The sun has barely surfaced, and yet warriors gazing into candy-coloured pocket mirrors surround me, daubing white dots in floral formations onto their ocre-red-painted faces. Others walk by wearing smudged, morning-after make-up, taking their cows off to graze.
I’m in Chad for the Gerewol festival: a beauty pageant more fiercely competed than Miss World. The twist? It’s the men who battle it out for supremacy. This is a festival where the polygamous Wodaabe (a tribe of semi-nomadic cattle-herders) gather together to find a lover or partner. It’s held wherever the Wodaabe — who crisscross through Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria — wander.
Chad is a hot, harsh country in north Central Africa, where the isolation created by years of conflict has helped keep its rich tribal traditions intact. Water and pasture are scarce, so the Wodaabe move constantly, covering huge distances in isolated family groups. The Gerewol is the only time they come together during the year, so it’s a big celebration, as well as a chance to swap news and find love.
As the dancing begins, a long line of men, wearing bejewelled leather tunics, glittery crowns and feathers, sways rhythmically backwards and forwards. ‘Va-va-va-va-va,’ they chant, baring their extra-white teeth in chattering smiles, like Batman’s Joker on acid. The sound is almost unhuman.
One tall man in a long floral dress sets the pitch and then the others lift it higher and higher. Suddenly an old lady appears and races towards the dancers, jeering and waving a cloth, whipping up the fever pitch. Everyone is going wild, stamping their feet as they charge forwards in a twinkle of rainbow-bright sequins.
Throughout the bush are little camps, or wuros, containing Wodaabe homes. Resembling hand-carved wooden bunk beds, they’re painted in bold geometric patterns. As I walk deeper into the bush, more and more camps pop up, like primary-colour artworks, piled high with vivaciously decorated baskets and calabashes.
I sit and chat with a lady who’s churning a calabash of milk, her hair sculpted into a traditional horn-shaped quiff. She explains how beauty is deep-rooted in Wodaabe life. Even their cows are chosen for their colour, which is why they’re this magnificent burgundy red, with horns the size of tusks. The dancers need the ability to make themselves beautiful, she tells me. “They need eyes that can communicate.”
On the final night, three winners are chosen by three unmarried women, who’ve spent the past few days observing the men swaggering around like peacocks. As the young women walk slowly along the line of dancers, the air is thick with suspense before each quickly taps their favourite man. Everyone races in to congratulate them. To be selected is a mighty honour, and men who won several years before are still highly regarded within their clan.
The next day, the whole group pile onto cows, along with all their worldly possessions. Throngs of women and children swarm all around; goatherds stream past in all directions, men ride bareback on horses. They all scatter into the savannah.