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Sahara

Day 55: Near Ingal

Near Ingal, Niger 
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Many faces of the Gerewol. For the young Wodaabe eye-rolling means sex appeal. The lips and eyes are accentuated with kohl, a powder from ground stibnite; the yellow base is from another local stone. Cowrie shells and ostrich feathers are essential ingredients in the art of seduction.
Michael Palin - SaharaCéline, who for one summer, at least, has left the lush farmlands of Aquitaine to live with the Wodaabe, tells me that on occasions there is not even enough millet to go round.

'Sometimes they eat only milk.'

She has much admiration for their resilience and her insights into the character of the Wodaabe strike a chord with my own.

'They will not ask anything about you, or take anything from you.'

They have, she says, a free and open attitude to relationships - which can cause problems - but they are not afraid to express shame and regret and accept that life requires patience and tolerance.

This stoic attitude doesn't always do them much good. One of the women has had her fingers broken when a cow stepped on her hand. By the time Pete, who has been on the BBC medical course, gets to examine her, it's clear that the wound is two or three days old and in imminent danger of turning gangrenous. He cleans and binds it as best he can, but it's obvious she needs stronger antibiotics and possibly surgery. We offer to take her to a doctor in Ingal, but she shakes her head very definitely. She will wait until she can walk in with the others.

Though she may lose her hand, there is no changing her mind.

Despite hard lives and harsh conditions, the Wodaabe are by no means grey or ground down. Celebration, dance and the pursuit of beauty are important parts of their everyday life and all three come together in the Gerewol, an extraordinary Fulani ritual that will be part of their Cure Salée celebrations. The young, unmarried men spend hours making themselves look beautiful, painting their faces red, highlighting their eyes with white lines and their lips with black powder. The effect is to make them look feminine and prematurely aged at the same time. The display is combined with a formal dance, at which these richly adorned men vie with each other for the favours of the young girls. The girls make the choice. It's free and open, and whilst it does not have to end in marriage, it does have to end in a night together.

Doulla takes me by the hand and leads me through the bush to a clearing, where a Gerewol is in progress. Young men, pouring sweat under aniseed-red make-up, are rising slowly up and down on their toes to the accompaniment of a long, droning chant. Their arms come forward, raising the long decorated sticks that each man carries and which I'm told are symbols of the warrior, whilst their faces perform a pantomime of grinning, eye-rolling and lip-pursing.
Near Ingal, Niger 
click to enlarge 
file size
Many faces of the Gerewol. For the young Wodaabe eye-rolling means sex appeal. The lips and eyes are accentuated with kohl, a powder from ground stibnite; the yellow base is from another local stone. Cowrie shells and ostrich feathers are essential ingredients in the art of seduction.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 55
  • Country/sea: Niger
  • Place: Ingal
  • Book page no: 164

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