Here’s a row of young men of proud, slender stature and dark, refined features, their faces tattooed and painted, surrounded by elaborately braided hairdos. They wear variously blue-checkered long tunics, their pant legs edged with embroidered graphics. They carry a long shephard’s stick over one shoulder, display layers of beaded necklaces and other multi-coloured decorations all over their bodies and what looks like a purse and a mock-sword hanging by their side. Arm-in-arm, they are singing in polyphonic voices and dance simple steps for hours on end, back and forth, in unison in a tight circle or in a row.
Seen from behind: the decorated men dancing . . . . and the women onlookers. Chartreuse is a popular colour, and it looks good!
Right behind these splendid people is a row of international tourists dressed in neutral ‘technical’ clothing of long-sleeved shirts, runners, sun hats or visors, undecorated other than a pair of sunglasses and a shockingly ‘phallic’ professional camera hanging in front of their ample bellies (what can I say? Their tele lenses are a foot and a half long!). They have traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to stare at this line-up of festively dressed ‘tribal people,’ clearly across an abyss too impossibly wide to bridge. The situation illustrates gaps of language, material wealth, power, formal education, white versus black and many other less obvious differences in terms of worldview, ideology, gender roles, diverse desires and life experiences. The question is: what do both solitudes expect of one another? What’s happening here?
We’ve all seen these beautiful ‘exotic’ people, mostly in photo books and TV programs. Many of us have done this kind of travel in the Global South. Hotels here often keenly oblige package-tour westerners by making local groups perform their song and dance on stage, dressed in colourful costumes for entertainment and promotional purposes. The tourists don’t even have to get up from their beer to experience the ‘locals!’ But some visitors go further than that: they travel to more remote places to witness indigenous people live their more ‘authentic’ daily lives, in search of an elusive ‘anthropologically pure condition.’ Why? What is it about our fascination with ‘the other,’ when at home, we barely show an interest in for instance, First Nations people or immigrants and refugees of a different culture than our own, who live all around us?
My educational background in anthropology continues to feed my interest in this intriguing question: How is it that people with similar needs, universally shared by humankind, be they food, shelter, sex, family and belonging, arrive at so many different answers to the same questions? They’re often fascinating, admirable, creative, enviable or flexible and practical answers, translated by observers as due to culture, religion, history or environment, among a complexity of possible reasons. To me, human diversity is simply beautiful. I ride the bus, I walk the street, I look at people here, there, anywhere.
I’ve been an avid traveler all my life: most recently, in October 2022, I was in southern Chad to visit the nomadic cattle-herding Wodaabe people. Mea culpa. I was part of the situation sketched above, with two exceptions: I wear colourful, long robes while in Africa, which serves three purposes: they’re made of long and loose cotton fabric which is cool to wear in 40 degree temperatures; they represent modest dressing which is important in Africa’s Sahel area, and, being locally crafted traditional clothes, they’re nice to look at. The other exception is that I hand-draw in a sketchbook rather than take copious photographs, so I don’t have thousands of dollars worth of camera gear dangling off my body. It’s likely that these Wodaabe people had never seen anything like this before and hovered around me with great interest in the process of depicting things that are so familiar to them. I see it as my way of bridging the culture gap to a tiny extent by spending longer times with individuals, communicating not with language but by way of the visuals coming into existence under their intense scrutiny.
Some of ‘my guys,’ dead-serious when they pose. The portraits were thoroughly editorialized afterward, but I think they prefered photography after all. They took photos of these drawings on their phones, so at least they had some product to keep as a souvenir of our presence.
My personal credo is to refuse to go to certain destinations where conditions are too painfully troubled, such as civil war, hunger and disease which pose too much of a burden on the locals to have to host you on top of their own seriously precarious survival struggles. My eternally bothersome question remains, in terms now outdated but still in use: should we or should we not travel to ‘exotic locations’ to see what we used to call ‘primitive people’ in their ‘authentic environment?’ Or should we strictly adhere to beach resort locations and stay within our own tribal understandings? No, I want to reach out to people with a different story from mine and perhaps learn something to expand my mind along the way. I’ve become convinced that I’m a member of the last generation to ever witness people maintaining a very different way of being, especially now that free global trade and western cultural influences are seeping into every corner of the world. And that’s why some of us go into the ‘field’ to find out. Invariably I return home with even more questions than answers: time to study up.
