Enter The Nomad

17 10 2008
[Woodabe Festival near Tahoua]

A little more than a week ago I left my home in Dosso to visit a few radio stations, visit a few other volunteers, and see more of Niger.  Since then, I’ve spent more than 24 hours traveling on buses, bush taxis, and by foot.  The first stop was Badagishiri, one of the larger villages on the way north to Tahoua. On the way I met up with a few other Niger volunteers and 3 from Togo. We headed up together in a   station wagon not built for 10.  We stayed in Badagishiri and checked out the large camel market the following morning.  More than 50 camels and their owners gathered in a pasture on the edge of town beginning early in the morning.  One of the Togo PCVs purchased a camel ride and I set of in search of the local snake charmer.  I failed to find him, but did find an old man selling sticks used for animal herding.  I spent about $2 on one that made a great walking stick.  The sticks had all been freshly stained with an odorless liquid which turned my hands orange for a few days.  Little did I know, this was no ordinary stick.  It attracted attention wherever we went, especially our next destination – a nomad / pastoralist festival deep in the bush.

We left Basagishiri on a bush taxi crammed with about 20 people and arrived at the bush departure point just before sunset. We were almost immediately greeted by a British woman who lived nearby.  She ended up giving us a place to sleep outside, complete with cushions, towels, and running water. She even invited us in to have tea with the rest of her family.  The next morning we found an old open back truck to take us to the festival, about 40km east on sandy roads.  The trip was incredibly bumpy, but the landscape was beautiful.  The flat fields of millet found back in Dosso had been replaced by rolling hills of dried grass dotted with herds of livestock.  We also spotted a flock of White Storks taking a break from their migration route.   After an hour and a half or so we arrived and were immediately greeted by several Woodabe men who took us to their camping area for tea.  We introduced ourselves and learned a little more about what was happening at the festival.  It was a sort of Gerewol and also a gathering of pastoralists to discuss issues and problems facing the community. The most pressing issue dealt with a lack grasses in pastoral zone of Niger.  This year produced grasses that were about a third of the height seen in previous years.

The main camping area was located next to a small dry seasonal pond; it was the only nearby place with trees. We sat in the shade during most of the afternoon and drank tea with our hosts.  We met a mixture of Woodabe and Tuareg people, mostly men.  Dozens of people stopped me to inquire about my stick.  The conversation usually began with “you have a stick”.  Most people held it and studied it for a moment considering its weight, size and shape.  Then the questions began.  Do you have animals?  What are you going to do with it?  Where did you get it?  How much was it? Each of  them said I should give it to them and in some cases they offered to buy it.  One guy even offered me his sword.  Luckily the two other Niger PCVs I was with spoke Hausa which was by far the most common language there after Fulfulde. They provided answers to all the questions.  In response to what I’ll be using it for i usually said to beat snakes or ward off evil kids. Fulans typically keep their stick on their shoulder when they aren’t beating animals so they didn’t really get the idea of a walking stick.

Around 16h, the first Woodabe dances began.  Slowly the men gathered on top of a nearby sand dune, engulfed in sunlight wearing brightly colored traditional clothes, jewelry, and makeup.  The dancing and chanting help show off their beauty.  They showed their bright white teeth almost continuously and make a seemingly limitless number of unique facial expressions.  As an ethnic group they tend to have a lot of very defined features that could be considered as beautiful,  high cheek bones for example.  Just check out the photos and I think you’ll see what I mean. (That’s my friend Jaie a few photos down. Check out his hands..)  The men all care a lot about how they look especially for this event.  They all carry around small pocket mirrors and eye liner which they use almost immediately after waking up.  They whiten their teeth by bushing them with a small branch from a tree that grows locally.  I tried it out for a few minutes.  My teeth definitely felt very smooth after the tree treatment and I think they may be whiter too.  Virtually everything they use is found locally.  The yellow, white and red makeup is made mostly from local rocks and the feathers they wear in their hats are from Ostriches.  Niger has Ostriches!

