The Wodaabe Tribe are among the last surviving nomadic traders of the Sahel region. Their migratory journeys cover the expanse of Northern Africa, where they travel with their cattle and families across the arid regions of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic.
They are isolated members of the Fulani ethnic group, a kinship of 40 million Africans comprised of the world’s largest nomadic and pastoral population. They speak the Fula language but do not use any written form of communication.
Wodaabe means “People of the Taboo”, occasionally translated as “Those Who Respect Taboos”. Their traditions and way of life deeply astound all who investigate. Even their neighboring tribes consider the Wodaabe to be wild, uncivilized people, and they are labelled Mbororo, or Cattle Fulani, those who dwell in cattle camps.
Wodaabe daily life is focused around following the rain and the herding of Zebu Cattle, occasionally setting up camp in fertile pastures to allow the livestock to feed. They embark every few days so they can find new pastures and ensure the survival of their herd.
The Wodaabe trade milk products for cereal grains, which is the main source of their food. They keep goats and sheep for their meat and milk, while using Camels and Donkeys to carry their families and belongings.
The Wodaabe share an Islamic faith with their Fulani brethren due to the influence of the 15th century scholar, Muhammad al Maghili. This scholar was responsible for converting the ruling class of Northern Nigeria to Islam, along with the Hausa, Tuareg, and Fulani communities spread across the Sahel region.
Despite this lasting influence, the Wodaabe are notorious among the surrounding communities for following uniquely strict rules originating in the orthodoxy of the Fulani culture. Their pastoral culture adheres to a set of principles that demonstrate a moral code in every aspect of their tradition. Some of the main tenets of Wodaabe culture include:
Semteende – Reservation & Modesty
Munyal – Patience & Fortitude
Hakkilo – Care & Forethought
Amana – Loyalty
When it comes to aesthetics, the Wodaabe are very particular about their appearance. They passionately value both physical beauty and inner beauty, and they adhere to specific customs that they believe will project their most charming qualities.
It is common for a man in Wodaabe culture to carry a hand mirror, and many men wear eyeliner even into old age. The women separated their hair into segments, wearing a large top knot at the front which was later removed when they grew old. The men also wore segmented hair, which was braided and weaved into complex styles.
One of the most intriguing traditions that the Wodaabe practice is the annual festival known as Gerewol. Every September, at the end of the rain season, the men of the Wodaabe clans hold a beauty pageant, where they apply face paint, make up, and wear beautiful clothing. The location and exact time of the event is undisclosed until the time draws near, but it is generally held at the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
For seven days and seven nights, the men form lines while they perform a ceremonial dance and song called Yaake, intended to seduce the women of the tribe. The dancers sported rare facial expressions to display their Togu, or inner beauty, just as their ornamentation would display their outer beauty.
The women then have the opportunity to choose husbands and lovers from the suitors, modestly beckoning them into the bush for a night of romance. Some of the connections include unhappy wives who wish to divorce and men who wish to take on second or third wives. If a man is worried his wife might be stolen, he may keep her away from the Gerewol festival.
Alongside the Yaake courtship ritual, the suitors participate in camel races and barter over dowry. When the festival comes to a close, the Wodaabe clans disband and set out into the southern pastures to prepare for the dry season.
Tattoos & Taboos
The Wodaabe way of life is said to respect the taboos, but many of their traditions would be unthinkable to other cultures. One such custom is the act of tattooing female babies by cutting their skin with a razor and sprinkling charcoal in the wound.
Moreover, Wodaabe parents are forbidden to speak to their children until they become adults. Children are raised by their grandparents until they come of age. They are then trained on the aesthetic traditions and courtship rituals of Gerewol.
The Wodaabe are renowned among the other tribes as keepers of ancient knowledge; the secrets of herbal remedies and magic. Members of the Tuareg, who live harmoniously with the nomads, would come to the Wodaabe to seek advice in matters of magic and medicine.
When their animals were ill, they would give them herbal remedies and burn sigils into their flesh to cure the sickness.
Wodaabe men wore magical talismans made from mixtures of plants and minerals, embroidered into leather accessories that could be fastened to the body. These talismans were believed to ward off evil and protect the wearers. The Wodaabe never used their magic to do harm, but employed these spiritual forces to protect their families and animals as well as to attract wives.
The Wodaabe believed in supernatural beings, namely genies who could shape-shift and bush spirits who lived in trees and wells. They believed very few people could see and interact with them, and that their presence was a rare and ominous occurrence.
The resilience of these transient cultures in the face of scarcity, drought, and even the depletion of their herds is a fascinating and inspiring example of humanity’s resourcefulness, tenacity and connection to the Earth’s natural rhythms.
The Wodaabe nomads continue to follow these seasonal cycles, participating in a mass migratory dance across the African continent. The legacy of their tradition continues to echo throughout the world like the song of a Gerewol ceremony, seducing the modern world with their irreplaceable and fascinating heritage.
Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1999.