The woodabe are a nomadic group who migrate through the Sahel from Northern Cameroon to Chad and North East Nigeria. The Woodabe are a pastoralist community which means their main economic activity is cattle herding. The community divide themselves into 15 lineage groups and membership is based on the blood lines. Unlike the other indigenous people in the area who mainly practise Islam they believ in animism. If you don’t know what animism is, it is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a spiritual aspect. They also worship physical beauty; not as superficial decoration but as an intrinsic part of their culture which must be glorified and paraded for the enjoyment of others.
They believe so much in beauty that they have been dubbed the most vain community in Africa. From the outside some of their practices may seem vain but they have a deeper meaning for them. Water is so scarce that the Woodabe spend months following the rains across the Sahara but when the rainy season comes they all come together to celebrate. At this time arranged marriages also happen. The celebrations may run for a week long.
Beauty plays a major role during the festive season, especially for the men. They spend a whole day applying elaborate make up which they make from red ochre, chalk, animal bones and some even use battery acid to paint their lips black. Once they have their makeup done, they dress extravagantly in brightly colored beads and feathers. Sometimes they even adorn their clothes with recycled whistles, lighters and sun glasses. perform a teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling dance in front of the women, in the hopes of being judged the most beautiful. Wodaabe women look for tallness, white eyes and teeth, a slim nose and a symmetrical face; the mens’ make-up, clothing and facial expressions accentuate these features. I might say that the Woodabe might be the only African culture that allows girls to take the lead in choosing their betrothed—even married Wodaabe women have the right to take a different man as a sexual partner.
Unfortunately, the Wodaabe are one of the last nomadic people in this area, and estimates suggest there could be less than 100,000 Wodaabe left. Decades of droughts have depleted their herds, and their traditional grazing routes are being cultivated into farmland, squeezing the Wodaabe onto smaller and more marginal areas.