‘Globalism’ often creates extreme duress for traditional people who find themselves forced to change their former self-sufficient lives. They have little choice but to become dependent on the vagaries of the new labour economy whose terms are most often set in distant countries. In this respect, seeing the Wodaabe people persist in their largely non-monetary, flexible, adaptable, deeply democratic nomadic lives, a nation without a state but with vast knowledge of animal husbandry and of the land’s local ecologies and climate, is an eye opener. This is why I came here. Nevertheless, many young members of these groups migrate into towns in search of paid work, part-timing or even abandoning the nomadic way of life altogether. Pressure from sedentary agriculturists who share their habitat is severe and one wonders how long these groups of nomadic people will still be able to roam freely to sustain themselves and their animals. Already, the landscape of southern Chad’s Sahel is marked in places with cement ‘buoys’ approximately three hundred meters apart that indicate where the nomads are allowed to move their large herds, without destroying the settled agriculturalists’ sorghum and millet fields.
So what’s in it for these specific nomadic Wodaabe clans we visited? Why do they allow foreigners to witness their annual courtship festival called ‘Gerewol’, which inevitably results in this mutual staring contest? The unfortunate truth is that some tourists just ‘pay their moneys and take their chances,’ without doing their homework about the country they’re in, its inhabitants and more specifically, this particular minority of people. Why should the Wodaabe indulge our ‘romantic’ imagination and all-too fictional narratives about them? Is it the way of fiction, contained in art and literature, to escape our real lives, a case of imaginative sympathy? In the words of the writer and literary theorist Terry Eagleton: ‘If people in their natural state are impenetrable to us, we need some special faculty that allows us to recreate from the inside how they are feeling. And fiction is a paradigm of this’ (London Review of Books, Feb. 13/23; What’s your story?). Much the same goes for the Wodaabe of course, when they look at us and hover around our camp. They come to their own conclusions. Groups of kids and whispering, shy young women, usually the same individuals, stand around and study our every move as well as the material accoutrements of our campsite. As is our western wont, we’re nowhere near as spartan as our Wodaabe friends: we have a generator to run a small fridge to keep drinks cool and to recharge the numerous cameras and cellphones. There’s a fan which fascinates and delights them no end – of course, living as they do in this climate of 38 or more degrees! They walk back and forth in front of it, grinning and gesticulating until one of our African staff gently shooes them away.
In our camp kitchen tent: Chaibo who adopted the name of the famous Chadian soccer player Ossmane, and Dioni a.k.a. ‘Johnny’ preparing dinner for our group of around 25 visitors and staff combined.
Interestingly, most of the Wodaabe men carry cellphones which they load in the field by way of tiny 5 x 10 solar panels. And all of them wear plastic shoes molded in the shape of elegant brogues or oxfords, because as a way of life they must constantly negotiate the goat, sheep, donkey and cattle droppings piling up everywhere, which they vow to do stylishly. I bought a pair of these ‘oxfords’ for a different purpose: walking in rainy Vancouver. From the western repertoire, they pick and choose the most useful items such as pots, plastic vessels, phones and these solar panels that also load their flashlights and radios. Nevertheless, they continue to live a life on the move, largely without material belongings.
Our expedition’s local outfitters, based in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, have nurtured good relations with the Wodaabe leadership over a number of years. They communicate well in advance with them before bringing in a group of foreigners. It’s mutually understood that monetary compensation for the privilege of visiting would unbalance the existing egalitarian economic relationships within the communities that partake in the annual Gerewol fesival. Thus, it’s decided that more useful compensation consists of 100 kilos of rice, plus quantities of sugar and tea, all luxurious foods that we purchase along the way and load into our vehicles, to be divided fairly among the various clan groups. Our arrival and subsequent five-day presence among these Wodaabe is conducted under agreed-upon protocol about which we’re briefed beforehand – the interaction is polite and formal but generally we’re granted freedom of movement amongst the people, their houses and performances.
Most of all, and this is the most remarkable aspect of the interaction between the two seemingly incompatible peoples: photography is allowed, freely! In fact, this would be one situation between tourists and local tribal people that’s unusually agreeable: the Wodaabe culture, one could say, is obsessed with male physical beauty during this festival and having this acknowledged, all day long, by photo-taking foreigners works particularly well here. The Gerewol is a ‘courtship gathering’ of the clans where the annual cohort of young marriageable men dresses up as described above and competes for the nubile women’s attentions; the latter step forward, one after the other, to subtly indicate their prefered choice of partner in the line-up of decorated, singing and dancing men. It’s not a sexual free-for-all as some westerners may think; it is, in fact, a highly demure and ritualized affair, managed tightly by male elders in a culture where any show of emotion is discouraged.
