In Kumakonda’s trips we have accumulated many encounters with the Wodaabe of Chad, and we even travel to their Gerewol festival once a year. For us, this nomadic people belonging to the great Peul family is one of the most fascinating of the African continent, so we were looking forward to publishing an article in which to gather the knowledge we have acquired on the ground and through our readings. Read on, you will be surprised!
The origin of the ‘Wodaabe’ of Chad
The Woodabe or Bororo are a nomadic pastoralist people who are part of the large Peul family, also known as Fulani or Fulbe. They can be found in the great Sahelian belt and in many countries of West and Central Africa. From Senegal to Chad and northern Cameroon, their figure is unmistakable on the horizon.
In the Peul universe, nomads are called Bororo or Wodaabe as opposed to the sedentary Guidda (“people who live in houses”).
❗ But Wodaabe also means “uneducated” as opposed to the Guidda, the sedentary, Islamised and educated in the knowledge of the Koran. In other sources we have read that the meaning of the name Wodaabe is literally “the people of the taboo”.
The Bororo or Wodaabe are a distinct minority among the Peul, with whom they share a common language, Fulfulde.
The Wodaabe are considered to have introduced pastoralism to West Africa.
One of the main traits that have caused anthropologists and Africanists a lot of “headaches” is their physical difference from the rest of the West African populations. The Peul are neither white nor black, as their skin is rather coppery. Their hair is “straight and long”, and their facial features are fine. It is so striking that various hypotheses have been developed over the years:
- Some believe that they come from the Jewish survivors of a migration from Egypt. A people fleeing persecution by the ancient Romans.
- Others say that they have similarities with the nomads of Persia who came from the East. According to this, the origins of the Fulani would be in Iran.
- However, the most widely accepted theory is that the Peul – and therefore the Bororo or Wodaabe – come from Ethiopia, from when these people occupied the whole of North Africa before the Berbers arrived, some 5,000 years ago.
In 1860 Heinrich Barth, the famous German geographer and great explorer of Africa who travelled the Sahara between Tripoli and Chad, and between Chad and Timbuktu, spoke of a great migration caused by the desertification of the Sahara. Evidence of this migration was to be found in the rock paintings of the Sahara, researched and catalogued almost a century later by Henri Lothe.
The Peul could be those people who, thousands of years ago, had to cross the Central Sahara to find water and pasture, and the evidence is in the cave paintings of the Sahara.
The rock paintings of the Sahara and their relationship with the Woodabe of Chad
In the book Vers d’autres Tasilis by Henri Lothe we find a moving passage. It relates that, according to Peul legends, their ancestors reached the Futa Djalon mountains (in the present-day Republic of Guinea or Guinea-Conakry) around the 8th century, crossing the Senegal River. They came from the East, i.e. the Sahara.
In the rock shelters of the Tassili in southern Algeria, there are cave paintings dating back many thousands of years. Classified in different periods, the ones we are interested in are between 5,000 and 3,000 years old.
They depict herding scenes with cows with lyre-shaped horns and people wearing hairstyles and clothing very similar to modern Peuls.
Henri Lothe tells how Amadu Hampâté-Bâ, former Malian ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali’s delegate to UNESCO, writer and ethnologist, was amazed by the paintings that Lothe had copied from the Algerian Sahara, because he recognised in them various traditions of his people.
Amadou Hampâté-Bâ (1901-1991) was the author of the famous phrase “When an old man dies in Africa, a library burns”. Of Peul origin, his family were Bororo or Wodaabe nomads. He grew up with them and knew the oral tradition of his people, so he is an authoritative voice for what he tells us.
The Lotori Ceremony
One such painting is that of the “schematic oxen” found at Tin Tazarift (Tassili, Algeria). It is so called because the animals’ feet seem to be reduced to stumps, but for Amadou Hampâté-Bâ they are simply animals in the water. Moreover, the figures in the scene are celebrating the “lotori” ceremony.
The “lotori” ceremony is a Bororo or wodaabe tradition held once a year. It consists of driving the herds of cows and oxen to the nearest waterhole. During the night, the animals are washed in the pond in remembrance of the watery origin of the cattle. According to Peul legends, they come from water:
Un hombre, su mujer y sus hijos, acampados cerca de un estanque, observaban cómo las vacas salían del agua al anochecer, se acercaban al fuego y volvían al estanque al amanecer. Durante el día, el hombre y su familia se alejaban, pero al anochecer los bueyes volvían al fuego, como el día anterior. Estas idas y venidas se repitieron muchas veces hasta que un día el hombre, esforzándose por mantener a los animales junto a las brasas, consiguió que se quedaran.Story by Amadou Hâmpaté-Bâ from Henri Lothe’s book “Vers d’autres Tasilis”.
