You wouldn't come to Niger for it's natural beauty. You wouldn't come for it's stunning scenery, nor for it's elegant architecture. Beautiful, stunning and elegant, Niger is not! Every September, however, two weeks after the rains, there is something to see. The Wodaabe Fula people of Niger gather for an annual courtship ritual competition. Young men dressed in elaborate ornamentation, made up in traditional face painting, gather in lines to dance and sing, vying for the attentions of young marriageable women. The Guerewol festival occurs each year as the traditionally nomadic Wodaabe cattle herders gather at the southern edge of the Sahara. The week long Guerewol festival is found wherever Wodaabe gather. Besides the singing and dancing, there's also bartering over dowries, competitions and at times, camel races among the suitors.
This dusty country, which most can't pin-point on a map, is found in West Africa. Niger is just North of it's more-heard-of neighbor, Nigeria. Officially known as the Republic of Niger, it is the largest country in West Africa with over 80% of it's land covered by the Sahara desert. It's a developing country. It's top export is radioactive chemicals. Much of the non-desert portions of Niger are threatened by drought and desertification. It faces serious challenges to development due to it's desert terrain, inefficient agriculture, high fertility rates and overpopulation. Poor education, poverty, lack of infrastructure, poor health care and environmental degradation also add to the difficulties.
I flew into Niamey, the capital and was met in the small airport by my guide, Mahaman. A Niger native, Mahaman was tall, lean and nicely dressed. He dropped me off at my very basic hotel and went over my travel plans. While in Niamey I wandered around the dusty streets and went to the much talked about National Museum of Niger. Imagine my surprise to realize the museum was actually mostly made up of a zoo. With animals looking like the were depressed and potentially suicidal (especially the intelligent chimps), I cut my time there short. It did have two large dinosaur skeletons, however, that were somewhat interesting. There wasn't much else to do in Niamey, so I found a restaurant along the Niger River and had a delicious dinner of "BBQ" which turned out to be grilled meat on skewers and probably the best I've ever had. The following morning I was picked up early. We had a convoy of vehicles which included other 4x4s and their travelers and the obligatory military escort. Our military escort was made up of an old Mitsubishi truck with 9 men in it. Two were in the cab and the other 7 were in the truck bed where a large caliber machine gun protruding from the vehicle. Some wore green fatigues, some camel. All had either berets or had their heads wrapped in cloth as protection from the sun and sand. We also had a military man in our vehicle in the passenger seat, equipped with a large rifle. Also in the vehicle was my guide and another solo traveler, a German girl. The military escort is required by the government to keep travelers safe. With Boko Haram in some places in Niger, having an escort into the bush, is a good idea. The drive to Tahoua was long and bumpy. We did stop numerous times at small villages along the way for photos. The people of Niger were welcoming and kind. All were happy to have their picture taken and I snapped away. After a 17+ hour day of driving, we finally reached Tahoua to find a nice hotel awaiting us for the night. After having a meal I sat in the lobby as the internet signal was strong there and quickly realized this area was full of desert type grasshoppers. These things were huge and started jumping on me and my laptop. They also fly while jumping and can go great distances! They were beige in color, perfectly matching the sand outside and there was nothing the hotel could do to stop them from coming in whenever the doors was opened. I eventually left as I was tired of being bombarded by these pests. I retired for the night and slept well.
I was up early the next morning and came down for breakfast before the other travelers awoke. I walked out of my room into the open air hall, and headed for the door of the main lobby. I opened it to find a thousand grasshopper carcasses littering the floor, all dead! Apparently the life span of these insects is very short! There were four workers with large brooms cleaning up the carnage. I asked what had happened and they said they have to do it every morning! I opened the door to the restaurant and was happy that either there were no grasshoppers there, or perhaps they had just swept up that room first! I had my breakfast and then gathered my things to head out into the bush. As I walked out the door of the hotel, another traveler stated I had a dead grasshopper on my behind.
We traveled from Tahoua to the tiny village of Abalak and at that point left civilization and headed into the bush. About an hour into the drive we reached our destination. A place with no name, no buildings, no nothing. It was where the Wodaabe Fula people decided to have their festival. There are many of these festivals around Niger at this time of year, held wherever Wodaabe Fula people gather. Finding a gathering on your own would be very difficult, as they are in different locations every year. Without a local to guide you, you simply would never find one. We got out and pitched our tents. Since no tents were available to rent, we had to bring our own. I pitched mine, but not before checking the ground for small barbs that were prevalent from a certain bush in the area. With none to be found, I set up my home for the next several nights. It was morning, however the heat of the desert was already soaring. We could see the young Wodaabe men busy getting ready for the event. Basically, the Guerewol competitions involves the made up young men singing and dancing in a line, facing young marriageable woman, repeatedly over a seven-day period and for hours on end in the desert sun. Suitors come to the encampment of the woman to prove their interest, stamina, and attractiveness. As such, with great care and small mirrors, these young men carefully made up their faces with bright makeup. Not only was there elaborate make-up, but feathers and other adornments used while performing dances and songs to impress the women. The male beauty ideal of the Wodaabe includes tallness, white eyes and teeth; the men will often roll their eyes and show their teeth to emphasize these characteristics. I also noticed they painted their lips black to emphasis their white teeth. A good singing voice is also desired. The Wodaabe join for their week-long Guerewol celebration, ultimately a contest where the young men's beauty is judged by young women. I'm usually one of the tallest when traveling, however, not in this country! The Wodaabe men dwarfed me. With their tall, lean bodies and beautiful, high cheekbones, once they were made up, they could have easily passed as elegant women.
When the men had finished their preening, which reminded me much of a peacock, they started assembling in a line. Once in position, they started singing the same, repetitive, hypnotic-like chant. While doing this, they would slowly rise and fall on their toes. This kind of dance is typical of Fula tradition. Over and over they would do this and as the hours went by I couldn't believe they were continuing in the searing African heat. Around 2pm they finally took a break for a couple hours and then were back again until 12:30 in the morning. This went on every day! Apparently the participants often drink a fermented bark concoction, which reputedly has a hallucinogenic effect, to enable them to dance for long periods. One day while in this line singing and rising and falling on their toes they decided to form a circle around us fifteen travelers, all the while continuing to sing. It was an emotional few minutes to have so many voices happily singing all around us in the bush of Niger, in the middle of nowhere, in a place with no name.
With the high heat of the desert, sleep did not come easy. Luckily, after midnight it would cool down. Since it wasn't until 12:30 that the Wodaabe stopped singing, I could never sleep before then anyway.
I would wake in the morning before the singing began and walk around the camp of locals. All were happy to have their photos taken and most posed for the camera. They were extremely friendly people and didn't seem to mind us being there. At one point I laughed when I came across a board with numerous cell phones charging on it. They had rigged up a car battery and solar panels to charge their cell phones. Yes, today even nomads have cell phones! Most of the people slept in "huts" they had fashioned from boards and blankets although some where actually in tents that had been donated.
After days in the desert, the festival came to an end and I got ready for the long drive back to Niamey. My guide was continuing on in another direction with a different traveler and so I hopped on a local bus bound for the capital. The sights, color and sounds of the Guerewol festival was something out of National Geographic. Although Niger may have no physical beauty to speak of, it's people are stunning!