In this new column, sex historian Dr. Kate Lister, of Leeds Trinity University, explores the ways in which people from around the world approach love, sex, and marriage.
Every mating ritual on the planet boils down to trying to impress your intended. Whether you’re a long tailed macaque exposing your hindquarters, or a human posting selfies to Tinder, it’s all about showing off the goods.
But, selling yourself doesn’t come naturally to us Brits – especially in the dating world. We get all awkward and downplay our best features because we don’t want to be thought of as a show off, when what we should be doing is bigging ourselves up. Which is why we could stand to learn a thing or two from the Wodaabe, a nomadic people from Africa, who migrate across Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad.
“When it comes to sex, the women are in charge”
The Wodaabe are a good looking bunch, and they’re not modest about it either. There’s none of your bashful British reserve here. In fact, the Wodaabe have been called ‘the vainest people in the world’. I’m not sure ‘vain’ is the right word, but it’s true that a central part of Wodaabe culture is beauty.
You might not think there is anything special about that, after all our own culture is saturated with images of beautiful bodies, but the Wodaabe prize male beauty over female beauty, and it is the men who spend hours putting their make up on. Of course, the women also take a great deal of care in their appearance, but it pales in comparison with the amount of time their menfolk invest in their grooming routines.
Mette Bovin has been documenting the Wodaabe since 1965. She wrote that ‘the first thing a young man of the Wodaabe does in the morning is look into his small mirror, to check and tidy up his face… he will not even go out among the cows without his morning ritual’. Every day, Wodaabe men apply heavy black makeup around their eyes so they appear wider and whiter. They put on elaborate jewellery, sweet perfumes and tease their long hair into braids and beads that hang down their backs. Men with long, thick hair are considered especially beautiful. When a man is regarded as extremely attractive in Wodaabe culture, he is called ‘kayeejo naawdo’, which translates to ‘hurting man’, meaning they are so beautiful it hurts to look at them.
“The Wodaabe were contouring long before Kim Kardashian got in on the act”
Wodaabe means ‘People of the Taboos’, which refers to the numerous cultural dos and don’ts that structure their daily life. For example, the Wodaabe never call loved ones by their name – which must make locating them in a crowd quite difficult. It is considered a mark of respect not to be overly affectionate towards a loved one, and this includes the use of their first name. The Wodaabe also have strict tabooed behaviour around hygiene, eating, and, of course, sex.
The first marriage of any Wodaabe man or woman is usually arranged by their parents from a very young age. But, the Wodaabe don’t practice monogamy, and there is no shame in married men and women having lovers, though strict taboos dictate you may only have one marriage partner at a time. Although the Wodaabe are a patriarchal society, when it comes to sex, the women are in charge. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than at the annual Gerewol fertility festival which culminates in a beauty contest – the men compete and the women judge.
The men competing will prepare for days, and up to six hours on the day itself. Their heads are shaved at the front and their braided hair is adorned with shells. As well as the eye makeup, men stain their skin with saffron or ochre coloured clay to create yellow and red hues. Their lips are painted black which emphasises the whiteness of their teeth. White makeup is applied to the cheeks and down the bridge of the nose – the Wodaabe were contouring long before Kim Kardashian got in on the act. They dress in exquisitely embroidered robes, bright feathers, and jewellery made from painted shells. Once everyone has their glad-rags on, it’s time to dance.
The dance performed at the Gerewol is called the ‘yaake’. Although temperatures rise to 40°C, men dance for hours, baring their teeth and rolling their eyes in the hope of impressing the female judges with their pearly whites and clear eyes. They sing loudly and jump up and down to show off their stamina. Older men and women run up and down the length of dancers, shouting encouragement and urging them on to ever more elaborate and energetic movements – kind of like your mum cheering you on down the pub.
“It’s far more civilised than getting tanked up on WKD and being fingered round the back of Wetherspoons”
Competition to be the most desirable man is fierce at the Gerewol, and for good reason. The judges are high-status women, such as the daughters of past champions. When a judge picks a winner, they get more than a sash and a crown, they get to have sex with the judge – even if one or both parties are already married. The woman judging can also consent to being ‘stolen’ away from her husband and remarried to one of the winners. But, there is no pressure for a wife to leave her husband after she finds the fairest of the fair, and she may simply want have sex with him that evening.
When a woman has chosen her lover from those competing, she will signal with a slight gesture of her hand. After the sun has gone down, the couple will quietly disappear into the undergrowth where they will spend the night together, making love on a palm leaf matt that the man has been carrying over his shoulder throughout the Gerewol. Which is all far more civilised than getting tanked up on WKD and being fingered round the back of Wetherspoons.
Because it’s considered a great honour for a man to be selected as the most beautiful, the partners of both the judges and those dancing are hopeful their spouse will get to have a new sexual encounter. It is something to be celebrated and honoured. Of course, occasionally sexual jealousy rears its head. ‘Munyal’ is said to be the highest quality that a Wodaabe woman can possess, and it means to have patience in all things, but most especially with her husband’s lovers. Lovers aside, I imagine you would need considerable patience if your partner could tie up the bathroom for days getting ready to go out on the pull.
Perhaps you wouldn’t feel too comfortable about encouraging your spouse to have sex with an extremely attractive lover at a festival, but for the Wodaabe having multiple partners is a reflection of one’s desirability. The confidence and pride in their appearance is rooted in the openness with which they view sex. As we struggle to write out a bio for a dating app, the Wodaabe have the confidence to swipe right in person. And pride in yourself is something we could all use a little more of.