Once the animals have been washed, dances are performed on the date designated by the eldest or “silatigui” (“chief” in the Mandinka language), usually in the month of November. This date is designated by taking into account the 28-day lunar months and the relative position of the 28 constellations that regulate the shepherds’ year. A year consisting of 28 parts of 13 days each (28×13 = 364 days). For the “lotori” to be beneficial, 28 cows or bovines must be involved.
The washing of animals is not only commemorative, but also has a prophylactic or sanitary intention: to protect animals from harmful bacteria and sterility.
The symbolic wealth of Chad’s Wodaabe nomads
Amadou Hampâté-Bâ also provided a very precise reading of another major element of the cave scene of the “schematic oxen”.
On it is the figure of a hand which, according to Amadou, is the hand of the first Peul shepherd, called Kikala. It is a hand with six fingers that contains the primordial genealogy of the Peul:
- Four fingers represent the 4 great Peul aristocratic families that originate from the first 4 sons of Kikala. Their names are known: DYAL, BA, SO and BARI.
- The fifth finger represents tribes added by alliances with foreign clans (under the authority of the Peul chiefs).
- The sixth finger represents the slaves who, not being peuls, live in symbiosis with the nomads.
The number 4 condenses many more symbolic contents present in the Peul legends. It should also be remembered that their calendar is based on the number 28, a multiple of 4:
- The 4 basic colours of the bovine skin: Kikala divided his cattle, shortly before his death, among his first 4 sons, and he did it by colour. An equal distribution to avoid conflicts between brothers.
- The 4 basic elements of Nature: Fire, Air, Water and Earth.
- And the 4 cardinal points: East, West, North and South, which are the directions to be taken by the nomads on their journeys.
So, each large Peul family, whose root is one of the sons of Kikala, has its symbols and identity marks perfectly coordinated and differentiated from the rest:
In the painting there are also 33 characters marching in procession (some of them are not visible because they are in the darkest part of the hand). Their legs are not visible either because they are in the water, and they wear masks with large ears representing the “evil” animals of African folklore: the jackal, the fox and the hare.
33 is the number of stages a novice must pass through to attain full knowledge of the rites of pastoral initiation and to attain the supreme title of “Silatigui”. They also dance in procession forming an “S”, the dance of the serpent Tyanaba, the representative of God on earth.
When we meet the nomadic Wodaabe groups of Chad on our travels, it is easy to get the idea that we are dealing with a people of simple customs and a simple life. A hard, hard life, dependent on water and their ability to find it, but simple all the same. Moreover, it is difficult to converse with them without a reliable interpreter who knows them, and/or not all of them know or want to transmit their legends and beliefs. At least not in a fortuitous and short encounter.
But with the story of Amadou Hâmpaté-Bâ, grandson of a Bororo or Wodaabe “silatigui”, if one thing is clear, it is that these people have a fascinating worldview of their own.
The Wodaabe are said to believe in a God, but they do not profess a proper religion with specific rites and rules. They call their god “Allah” because of the influence of their Islamic neighbours, but conceptually he is nothing more than a supreme force that can bring fortune or misfortune, and who is hailed when hope is needed.
What is not missing from their clothing are the gri-gris, small leather pouches that are completely closed and contain herbs, leaves or roots with magical properties, as well as small pieces of paper with suras from the Koran. They are used for things as varied as:
- Making a man irresistible to women
- Being invisible in the night
- Protecting yourself from snakes
- As a shield against the words of demons
- And protect yourself from enemies
The Wodaabe also use many traditional remedies made from leaves, the bark of certain trees, or fruit. To fight madness, to cure venereal diseases, snake or scorpion bites, and so on and so forth.
The nomadic life of the Wodaabe of Chad
As we said, the nomadic life of the Chadian Wodaabe is not easy. For about seven months they have to cope with the lack of rain and harmattan (desert dust) storms. In fact, they are fortunate, because in neighbouring Niger the rainy season is reduced to three months and the precariousness of the fields is much greater.
But Chad has far more people and livestock. When water becomes scarce and the ponds and wells dry up, conflicts with the Arabs, Tubus and other pastoralist peoples of Chad flare up fiercely. They all have livestock to support, as well as people. Without water there is no life.
In any case, adaptation to the arid desert and pre-desert environment of the Sahel is the reason for their nomadism. All are under constant pressure for pasture and water for their livestock, although they cultivate the value of patience.