When a tourist takes a picture of one or more individuals, the ‘subjects’ invariably close in and insist on seeing their portrait in the digital camera’s viewer. Together, they loudly discuss the image, deliberating whether it’s a good one: they laugh, question, point and frown. Incidentally, they know that a printed product is unavailable in digital photography (where did the good old Polaroid camera go?) and don’t insist on receiving a hard-copy of photos taken. The images strictly serve as a mirror, not a keepsake – they’re nomads after all, where would they store them? They don’t seem to worry about what happens to the photos after we’ve left, nor do they question why we constantly take photos of them: why, it’s because they’re beautiful of course! To them, it’s only natural that they should receive this kind of recognition, dressed as they are in in their best make-up and festive regalia. We, the visitors from the West, agree.
Face painting and scarification feature heavily among the Wodaabe, the latter among both men and women.
I wonder what these young guys actually do think. This kind of swarming takes place all day long in the same way that photography is of primary importance among the visitors. The energetic interest of the Wodaabe around ‘proper depiction’ of themselves never fades. One could call this situation a ‘marriage made in heaven,’ a rare, mutually beneficial relationship between tourists and the locals.
My team mate Sven shows his photos in the camera’s viewer. Again, a serious discussion ensues.
And yet, in most other places in the Global South, the photography habit – despite the now common ‘selfie’ routine – continues to pose a controversial dilemma. Why be so pre-occupied with taking photos all the time? Why not just be present and pay attention? Why not just buy the book created by professional photographers? Photography is a painfully commercial transaction in places like southern Ethiopia amongst the Mursi for instance, while in northern Chad among the local Tubu people, photography is an absolute no-no to the point of aggression when they spot you taking a picture of people or their domestic environments. Here, I didn’t even take my drawing to the test. We stayed away from doing portraits of people altogether and stuck to photographing the remote, spectacular landscape of the Sahara.
Young women and girls participate in the Gerewol festivities, older married women don’t: they stay in their camp minding the young children and doing the food preparation such as butter churning and millet grinding. There’s a baby hiding in the folds of her clothing somewhere, but she won’t show it to us.
‘Start them young:’ Girls and boys do their own dancing practice earlier in the day.
The question of ‘tribal tourism,’ good or bad, continues. The way the details of it were negotiated with the tribal leadership is a good one I believe, to let the ‘host-subjects’ decide for themselves how it is to be practised. Nowadays, many so-called eco- or community-based tourism programs have been developed, where the hosts themselves are fully in charge of the encounter. We’re all part of this world, we’re all in it together and being aware, thoughtful and respectful of what’s left of our marvelous human and planetary diversity is important. We could conceivably change our ways, think in more divergent ways and become adaptive enough for our ultimate survival as a species. Talk to diverse people, learn from them. Don’t stay home, don’t keep your head in the sand or refuse to learn anything new, is my take on an actively engaged, global citizenship.
Thank you, Wodaabe folks, for hosting us and tolerating our peculiar, probing ways and curious absence of physical elegance, decoration, song or dance. By lack of Netflix, I hope we were amusing entertainment for you during your one week away from herding animals, walking like you normally do for many miles each day, looking for water, good campsites and suitable grazing grounds, staring at the rears of cows for the most part but more importantly, keeping your intimate knowledge of all aspects of the land alive. You’re creative, resilient pragmatists and you’ll survive if the government of the country you happen to move around in – Chad, Niger or Nigeria – allows. Who knows, we may need your advice one day when we, city people, have thoroughly painted ourselves in the corner of our own tragically exhausted habitat.
Creative decoration: anything goes as long as it’s colourful: ‘scrubbies’ are fabulous, as are whistles (photo by Lia LaPiana). The adolescent girl shows the typical woman’s hairdo with the topknot tied to the forehead with a beaded band, and prominent scarification on her face.
Recommended further reading (most anthropological research on the Wodaabe has been done among distantly related clans in neighbouring Niger, not Chad):
Kristin Loftsdottir: ‘The Bush is Sweet, Identity, Power and Development among Wodaabe Fulani in Niger,’ 2008;
Sandrine Loncke: ‘Musique, danse et lieu social chez les Peuls nomades Wodaabe du Niger,’ 2015;
Anthony Sattin: ‘Nomads, the wanderers who shaped our world,’ 2022;
Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher: ‘Africa Adorned’ and ‘African Ark.’