Make-up accentuates their long thin faces and fine features—pale foundation, charcoal lipstick and eyeliner—as the young men grimace to display the bright whites of their teeth and eyes to attract the girls. With necklaces and dangling earrings, feathered headgear and bells on their ankles, the men line up, swaying rhythmically, rising and falling on their toes, as their song, accompanied only by handclaps, rises to a crescendo.
The gerewol, or male beauty pageant, is also a test of stamina. The display goes on for hours in the afternoon heat. At times more than a hundred young men line up at once. But the number watching is far greater. On one side sit the women, swaddled in their best robes. They point and giggle, the young ones picking out the most handsome boys. On the other side are the men, most carrying swords, some on their camels to get a better view.
For the male contestants the prize is to be chosen by a girl and then to pair off, perhaps for marriage, or just for the night. But the bigger prize is social cohesion and the continuation of a way of life: collective ties stretched by months of wandering are re-established. For the Tuareg and Wodaabe nomads of the Sahara desert it is a fleeting chance to enjoy the pleasures of communal living before leaving with their herds.
The week-long gathering, known as the cure salée (French for salt cure), occurs every year near the oasis town of In-Gall in Niger. But this year it meant even more than usual, as Niger’s government had, for the first time, tried to cancel it. Worried by a rebellion in the north, it cited security concerns. Tuareg have attacked soldiers and convoys, demanding more of the wealth from the uranium-rich northern desert.
But even in calm times nomads are scornful of nation-states. Thousands came anyway, ignoring orders from the capital, Niamey, some 1,000km (620 miles) away. The only concession to the government’s ban was an unusual vagueness about where exactly this year’s event would take place: your correspondent bumped through the bush for hours asking directions of passing nomads before arriving just before sunset. Suddenly the empty expanse of browning grass and thorny bushes gave way to a bustling temporary town of gaudy cloth tents, grass mats and cattle.