A warm welcome to Chad
It has been cold on the aircraft due to all the air-condition, so I am looking forward to the African heat. Finally people start to disembark. Slowly we move forward. When we reach the exit I see that the rain is pouring down outside. The wind is strong and the rain blows straight into the aircraft. A large puddle has formed on the carpet. I get my umbrella, and throw myself into the storm. Immediately the umbrella twists and flies away. I run down the stairs and towards the bus. Water is streaming over the ground and my shoes are soon filled with water. Soaked from top to toe, I reach the bus only to realize that it is raining into the bus as well. Shivering we try to find shelter from the wind and rain. It wasn’t quite like this, I had imagined our arrival.
Inside the terminal it is humid and hot. The heat returns to our bodies, but the luggage belt is empty. The airport staff cannot unload the plane until the worst of the rainfall has subsided. It takes more than two hours, but finally we get our bags.
Gerewol festival once a year
We turn right from the road onto a two-lane clay road with grass in the middle. Fields with high cultivations of sorghum, and corn, are growing close to the road. The road is usually only used by narrow carts drawn with donkeys, so the plants come in through our open windows on both sides of our jeep. Now at the end of the rainy season it is growing lush here. The small villages with round clay houses are completely overgrown by large-leaved squash plants. It looks very cozy and this time of year there is plenty of food, both for animals and people.
We leave the villages and farms behind us and come out into a more open landscape with grass, bushes and small trees. Here in the Sahel lives the Wodaabe tribe. They are wandering nomads with cows, goats, horses and donkeys that move every 3-4 days all year round. But at the end of the rainy season each year, they gather to take joint decisions and to celebrate Gerewol. It is only during these 2-3 weeks each year that they can gather, when the grazing is at its most fertile, after that they have to go in different directions again to find pasture. Many people walk far. All the way from the Central African Republic. Gerewol is an important event for the Wodaabe.
We camp in the middle of the village
We hear singing in the distance when we arrive at our tent site. Soon we are surrounded by young Njapto men with painted faces in orange-red, blue lips and hats with big plumes. They take us by the hand and say “Husse” which means Hello. They have many necklaces and sparkly colorful embellishments on their clothes that makes sounds as they walk. We follow them to the festival site. This is where the singing comes from. The young men have formed a circle in which they dance. There are also men from Sudosukai. They have red faces with dots in fine patterns and black lips. On the head they have a cylindrical hat with beads and a large feather. The sun begins to set, shining through the large feathers and plumes and coloring them golden. Here we will be staying as guests for a whole week.
One woman – one sudo
Each woman has a Sudo. A Sudo is a portable house. It looks a little like a bunk bed about 2.5×1.5 m. The women sleep, with their youngest children, on the middle floor. The older children and the men sleep outside on the ground. On the roof, the woman has her household utensils. She has the finest decorated baskets and pots made of gourds along the front for display. These are not used in everyday life.
The women take care of cooking, milking, washing, etc. when they are in place, but when it is time to move, it is the men’s task to pack the sudo, find new pasture with access to fresh water and build up the settlement again. The trees around the sudo are also carefully selected to be used to hang clothes etc. in.
We seek protection in the cars
We have run out to the cars. The rain is pouring down around us and on the ground new rivers are forming with water. I anxiously look at our tent. How is our luggage doing? How much can the tent withstand if there is 5-10 cm of water on the ground? At least we have the cameras and passports with us, but a dry mattress and dry clothes are also nice. And we have some other electronics, the printer, batteries and chargers in the tent. When we ran out, I didn’t think the rain would be so heavy and persistent. Still, we are fine, with cover over our heads. The Wodaabe people do not have walls on their sudos, but the sudos stand on poles. The Wodaabe hang up tarpaulins and plastics so that the rain does not blow straight into the sudo and then they all crawl up on the bed and wait. Nowadays, they also have mosquito nets to protect themselves from malaria.
When the rain stops, there is water and mud everywhere. We have to wait until the rain drains through the ground before we can walk to our tent. It is on the other side of a new “river” of rain, but I can see that it stands on a slight elevation. A couple of our fellow travelers do not have the same luck.