The dances continued well into the night, but once the sun set they changed from a single line into a circle and the chanting was supplemented with a unique alternating clapping rhythm.  Some men clapped slowly while others clapped a faster more defined rhythm. Every few minutes one member of the circle would come into the center to show off his dance moves.  Once it got dark our host brought us into the center of circle.  The sound of clapping all around us was incredible.  I’ll try to put it online soon. (Update: the Line and Circle dances are now online, they’re small but it will give you an idea) Technically this event wasn’t an official Gerewol.  Technically a Gerewol is a meeting of a couple different Woodabe tribes who’s members come together to compete in a sort of male beauty pageant and to potentially find a mate.  However, this event captured many aspects of the unique culture of the Woodabe people. Once men have a son that is old enough to dance they step down and help their sons look and perform their best.

Not only are the Woodabe beautiful, they are very welcoming.  We came to the event with very little. Total strangers provided us with comfortable mats and helped us find food.  Although, drinking tea all day surprisingly reduced my appetite.  Every morning I went for a walk in the bush and every night I slept beneath the stars.  Since the environment was so arid and the nights were a little chilly, there were no mosquitos.  Of course that also means that there was no water.  It was brought in on a truck everyday, increasing the price by 5 times.  Needless to say, I went without a shower.

After my 2nd night there I decided it was time to continue my trip and do some radio work in Tahoua.  Unfortunately the trip took a little longer than I anticipated.  Just 5 minutes after departure, the ancient 4×4 truck I found to take me and about 20 other locals back got stuck in deep sand.  It took about 30 minutes to get it out and then we were back on track.  5 minutes later we were stuck in even deeper sand and an hour later we were back on track.  Another 30 minutes down the road we stopped at a large puddle to collect water for the empty radiator and to provide fluid for the failing bakes.  Another 5 minutes down the road one of the tires explodes.  Guess what…  No spare.  I decide to complete the rest of the trip on foot.  Luckily it was only about 4k.

Back in Tahoua I met up with a married couple of PCVs and stayed with their Tuareg friend, Hammed.  He greeted my late arrival with a mixture of warm milk and millet porridge followed by more tea.  That night one of his friends was finishing up a week of wedding festivities with a live band.  As the only white people there we wore forced onto the dancefloor while guests threw small Nigerian bills at the bride.

The next day I joined Kathleen and Justin at their village since there was a lack of work at the radio station.  We took a 30+ year old land rover to get near their village.  On the way the axel fell off the vehicle, so we had to wait around for an hour while they put it back on. The wait was worth it; an incredibly beautiful place surrounded by cliffs and valleys.  Unfortunately it was very dusty so most of the views were almost totally obscured.  The area is also overflowing with fossils.  They showed me their collection of fossilized clams, sand dollars, and nautilus.  I was there for less than a day, but definitely plan to go back.

I returned to Tahoua and did manage to get some work done with the director and technician at the radio station despite a 6 hour power outage.  I stayed with Hammed and his family.  They were extremely welcoming.  We ate dinner, shared photos, and conversed in French.  Once my work there was finished I headed here to Zinder with brief stops in Konni and Maradi.  Luckily no more broken down vehicles.  However, apparently the entire Nigerien cell network has gone down so I had a frustrating hour trying to find my way to the Peace Corps house.

I’ll be working with PCVs and a few radio stations in the area from now until the middle of next week.  Sai Anjima (I’m slowly learning a little Hausa)




2 responses

17 10 2008

Yes. You were right. Jealous. Way jealous.

I am sitting here, on the eve of Beer Fest, wishing I were half as cool as you.

Lumpy and Miranda and me and Ed and Krystalyn miss you!!!!!

19 10 2008

This amazing. It makes us re-think our timing on a trip to Niger in 09; it would be a shame to go to the Tahoua region and not experience some of this. Great photos!

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