“He who cannot stand smoke, will never succeed in making fire”.Wodaabe Proverb
The Wodaabe are convinced that only by following tradition can they maintain their way of life. He who chooses his own way, who insists on doing things his own way and differently from the way they have always been done, will be lost.
Cattle and children
The great value of life for the Wodaabe is their livestock. They live in symbiosis with them and develop a special feeling for each of their animals. They all have their own name, chosen on the basis of their physical appearance.
Cows in particular, but also goats, sheep, donkeys and camels, are not only a commodity that ensures their survival. The size of herds and the types of animals in them are a symbol of social status.
The herd of a good Wodaabe should at least be proportionate to his needs. That is to say, there should be several cows that give milk, some oxen to sell in the markets, some stallions to ensure the survival of the herd with new offspring, and some young males to sacrifice in important ceremonies. From this point on, the more animals they have, the richer they are, or the more important the family is and the easier it is to feed all its members.
With the rains comes the “happy time” of the year. That of abundance, when they can have the milk of their cows without restrictions, this being the main food of their diet. And it is then that the different families and lineages gather to celebrate their festivals, among which the Gerewol stands out.
Children are another factor of great importance to the Chadian Wodaabe, because they will be the staff of their old age.
“A couple without children is like a tree without fruit, and they will be alone in old age”.
However, they prefer to have boys because the girls will go to their husbands when the time comes. If they have no sons, they may resort to adopting one of their nephews, which will be accepted by the whole group. It is basically a matter of maintaining the inheritance and “perpetuating the family name”.
Visiting a Wodaabe camp in Chad
The houses of the Wodaabe of Chad, called Denki, look like birds’ nests, and in fact they say they live “like birds in the bush”. Made of branches, they are arranged in a two-storey structure. At the top they place their belongings safely off the ground, and on the “first floor” is the bed and resting place, covered with mosquito netting or some thin cloth to provide privacy and prevent mosquitoes.
Wodaabe women’s belongings are their entire patrimony. The only thing they can take with them if they leave their husbands. They include gourds decorated with engravings and baskets woven by the women themselves. Today, however, they are combined with metal pots and plastic containers.
A small fire always burns next to the house or denki. It is where food is prepared and provides warmth on cold nights.
The Denkis (houses) of the Wodaabe of Chad are usually placed at some distance from each other to ensure privacy. If there are bushes, they serve as a parapet. If not, they form a wide semicircle and are placed closer together to provide some protection.
With the first light of day and evening, herds of cows and herdsmen, always men, make their presence felt in the camp. The cows are placed next to the houses. Dusk is the time when the cows are milked for their main food.
Meat is only eaten occasionally and as far as possible from small livestock: goats and sheep. Cows are only slaughtered on very occasional occasions.
The day-to-day life of the men is spent leading the animals to pastures and water holes or ponds where they can drink. They are responsible for finding the most suitable places, as well as deciding which way to go when the camp is moved.
The women’s routine involves childcare, collecting firewood, fetching water, keeping the fire alive, grinding millet, cooking, sewing, decorating gourds, weaving baskets, taking care of their appearance and milking in the evening, among other tasks.
When night falls, they gather around the fire wrapped in their blankets if it is cold. This is the time when the elders tell the legends of their origins to the younger ones, maintaining the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation.
Marriage and the Wodaabe or Bororo family
A camp Wodaabe of Chad is usually composed of the parents, children, wives and children of the different marriages.
The Wodaabe are polygamous and have two types of marriages:
1️⃣ On the one side, they must marry the woman their parents have chosen for them. This choice is made when they are children. It is the traditional, arranged marriage that is usually sought within the same lineage, preferably among the children of siblings. In other words, a marriage between cousins.
2️⃣On the other hand, Wodaabe men can add up to 4 more women, freely chosen and as long as they are from another lineage. The only condition is that there is a deep feeling towards this other woman. Although we should say that they are the ones who choose which man they want to go with. Then we develop this.
As noted above, a woman may change partners, but her children must stay with the father. This can be very complex, as there will be children who will see their mother leave and, some time later, see a new wife come along.
Each wife is assigned a house in the camp, a number of cows to milk, and chores of her own. They do not necessarily get along well with each other. In fact, this is often not the case and they often find it difficult to share their man with others. As usual, it is the older woman who has the highest authority in the camp.
The Wodaabe do not usually show affection in public. They do not even say the name of their wife, children, father or mother out loud. They explain this as a sign of respect, because to show their feelings in public is to shame their loved ones.
The aesthetics the Wodaabe of Chad
One of the distinctions of the Bororo or Wodaabe is their aesthetics. A sense of beauty is highly valued among these people, and they act accordingly.
