Ever heard of the Wodaabe tribe? There’s a chance the answer is a NO. These people practice one of the most bizarre and vain traditions you will ever see, hear or read about. Wodaabe is the tribe where men dress up and compete to steal each other’s women. Strange right? Sit back and read as we uncover this spectacular culture.
But who are the Wodaabe people?
The Wodaabe are a nomadic tribe. They live mostly in the Sahel from Northeast Nigeria to Niger, Chad, Northern Cameroon and even as far as Central African Republc. The Wodaabe boast of a population of 150,000 and 200,000 people. They are surrounded by the Hausa, Tuareg and Fulani tribes who see them as “wild”. As a subgroup of the Fulani themselves, the Wodaabe regard the Fulani as people who have lost their way. The Wodaabe roam around the Sahel region of Africa most of the year, their cultural ceremonies like the Yakke, Worso and Gerewol dances bring them together.
What’s so special about the Wodaabe people?
A couple of years ago, the BBC aired a documentary about the Wodaabe. It was reported that the Wodaabe have one of the most spectacular and uncommon traditions in the world. Below are some of the most interesting highlights of their culture.
The Wodaabe believe they are the most beautiful people in the world. They take dressing very seriously and often you see them on body paint, jewelry and colorful tattoos. The men especially, put in a lot of effort and time beautifying themselves. There’s a popular Woodabe saying that no self respecting Woodabe man will be without his pocket mirror.
The Fula language is the language of the Wodaabe people; however, it is unwritten. Woda in fula means taboo, while Wodaabe means “people of the taboo”. Sometimes it is translated to mean those people who respect taboos. It’s a reference to their isolation from the Fulani culture. They believe they are the only people within the Fulani language family who still remain true to their culture.
Religion and Cultural Values of the Wodaabe people
The people practice a loose form of Islam. The religion came to the Wodaabe in the 16th century when the Muslim scholar al-Maghili spread the doctrine of Islam in the Sahel region. He was responsible for the conversion of thousands of people from the Hausa, Fulani and Tuareg ethnic groups.
The Gerewol Cultural festival
Usually celebrated by the Wodaabe people every September, the Gerewol ceremony is perhaps the most spectacular sight of the Wodaabe culture. Here, the Wodaabe men clad in their stylish make-up, perform the Yakee dances and songs to impress the women. These dances are performed in front of three female judges. Prior to the ceremony, the men spend hours applying red clay to their faces, black liner to their eyes and lipsticks to their lips. They bare their teeth, in an aggressive-looking grimace, slowly moving together in a circle. Each female judge gets to choose her own winner and other women of marriageable age gather to watch. If any of them likes a man and wishes to be stolen, she waits until her favorite man moves toward her and taps her shoulder.
According to Woodabe tradition, the fact that a woman has a husband is unimportant. The Woodaabe women have all the sexual freedom. They may chose to have sex with whomever they want and with as many men as they wish. If a woman marries an unattractive man, she may choose to sleep with an attractive one to bear good looking babies. Also, a woman can marry as many husbands as she wants.
When it comes to Wodaabe culture, women have sexual total control.
Polygamy is very common among the Wodaabe people. Usually, parents arrange the first marriage when the couple are still young – the young couple are called koogal. Later marriages are also permissible; a woman is allowed to leave her husband to be with another one. The Wodaabe are very liberal sexually, a girl can have sex with any man she wants. Women live with their husbands until they get pregnant. Subsequently, they go back home to deliver the baby in their mother’s house. It’s interesting to note that when a Wodaabe child is born, they are not named until they clock the age of 12. The women remain with their children in their mother’ homes for three to four years and are not allowed contact with the husband during that period.
The Wodaabe people produce beautiful textiles and elaborate body paintings. Women would spend long hours weaving clothes and applying embroidery, while the men take their time applying make-up just to look good.
The Wodaabe rely on their long horned Zebu cattle which can withstand the arid climate of the Sahel. The cattle serve as a source of milk, yoghurt and meat and sometimes the herders sell them for money.