The women milk – the men dance
We wake up when the cows start to moo. It’s time for milking. We walk towards the herd of cows. It is a breed with really long horns. The women milk the cows. First the calf is allowed to drink to make the milk flow, then the woman squats down, without a stool, with a gourd bowl between her knees and starts to milk. It is a job that requires precision. Only keeping the gourd straight up with just her knees, without losing any milk, is difficult. Then add that the gourd is fragile and indispensable. She squats next to a large cow with huge horns who would rather feed her calf and therefore does not stand still, so the woman must always be prepared to adjust her sitting position. In addition, the calf is constantly trying to drink, so she has to keep it away. The women are so skilled, I do not see a drop of spilled milk.
Then the air is filled with song. The young men usually dance in the afternoon and evening. But yesterday it rained so heavily that the dance had to be cancelled. Therefore, they are starting before breakfast today. They have a lot to catch up on.
Surrounded by 30 dancing men
They wiggle their shoulders and dance towards me, while showing their teeth and widening their eyes. When they are one meter from me, they push their chest forward and move their head in a bird-like motion. Those who do not dance towards me sing and dance in an arch around. It is a rhythmic song. Deafening but beautiful. When the first pair of young men move back into to the ring, the next pair comes towards me. In total, there are about thirty young men in the arch, from two different Wodaabe tribes, Njapto and Sudosukai.
I was invited alone into the middle of the arch as the young men, fully painted and dressed up, are practicing their dance before the real Gerewol later today. Then they will dance and flirt with the young woman, who will select the most beautiful man and maybe choose a man to live with. Now I alone get all the attention.
The girls choose the most beautiful man
They have been singing and dancing since this morning. It has been a hot day under the African sun. We are sweaty and the dancing young men must be completely exhausted, but they continue energetically. Then finally it’s time for Gerewol.
She dances very slowly forward, swinging with one arm towards the row of young singing and dancing men. She is 15 years old and shall choose the most beautiful man. It’s like a beauty contest. Beauty is very important here. She has probably already decided, but for the sake of excitement she takes miniature steps. This is her moment in the center. Finally, she comes close enough to swing her arm and quickly touch the man she has chosen. Immediately the dance ceases and the young man turns around. He is clearly touched by the moment. Everyone wants to congratulate him. It is high status to be selected and maybe he wanted just her to pick him. If the young boy and girl like each other, they can live together for the rest of their lives, otherwise it may only be one night.
We sleep under stars and cows
I wake up from a sound outside the tent. Right next to my head. I recognize the sound, but at first I can’t recognize it. Then I figure out what it is. It is a cow grazing on the other side of the thin tent fabrics. The cows here are very large and have long horns. Our guide always tells us to keep a distance, never walk through a herd. The grazing sound is quite cozy, but I hear thunder not far away and the tent is lit up by flashes at regular intervals. The cows are afraid of thunderstorms and if the thunder gets closer, it can be dangerous. We do not want to have a scared herd of cows running through the tent camp.
– Do I have to go out in the rain and try to make the cow move?
I haven’t heard any broken branches, so maybe it’s just a lonely calf or smaller cow. Then I hear the grazing fade away. I breathe out, feel my pulse ease, but I lie awake for a while and listen to the raindrops on the tent.
Yesterday night when I woke up the sky was clear and when I lay like this I saw the stars directly above me from my sleeping area. Here in the Sahel there is no electric light for miles and miles, so the star filled sky is amazing.
Lost in the bush
It is warm even though it is cloudy. The young girls are riding on donkeys in front of us. They have just passed a large water-filled area, which we cannot pass on foot. The girls are on their way to fetch water and we have followed them for half an hour, but now we can’t get any further. The girls have to keep moving forward to find fresh water. So we turn around and start walking back. But soon we realize that there are almost no landmarks. Nature here is a sparse forest of thorn bushes with grass in between. We can’t find the path back. The sun is already high in the sky and we have only a few deciliters of water with us.
