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Gerewol – The love festival

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D2In the vast savannah in central Niger, from October to June there is no rain. Ponds become dry and the water table falls. During the day, the harmattan – the dry wind from the desert – blows incessantly, bringing dust and cold weather. Then the rainy season and summer follow. It is time for the Wodaabe to start the trek to the north to celebrate gerewol, the festival of love, of fertility and the perpetuating of a pure race. The gerewol is a strange male beauty contest which may last as long as a week. Men dance covered with pearls and ostrich feathers, sporting a makeup worthy of ephebi, to put it mildly. At the festival, participating men would do anything to be irresistible.
Sedentary Peul have reached a high level of arts in sculpture and architecture. The Wodaabe are expert in the art of makeup. A full face makeup will take hours of concentration and preparation. The gerewol is a feast of the beauty of the body. After months of hard word in the plains, men paint their faces with the most extravagant colours and patterns to emphasize the length of their faces. They meet in a flat ground chosen the previous year and take refuge in small huts made of branches and mats. The cattle is kept nearby in makeshift enclosures.
At daybreak a woman sings: “The morning star has come. You, beautiful girls, and you, charming boys, get up, the great day of gerewol has started”. All participants start the elaborate preparation to dress up, draw ethnic tattoos, choose the necklaces, wristbands and rings. Men draw thin black, white and golden lines from the forehead down to the cheeks. These lines must make them appear taller and more refined. Some shave the head to highlight the long head. All check the result in small mirrors and appreciate the outcome.
TheD4 festival starts with a second song. At first, participants remain still like statues and grin to show all thirty-two teeth, then they move slightly to start a ritual dance. They hold each other’s hand and form a semi-circle; they also start singing producing a single note. The monochord chant goes on for a few minutes, creating a hypnotic state in those singing, and also in the public. The dance proceeds with short jumps, each leap to show how toll the dancers are, and the faces are distorted in bizarre expressions.
The dancers try to keep the eyes wide open, to make them seem larger than life, they rotate the eyes while showing their best grin and moving the lips in all directions. This is the way to put their charm at work, to show off their personality and magnetism. Four judges, all past winners, look at the spectacle and incite the young men. Little by little, those with little experience abandon the dance, unable to sustain the comparison with the competition, the champions stay put to the end. D3The group becomes more excited, and more people give up. The remaining dancers are allowed to change their feathers and retouch their makeup.
The girls watched the proceedings from aside, they commented this or that dancer, yet they did not show much attention. Now an elder goes to them and offer his hand. This is the signal that they can come closer to the dancers, and this warms up the heart of the contestants.
Holding the left hand before her eyes, a girl will choose her champion. He is her togu, maybe not the most togu of all – that decision is left to the judges – but her preferred one nonetheless. Togu refers to a way of being. The togu is in the heart, it shows with refined manners but also with courage and warrior-like attitude.
While the dancerD6s continue their performance, a second girls come closer, followed by the others. Each can choose her champion. Married to a man she did not choose, she is now free to stay with a man who made her heart beat faster. The dancer, married to a woman who does not appreciate nor deserve his beauty, may open her heart to a lady who chose him because of passion. At least for one night!
After a week of celebration, each will return to his daily life, carrying the memories of a physical and spiritual experience. They say: “We are not afraid of the difficulties of life, of drought, of death. As long as we have legs to move, we shall take our cattle where the land is more fertile. Our life is like the sand of the desert: it moves continuously, without end. When we shall be dead, we shall continue to guard over our herds and our children from the heavens”.

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