Guerewol Festival, also known as Gerewol Festival is an annual courtship ritual competition among the semi-nomadic Wodaabe Fula people of Niger and Chad.
Young, eligible men dress in elaborate, colorful costumes with music-making objects and extravagant makeup to attract young women. Men invest large amounts of time, money, and effort into beautifying themselves and dancing and singing for hours while women chose them.
History of the Guerewol Festival
There’s not much known about the history of the festival. All we know is that it’s a centuries-old tradition. The Gerewol festival history shows preparations are a community effort. Everyone is pitching in to help the guys look their best.
In Niger, most men paint their entire face in dark red (in Char the face paint is more complex). Some men have their faces in bright orange color – superior to the red paint. The orange face powder comes only from near Jongooria in central Niger, and some clans must go 870 miles round trip on foot to obtain a supply.
It’s believed that these days men paint their lips black using chemicals from batteries to emphasize their white teeth.
In their culture, drinking tea is a significant ritual before the dance so expect to see a lot of tea drinking. The men drink tea made from fermented bark. The special brew has a hallucinogenic effect and allows them to dance for hours on end.
There are two primary dances … the line dance also known as Yaake dance, and the circle. There the men appear to be in a trance while dancing.
As the name implies the men would line up in a row to dance and sing, during the performance, individuals or smaller groups would dance forward with eyes wide open and teeth showing, and then return stomping backward, melding back into the line. Line dance is always part of the evening ritual and actual dance to win.
The circle dances are mostly for fun and take place during the morning, early afternoon, or night. Women can still pick men to have a fling with, but there’s no choosing ceremony.
What Does the Wodaabe Think is Beautiful For a Man?
Men are considered more attractive when taller and thinner, with white teeth and eye-rolling movements.
If a husband is infertile, he may ask a fellow tribesman to impregnate his wife. Also, in some cases, men will allow their wives to have sex with more handsome men so they can have more handsome children.
Who are the women that get to choose their husbands during Gerewol?
Two or three women are specially chosen as judges by the male tribal elders based on their fortitude and patience pick.
The women are usually younger and in some cases they may be as young as 12 or 13. They must have had their first menstruation and been virgins.
Before the girls get to pick an older woman “tests” the man. She walks around dragging a wooden wheel behind her and takes the first look at the contestants. If she places her wooden thing in front of a man it means she thinks he’s too ugly to participate.
That man cannot compete and needs to wait it out the following year as well. Yikes!
What happens after women chose the winner?
The winner gets to accept or reject the woman and can take one of the multiple wives. The woman or women then get to try the man and if they like each other and the families come to an agreement in terms of marriage, then they get married. Otherwise, it may be a one-night affair or may last for longer or most times lead to marriage.
Is it safe to travel to Niger?
The worst of insecurity in Niger is centered north, west, and south of Niamey toward the Mali, Burkina, and Benin borders. This is nowhere near where the Guerewol takes place.
Foreigners are not supposed to leave cities without a security escort, so you will need to have a military escort with you and it’s usually done by combining a few people in a group, or even combining a few groups from different agencies together (more on this under finding a guide).
How to Attend Guerewol Festival in Niger
Guerewol takes place at the end of the rainy season in late September or October. That means your provider will not know the dates until a couple of months beforehand. The location is also changing.
There have been some providers trying and successfully succeeding in bringing people to fake Guerewol festival created just for tourist entertainment, so be aware that there’s really only one reputable company that will take you there – Zenit Tours. The company isn’t good, not going to lie, but it will safely get you there and that’s what matters.
You will first get to Niamey as it’s the main point of entry into Niger.
Then, you will either road trip for 2 days or take a domestic flight to Agadez – a classified Unesco World Heritage Site. Most tourists chose to road trip one way and return by flight as there are many wonderful sites on the way such as the Mosques of Yama. Naturally, it extends the trip by 2 days vs flying in both directions.
The flight between Niamey and Agadez might be direct if it’s a charter plane for a bigger group (tour operators usually combine groups) or will have a short stopover in Zinder.
Guerewol takes place for the entire week and most tourists spend 2 nights camping in the desert attending the festival. it’s about a 6-hour drive from the nearest city and due to safety concerns, one 1-night isn’t usually plausible.
As you can imagine, there are no facilities in the desert. Our organizers set up tents with portable potties for us.
The desert gets very hot (120-140 F), so during the day you might want to stay in the shade. You’re free to walk around various campsites – tourist and local, see dances and return to your camp.
Visa to Niger
Visa to Niger is relatively easy regardless of nationality. If you’re living in a country where a Niger Embassy is present then you must obtain it at the Embassy – US citizens can mail their passports to DC. It’s a simple process, as my fellow travel partner did it.
If you live, or are from a country where there’s no Niger Embassy, then you will receive an invitation from your guide which is presented on airline check-in and to immigration at their very modern and friendly airport in Niamey where they collect your passport and the guide collects it the next day after filling in visa application. I used my Polish passport so this is the option I personally did.
The visa costs 110 EUR.
Guerewol Festival in Niger vs Chad
There’s not much difference between both festivals, apart from slightly different make-up. Chad is the less touristy version, but it’s not like in Niger there are millions of tourists either.
Due to changing locations of the Guerewol every year, it’s impossible to find it on your own so there’s always going to be a group with a guide, drivers and usually military escorts.
The Guerewol in Niger is still very much an authentic festival with fixed dates every year (the festival lasts a week but tourists visit for 2 nights), more affordable and possible to do a shorter version in just 6 days with flights between Niamey-Agadez-Niamey.