A few months ago, I was lucky enough to attend The Gerewol Festival in Chad.
Here are the pics.
Part beauty pageant and part courtship, The Gerewol Festival brings together the various clans of the nomadic Wodaabe people to celebrate the end of the rainy season in the Sahel region of Chad.
The Wodaabe celebrate physical beauty and prize male attractiveness above all else. Young men spend hours each day preparing costumes, hair and make-up for the Gerewol performances.
First marriages are always arranged by elders and family, but their relationship rules are much more open than traditional definitions.
The Wodaabe are polygamous, so The Gerewol Festival is a chance to re-marry for desire, beauty or love.
Or have a cheeky one-night stand.
The Gerewol – The Dance
The men are judged by their beauty, height, hair and costumes.
White teeth and eyes are emphasized using make-up made of anything from saffron, ochre, clay or chalk, to battery acid and crushed animal bones.
Costumes are created throughout the year and are made up of beads, feathers, colourful plastic trinkets and other found/recycled/up-cycled objects.
The dances are essentially courtship performances which last for hours under the intense heat of the Sahel.
There is no defined schedule and contests can happen at any time of the day or night.
The Gerewol – The Choice
Women will observe the dancers over the course of the festival.
Once a Gerewol contest starts, selected women will stand in front of a row of dancers in order to choose the most beautiful.
The choice is incredibly tense.
The men have been dancing for hours while the elders conduct and scream encouragement.
Straight faced female judges shuffle slowly forward.
The dancers vie for their attention while anticipation grows in the crowd.
After what seems like eternity, the women will tap their choice and instantly rush away.
Insanity erupts as everyone runs in to congratulate the winner.
Tattoos and scarification are performed on children at a young age usually to represent tribal affiliations.
N’Djamena is the capital and although there are not a lot of tourist attractions, it was a friendly and interesting place to spend a few days. There are police everywhere and generally it is not advisable to take pictures.
Some highlights in and around N’Djamena incude:
- The Toumai Skull at the National Museum – supposedly (and quite controversially) one of the oldest human skulls in the world.
- Fresh camel meat grills.
- Place de la Nations and it’s nearby craft market.
- Gaoui village famous for it’s pottery.
The Tour: A local contact is needed because you are literally camping in the middle of the desert. There is no set location for the festival as it is decided by the chiefs based on the years rainfall and vegetation growth. I went with SVS Tours due to their reputation and many years in the industry. We had an amazing guide – Elena Dak, an anthropologist who wrote a book on the subject which really added to the experience.
Arrival: Really straight-forward – just fill out those useless arrival forms (I’ve always wondered what actually happens to them). Then get fingerprinted, photographed and stamped into the country. They didn’t even ask for my yellow fever certificate. Surprisingly simple.
Money (XAF): Wow. Two working ATMs immediately to the right of the baggage carousel. There is also a solitary exchange place after the bag scans with what looked like competitive rates.
Leaving the airport: Surprisingly civilized. No crush of touts or taxi drivers harassing you. No shops and it was even difficult to find a SIM card – but just ask around and one will eventually be called over.
Police Registration: There are a lot of conflicting reports online on whether it is necessary, but I decided to register myself with the police because I was in the country for 12 days. Also, I really enjoy seeing excessive red tape in action.
- Go to the police/immigration department near the Place de la Nations.
- Make sure you have a photo (2 just in case).
- Make sure you have a photocopy of the first page of your passport (there is a machine on site but bring one in case it’s broken).
- Wander around until someone points you to a building in the back right corner of the complex.
- Fill out a form and pay 2000 XAF
- Visit 3 different desks so people can check your form.
- Sit and wait and talk about your wife, kids, home, etc.
- Eventually get 2 stamps and a signature – the whole process should take an hour.
Thanks for reading! If you have time, feel free to check out my other travel blogs.