
The Guérewol festival — a courtship ritual where men are chosen by marriageable women — sees clans and families congregating for a weeklong get-together of dancing and courting, with the imperative pillar being ‘beauty.’ Height, white teeth, long noses, and white eyes are considered desirable traits by the women, and are accentuated by the men during the festival. Faces are adorned with ochre, clay, crushed chalk, and burned bones, pronouncing the eyes, teeth, and facial symmetry. Hours are spent staring into mirrors, preening and painting, and small groups could be found scattered among the acacia trees in the early hours of each morning crouching over piles of colored powder and ostrich feathers. The event is a communal affair.
The week is a test of the men’s endurance.
The main dance, known as the “yaake,” can go on for hours. The men dance and sing in a long line, moving and swaying in rhythm, baring white eyes and teeth, while at the same time chattering their jaws continuously at high speed, eyes darting left and right. The ostrich plumes and woollen tassels worn on their heads accentuate their height. They move forward together for a few minutes at a time in full ‘dance,’ heads held high before some relax back into the line in a succumbed lull, eyes closed, heads bowed, gently swaying to the deep singing.
The women, forming a group in front of the men, radiate coolness with a slight nonchalant air, but keep an enthusiastic eye on their subjects. The actual selection of husbands, by the women, is nothing but a subtle movement or notion in their direction — a slight nod of the head, point or brush of the finger, and then they fade back into the crowd. No eye contact is made.
The lines or “yaake’s” form and dissolve throughout the afternoon, going well into the early hours of the morning and often drawing crowds of over 100 at a time. In the late evening the older men race horses in the golden dust and children practice their own attempts at eye rolling in anticipation of the day when they too will dance the “yaake.” Men talk over warm glasses of tea and the blindingly luminous colors contrasted against the harsh, Chadian bush made me question exactly what planet, let alone continent, I was actually on.
During the evenings, groups of women huddle in tight circles, dancing energetically to a clapping beat. The rhythm is syncopated and unnaturally fast, building up to a crescendo with two to three women dancing at a time in the middle before bowing out. If an older woman dances, all the women younger than her crouch down out of respect.
We sat on the ground among them, watching torches flickering on the dancers’ bodies and feeling the ground reverberate with the sounds of a different world. There was no alcohol, no anger, no hatred, just the sound of their otherworldly singing and laughter drifting through the night. Delight in the moment, with the knowledge that they would be on the move again soon for the next year.
The Woodabe carry all their belongings neatly arranged on their oxen and donkeys, and their huts consist of simple raised beds with brightly decorated, wicker-like bow roofs. The entire family sleeps together. They embody a minimalistic culture, only keeping what they find practical, beautiful, and manageable on the back of an ox. I sat and drank tea with one woman in the shade of her Dalí-esque bed, thinking how different this world would be if we, as humans, could just embrace half of the Woodabe customs.
In the evenings, some of the children would come and sit around the fire with us at our camp. Not two words of a mutual language were spoken between us. Yet those moments, sitting under an endless Chadian sky, made more sense to me than many conversations I have had in my own mother tongue. There was no presumption and no jealousy. Just a shared fascination between two very different worlds.
If I had to be a child in any community (aside from the family I grew up in) I would choose that one. It’s not an easy life — no school, no medical care — but every face was alive with happiness and wonder. There was no concept of materialism, and their manners and respect superseded that of most Western children I know.
To accurately describe a week in that life, with only words, feels impossible. It’s an existence apart. One needs the sounds. The smells. The unfamiliar sensation of peace and anticipation in a single moment.
I have met many different types of the human race, yet I don’t think I will ever again encounter a people that had such a profound effect on me. Sitting in the back of the Toyota land cruiser on the return drive to N’Djamena, watching the gradual increase in conventional structures and transportation the closer we got to town, I couldn’t help but imagine what their year ahead would be like. How it would contrast with mine. And how desperately I wanted to turn around and join them again.