The women have tattoos and scarifications on their faces. They are very elaborate, with geometric designs that mark them as Wodaabe.
They also wear large earrings, necklaces, bracelets and hairstyles with two braids framing their faces and protecting them.
(Pic by usterio Alonso)
However, when they are married and mothers, they should not look coquettish. Only unmarried girls can and should dress up with dresses, jewellery and make-up.
Men also have their faces tattooed, although they are much more austere in their day-to-day physical appearance. At the Gerewol festival everything changes.
The great Wodaabe festival: Gerewol and love
In the days of Gerewol, at the end of the rainy season, the Wodaabe men of Chad show off to the women. According to custom, they are the ones who have to attract potential female candidates, and to do so they have to dress up as much as possible. Competition is fierce, so they all struggle to attract each other’s attention.
The men dress in many colours and beads, and apply the most colourful make-up possible using red, ochre or yellow, white and black. They enlarge their eyes with khol, outline their nose with a vertical line, highlight their lips with black or blue. A feather on the head and a hat make the face more stylised, as well as a clean-shaven forehead. When they are ready, they gather to dance in a circle and they go to watch them.
The Gerewol dance is accompanied by undulating movements, little jumps and vibrations. But the most striking thing is the grandiloquent grimaces they make, showing a lot of teeth and opening their eyes wide. The dances are performed at dusk and extend into the night, which adds to the special atmosphere.
If a Wodaabe man is not handsome (according to their aesthetic criteria), he must compete with a seductive voice, an intense gaze, a sense of humour, friendliness, sociability, and so on. This is called having “togu”.
The Gerewol is the party where young people from different lineages have the opportunity to meet, fall in love and get married. They are the ones who notice the boy they like among all those dancing with their make-up and staging. If he looks back at her, she will lower her eyes in acceptance. Then he will approach her to talk and over the next few days they will meet to chat and get to know each other better. Until one night they will go “behind the bushes” for a much more intimate encounter.
What happens after the festival?
Sometimes the relationship doesn’t take off in the Gerewol, but if the man is very much in love, he will go to meet her as many times as it takes to try to convince her. Even if this means walking several or many kilometres to her camp.
But wait a minute! If traditional marriages are broken in their infancy, are there single women?
In the Wodaabe tradition, marriage is not “forever”.
In other words, being married is no obstacle at all. If a married woman meets another man in the Gerewol, he will come for her and “kidnap” her at night, taking her to his camp. There she will be accepted by his family, although at first she will sleep in a secluded place.
Then begins a process that can last several days. The abandoned husband will go to try to convince the abductor not to take her, and he will reject her arguments. Meanwhile, each night, she will move a little closer to her lover’s camp, until one day she herself will officially agree to be his wife.
If things go well with the new partner, it will last for as long as their love lasts. If things don’t work out, they will have the opportunity to find a new partner in the next Gerewol. Some women may have several husbands, although they can only keep the children of their current husband, or orphans if they are widowed.
There is no doubt that this marriage system is a very clever regulation of couple relationships and maintains family groups by ensuring their survival in, let’s not forget, a hostile environment.
- The arranged marriage is intended to ensure permanence in the lineage where they were born: girls who are betrothed to their cousins will have children who will remain in the family.
- With your own choice in the Gerewol, you have the possibility to find and experience love, without the partner having to become an unwanted obligation in the event that, some time later, the love ends.
- The woman can decide with whom she wants to live, which is beneficial because it avoids long-lasting marital conflicts, and it is also a solution for those who become widows. Of course, not everything is “rosy”. The woman must try to live with the other wives (if there are any), before or after her, and she must be able to give up her children if she decides to separate.
- The permanence of the children in the father’s family ensures the survival of the family nucleus into which they were born and the transmission of the inheritance, even if it is hard on an emotional level.
- They all help each other to maintain the family, the lineage and their property. If they are unable to have sons, they may adopt one of their nephews to ensure the care of the livestock and the continuation of the family.
The Gerewol is undoubtedly one of the most fantastic spectacles to be seen in Africa, and a unique opportunity to get close to the Wodaabe of Chad. A people with a culture much more complex than it may seem to our eyes. In this video you can get an idea of what the Gerewol is all about.
From Kumakonda we continue our commitment to attend the Gerewol of the Wodaabe of Chad every year, combining it with different routes through the north of the country. If you want to participate in the next trip, do not hesitate to write to us at email@example.com.
Documentation: Alicia Ortego y Austerio Alonso / ✍ Redaction: Alicia Ortego / Photos: Austerio Alonso y Alicia Ortego