Location: Teguidda-n-Tessoumt, In-Gall, Niger
Dates: a week in the first half of September
Level of participation: 3 - make an extreme journey to the deepest Sahara to watch a beauty contest.
One of Africa’s most recognisable celebrations is the Salt Cure, held by Fulani and Tuareg cattle herders in the Sahara desert. While various groups gather for events, the Cure Salée held by the Wodaabé people is the one that has really grabbed the Western imagination.
When the Fulani migrated to West Africa centuries ago, those who remained nomads called themselves ‘Wodaabé’ (‘people of the taboo’), meaning those who adhere to the traditional code of the Fulani. The sedentary Fulani’s description of their itinerant cousins was less complimentary: ‘Bororo’, a name derived from their cattle and insinuating something like ‘those who live in the bush and do not wash’. As cattle need salt to remain healthy, the nomads converge on the In-Gall area (known for its high salt content) at the height of the rainy season, when the grass can support large herds. During the Cure Salée, you’ll see men on camels trying to keep their livestock in order and racing across the plains.
The event serves, above all, as a social gathering and an opportunity to woo the opposite sex. The most striking example of this is the Gerewol festival, in which bachelors participate in a ‘beauty contest’ to win the attention of eligible females. Wodaabé men and women alike have long, elegant features, and believe they have been blessed with great beauty. Having attractive children is so important to them that men who are not good-looking have shared their wives with more handsome men to gain better-looking offspring.
The main event is the Yaake, a late-afternoon performance when the men dance, displaying their beauty, charisma and charm. In preparation, they spend hours decorating themselves in front of small hand mirrors. They then form a long line, dressed to the hilt with blackened lips (to make the teeth seem whiter), lightened faces, white streaks down their foreheads and noses, star-like figures painted on their faces, braided hair, elaborate headwear, anklets, jewellery, beads and shiny objects. All are hoping to emphasise the qualities the women desire: lean bodies, long slender noses, white even teeth, and bright eyes.
The men dance for hours, powered by stimulating drinks, until the women timidly make their choices. Rivalry between suitors can be fierce. To show their virility, the young men take part in the Soro, where they stand smiling while others try to knock them over with huge sticks. If a marriage proposal results, the man takes a calabash of milk to the woman’s parents. If they accept, he brings them the bride price, three cattle, which are slaughtered for the ensuing festivities.
Since 2005, the Niger government has used the festival as a tourist attraction and an opportunity to broadcast messages to the elusive audience - a source of great discontentment for the nomads.