A little 6-year-old boy comes walking towards us. We ask him if he can shows us the way home. We think he understands. As a 7-year-old boy in the wodaabe tribe, you take responsibility for herding the cows, so we trust he finds his ways and we start following him. It doesn’t feel like the right direction, but we keep following him. A few minutes later we arrive at the boys home, not our tent. Maybe he misunderstood us? How are we going to find our way back now?
It turns out he just wanted to ask his mom for permission to follow us home. She says OK and half an hour later we are back at our tent and can drink and rest.
Wonder if she chooses my husband
Silently She watches from behind the others. She carries a baby on her back and an older kid is running around. Perhaps she is worried that their husband will be chosen by a younger woman and that she has to share him with another wife. Maybe she want him to win the beauty contest so she can be assured that she is married to the most beautiful man and that they will have many beautiful children. Gerewol consists of two parts. A competition in beauty and a choice of man to live with. When younger girls choose it is a beauty contest and when the slightly older ones choose it can be for life.
Beauty is very important for the Wodaabe people. So important that a man who knows he is not so beautiful can allow his wife to have sex with a beautiful man, so that she can have beautiful children.
Small open eyes
For a long while he observes how the older boys dance and sing. How they pen their eyes, stare, show their teeth, shake their shoulders and push their chest forward. He wants to join the Gerewol, but he is still too young. The older boys have all put on make-up and nice colorful clothes, full of glittery and flowery details. He only has his shepherd’s outfit and shepherds rod. Finally he summons enough courage and walks up to the dancers. At the end of the line, he stops and starts dancing like the older boys. He begins to gently sing and clap, but soon he opens his eyes and shows his teeth as well. For a while he dances alone with the older boys, but then his friend comes up and makes him company.
Layer upon layer of sweat, sunscreen and repellent
The old woman sits by the fire outside her sudo. Smoke swirls from her clothes. I wonder if she has couth fire and asks our guide. She explains that she sits above glowing coals on which she has poured a scented oil. Now she lets the smoke swirl through her clothes to make the them smell good. Like a perfume.
It’s hard to stay fresh here when there is so little water. We who are unaccustomed to the humid heat are constantly sweating. Add layers to layers of sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Now after a week, I long for a shower, more than ever in my life.
But the Wodaabe people have found their way of life and they always look clean and nice. Every day, the women go to the water hole to fetch water. Sometimes it is close but often they walk 30-40 min one way. The donkeys help carry the water home. But it is not enough to shower. The water is for cooking, drinking and light washing.
No problem – I can hold myself
I wake up and I see Micke looking out through the mosquito net in our tent. He needs to ease the pressure, but just outside the opening stands a large bull with long horns and behind him a whole herd. Micke can’t get out now and he has already been waiting for a while, but the bull is in no hurry. There is nothing to do but wait.
Next time I wake up, the bull is gone but now a group of young Njapto men are waiting outside our tent looking in at me. It is just before six in the morning. Today we break up our camp and start our journey back to N’Djamena. Yesterday we photographed and printed pictures from the Gerewol dance. Now the rumor has spread that we have a printer with us and those who have not already got a picture of themselves would like to have one before we leave. We have time to print a few pictures before breakfast, but then we have to pack our luggage. Looks is very important here and the young men like to admire themselves in the pictures and they proudly show it to anyone who wants to see.
We camp in an abandoned school
I look out the car window. There are several cm of water on the ground. From the loos of it we could have been standing in the middle of a lake. This is where we are supposed to camp. We wait. We have made our way halfway from the festival site to the airport.
The nomad families who live outdoors have houses on poles. That way they can survive even when the rain is pouring down like today.
The rain and wind are increasing. We will not be able to camp here. We have to give up and move on. It is getting dark and now the roads are no longer safe. We need to find an alternative accommodation. Then we see an abandoned school. Lots of schools are abandoned since the regime collapsed. The classrooms lacks windows and are very dusty. The school benches are stacked along one edge and insects have built nests in the roof. On the blackboard a few lines of math remains – probably from the last lesson. After sweeping the worst of the dust from the floors, we place our tents in two of the classrooms. Here we can sleep protected from the storm.
It’s just the idea that we’re in an abandoned building in Chad, where Boko Haram’s has a base, that disturbs my sleep a little.