Gerewol festival, Chad

A beauty pageant with a twist, Chad’s Gerewol is a colourful, centuries old festival during which men put on makeup, dress up and perform a series of enigmatic dances to attract a new wife – or at the very least, score a night of passion.
For the week that the Wodaabe people gather, having travelled across the Sahel on foot, camel or donkey with their cattle, men rise early to paint their faces with red ochre, draw on white dots, pile on jewellery and sweep on a slick of black or blue lipstick during preening sessions that last for hours. They then dance in long lines each evening in front of groups of women, arms interlinked, eyes wide and lips parted to emphasise how tall they are and how white their teeth and eyes. They bounce and bend in a bid to imitate the grace and elegance of the long legged white cattle egret – feathers are frequently worn – and chant ‘va va va va’ with otherworldly, chattering smiles.
Held in the southwest of Chad, the Gerewol takes place at the end of the rainy season, around the last week of September. The Woodabe people lead a semi nomadic life of cattle herding, covering huge distances in search of water in isolated family groups. They belong to the Fulani ethnic group, and are split into several different clans, with around eight or nine in Chad alone. The Gerewol is the only time during the year that they all gather together. You may hear them being referred to as the Mbororo by other groups, but this has a slightly derogatory meaning, something like ‘dirty shepherd’ – Wodaabe is the correct, and polite name.
As well as dancing, the Gerewol festival involves feasting, socialising and camel racing, but it culminates with a final dance display, after which three winners are chosen by three women of marriageable age who have closely observed the dances over the previous few days. The selection is tense, with the young women walking down the line of dancers, poker faced in accordance with the Wodaabe pulaku, or code of behavior. Then each taps their favourite man and everyone rushes in to celebrate and congratulate the winners – being selected is a huge honour. The women then return to their camps and wait. If the chosen men like them, they follow.

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Gerewol festival vacation in Chad

Gerewol festival vacation in Chad

Witness one of Africa's most colourful traditional festivals

From £2699 to £2799 8 days ex flights
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The more famous – and touristy – version of the Gerewol happens in Niger, but Chad’s festivities are smaller and rarely viewed. Chad’s huge size, plus its isolation created by years of conflict in the region has helped keep this fascinating tribal tradition intact. Visiting is a unique and rewarding privilege. Most organised tours to experience the Gerewol spend around five days there, with the festival the sole focus of a week’s vacation in Chad, rather than being slotted into a much larger tour.
Native Eye, the only specialist tour operator on Responsible Travel which runs trips to experience Gerewol has built relations with the Wodaabe over the years, and travelers are welcomed as guests. You camp near the festival goers, at a respectful distance, but are able to chat with the Wodaabe and learn more about their culture and rituals. It’s a chance to be immersed in a world little changed for centuries and experience the deep traditions of Africa.
Jim O’Brien, from Native Eye, explains:

“The Gerewol is a unique opportunity to see a complex set of traditions that have often disappeared elsewhere in Africa. It’s an important part of Wodaabe society and whereas in some parts of the continent local festivals have become a little more ‘sanitised’ and modern as time goes on, this still retains its authenticity. Visually it’s a striking spectacle as the Wodaabe men dress up in the finest clothes and apply elaborate make up, performing dances and songs with a view to attracting a partner – it really does have to be seen to be believed.”
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Native Eye Travel] [row of tribesmen: Native Eye Travel] [Three tribesmen: Native Eye Travel] [Woodabe tribesman: Native Eye Travel] [Two tribesmen: Native Eye Travel] [Chanting tribesman: Native Eye Travel]