The Wodaabe: the Beautiful People of Northwest Africa
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The Wodaabe: the Beautiful People of Northwest Africa

The Wodaabe, a subculture of the larger Fulbe-speaking Fulani, are a group of nomadic cattle-herders and traders who have historically been highly influential in regional politics, economics, and histories throughout western Africa. Known to have existed for over a thousand years, the Wodaabe continue to play a significant role in furthering Fulani domination in the area. Perhaps most visually striking, the Wodaabe are known for their beauty (both men and women), elaborate attire, and rich cultural ceremonies.

The Wodaabe, a subculture of the larger Fulbe-speaking Fulani, are a group of nomadic cattle-herders and traders who historically have been highly influential in politics and economics throughout western Africa.

Known to have existed for over a thousand years, the Wodaabe continue to play a significant role in furthering Fulani domination in the West African region. (The Wodaabe culture is one of the 186 cultures of the standard cross-cultural sample used by anthropologists to compare cultural traits.)

Referring to themselves as Bororo, the Wodaabe migration area currently stretches from southern Niger to northern Nigeria, northeastern Cameroon to the western region of the Central African Republic.

In 1983, the number of Wodaabe was estimated at 45,000; a more current assessment virtually impossible due to geographic dispersal and cultural restrictions.

Perhaps the most visually striking culture compared to other indigenous groups of this region, the Wodaabe are known for their beauty (both men and women), elaborate attire, and rich cultural ceremonies.

In the 16th century, the Islamic scholar al-Maghili preached the teachings of Muhammad to the elite class of northern Nigeria, and is now credited with converting the ruling classes of the Hausa, Fulani, and Tuareg peoples of the region.

By the 17th century, the Fula people across West Africa were among the first ethnic groups to embrace Islam, were instrumental in the spread Islam, and have been traditionally proud of the urban, literate, and pious life with which this is related.  Today, both the Fulbe and the Wodaabe themselves see the Bororo as throwbacks to an earlier pastoralist way of life, of which the Wodaabe are proud, but which urban Fulbe are often critical.

Once a thriving society, the Fulani Empire, centered in northern Nigeria, reached its height of power between the early 1800s and early 1900s under Usman dan Fodio, a devout Muslim who used religious fervor to inspire his troops to undertake a series of holy wars. Following the early success of Islamic warriors, non-Islamic Fulani joined ranks with their countrymen, forming an extensive and powerful empire.

The Wodaabe people, who do not use a written language, speak the Fula language.  In the Fula language, wo?a means "taboo,” thus, Wo?aa?e means "people of the taboo.” Sometimes translated as "those who respect taboos,” the Wodaabe designation relates to the isolation from broader Fulbe culture (which they prefer), and their contention that they retain "older" traditions than their Fulbe neighbors. Other Fulbe, as well as other regional ethnic groups, when referring to the Wodaabe as "Bororo,” often imply a pejorative meaning.

The Wodaabe are known for keeping herds of long-horned Zebu cattle. The routes they established in western Africa provide extensive links throughout the region that foster economic and political ties between otherwise isolated ethnic groups.

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With the annual dry season extending from October to May, their yearly travels during the wet season follows the rain from the south to the north. Groups of several dozen relatives, typically several brothers with their wives, children and elders, travel on foot, donkey, or camel, and stay at each grazing spot no more than a few days.

The Wodaabe live primarily on milk and ground millet, supplemented by yogurt, sweet tea, and occasionally the meat of a goat or sheep.  Meat, however, is a rarity for them as they don't often have enough animals to spare for meat.

Typically, dairy products derived from cattle are traded to sedentary farmers for agricultural products and luxury items. These items could then be traded to trans-Saharan traders such as the Tuareg for shipment north.  Fine woven cloth produced by the Wodaabe was long considered a luxury item that could be traded on the international market--and still draws a considerable value..

While traveling, a large wooden bed is the most important possession (both practically and status-wise) of each Wodaabe family (which is surrounded by screens when establishing camp).  Also of status are the calabashes (gourd pots) the women carry.  Passed down through the generations, a woman’s calabash cache often provokes rivalry between women--leading some to hide them for fear of them being stolen or borrowed never to be returned.

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The Wodaabe code of day-to-day behavior emphasizes reserve and modesty (semteende), patience and fortitude (munyal), care and forethought (hakkilo), and loyalty (amana).

Per Wodaabe societal code, parents are not allowed to talk directly to their two first born children, who will often be cared for by grandparents. During the daylight, husband and wife cannot hold hands or speak to each other in a personal manner.  But in spite of these societal restrictions, the Wodaabe are uncommonly sexually liberal, with unmarried girls permitted to have sex whenever and with whomever they wish.

Though the Wodaabe are a polygamous society, the first marriage is typically arranged among members of the same lineage by parents when the couple are infants (called koogal), with later "love marriages" (teegal) also common; at which time a woman leaves her husband and chooses another.

As is frequently the case in Africa, although there are varying degrees of religious orthodoxy exhibited, most adhere to the basic requirements of the Islamic religion.  It is usually the case that the wealthy and powerful are among the most pious, while those who have fewer resources are less likely to adhere to the stricter observances of their religion. 

Historically, Islam has been used to justify the holy jihads that brought the northern territories of modern day Nigeria under the auspices of Wodaabe and Fulani leadership.

Most outwardly striking about the Wodaabe is of course their ritualistic attention to physical beauty.

Most visibly, perhaps, during the In-Gall's Cure Salée salt market and Tuareg seasonal festival held at the end of the rainy season in September, Wodaabe clans gather in several traditional locations where young Wodaabe men, with elaborate make-up, feathers and other adornments, perform the Yaake: dances and songs to impress marriageable women.

The male beauty ideal of the Wodaabe stresses tallness, white eyes, and teeth--with Wodaabe men frequently wearing hats to add height, while rolling their eyes and showing their teeth to emphasize these alluring characteristics.

Wodaabe clans then join for the remainder of a week-long Gerewol, which involve a series of barters over marriage and contests where the young men's beauty and skills are judged by young women.


images: calabashes:

other images via

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Comments (4)

Very interesting, as always.

Thanks, Michael. The Wodaabe, tho it may not be apparent, are an excellent microcosmic model for how religion affects a culture's development over time.

Very interesting. I think I have seen these peoples on one of the discovery channels. Beautiful piece!