Guérewol - the Festival of Celebrating Beauty

Photo by Chris G
Bid your adieus to Mr. Universe, Gladrags Super Models, Manhunts and Valentine’s Day. Gear up for an 'old school dating service' that surpasses these consumerism driven amorous galas. In what can be either defined as a celebration of beauty or a courtship ritual - Wodaabe people of Niger (a landlocked country in Western Africa) have an annual competition called Guérewol where young men in their finest attires and behaviors vie for the brownie points of three gorgeous ladies. Sounds like American Idol? Well, in a way it is minus the Coke/Pepsi tumblers and Simon; you can expect a couple of Paula’s and Jennifer Lopez’s though.

The Contest
So what is Guérewol? In brief, it’s an African version of the 'Indian Swayamvara', (excluding the part where the bride is bound together for life, these guys keep their options open). Celebrated right after the rainy season, the festival has three ladies sit down together to crown a man for his sex appeal and grace. The competition cannot be rigged since the festival is an inter-clan affair and women of two separate lineages judge the beauty of the men from opposite clans. On the day of Guerewol, as the sun rises, a woman sings out in the Wodaabe encampment, marking the commencement of the festival. The song is sung to encourage the young to rise in readiness for the dancing ahead: “The morning star has arisen! Beautiful girls! Handsome boys! Get up before the day begins!”

Wodaabe women, like their men, lean and tall; biceps, triceps, nice legs and six pack abs are equally important. The ideal man’s facial features should be symmetrical, his eyes large and round, his nose fine and long and his teeth white and even. (Surgery is usually not a option as the Wodaabe women don’t have much of a like for anything plastic). The dude must also have a sense of style that appeals to the women and last but not the least, his stamina should be beyond comparison. The enthusiastic men are judged based on these criteria in the Gerewol festival; the lucky man that meets all these criteria walks away with the charm of three lovely ladies.

The Talent Round
With “Grace” being an important criterion for the contest, the participants must be good at shaking their legs too. Yaake - the principal competitive dance round is intended to allow the contestants to exhibit their overall physical presence, their poise and sense of rhythm, and the particular beauty of their facial features. As a spectacle, it is a cross between opera, ballet and a drag show, performed without props in the middle of a semi-desert.

Behind the Scenes
Preparations for the Yaake dance are meticulous and a community affair. Both the foundation and the lipstick worn at the festival are composed of rare ingredients that are considered to have magical properties. Men also shave their hairline to elongate their foreheads.

With the hair and make up done, the participants tie amulet bags, necklaces and crosses around their necks, then dress in tunics that hang to their ankles. They wear white turbans with ostrich feathers on their heads. The overall attire may seem traditional, but Woodabe women never fail to appreciate a little creativity or fusion. So don’t be surprised if you notice zips in their embroidery, or men wearing plastic watches on their necklaces. Before lining up for a Yaake, the young men drink a cocktail containing a psychoactive bark that assists them in putting on their best face, making their most elegant moves, and staying on their feet all night.

The Jury
While they wear less make-up than the boys, Wodaabe girls adorn themselves with equal care. They wear beaded necklaces and amulet bags around their neck and colored bracelets on their wrists, large hoops of silver or gold in their ears. The traditionalists have thick brass bangles around their ankles, intended to give them a “cow-like” step — a prized virtue in their cattle culture.
Devoid of any hypocrisy, Guérewol is a fun filled festival which allows young men and women to mingle, flirt and possibly find a partner. There is no pretence of scouting for talent or any room for moral policing.

-by Parmita Borah