These notes are gleaned from a variety of sources including: Nomads of Niger, text by Marion Van Offelen, photographs by Carol Beckwith (NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983) ISBN 0-8109-8125-4, National Geographic Magazine, and the PBS video Millinnium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World ("The Art of Living").


BBC News: Wodaabe

Saharan Vibe--Beauty ceremony

Wodaabe dances & beauty- National Geographic Kids

Interesting facts:

  • What does Wodaabe mean?  People of the taboo. (This tribe is also called Bororo)
  • What country do the Wodaabe inhabit?  southwestern Niger (sub-Sahara, W. Africa)—desert in the north, savanna south 96,500 sq. miles. 
  • Dry season Oct-May.
  • Nomadic lifestyle:  travel by foot, camel, donkey in small bands of relatives:  parents, brothers, their wives and children.
  • Origins?  No one knows for sure, but scholars presume upper Nile in Ethiopia or Egypt because of early rock art depicting people who look like Wodaabe.
  • Population?  Around 6 million Fulani (ethnic group) but approximately 45,000 Wodaabe
  • Language?  Fulfulde (spoken by Fulani)
  • Diet:  Mostly milk
  • What is a calabash & what are they used for by the Wodaabe? Gourds, which are decorated and displayed.  They are a mark of female status.
  • Little interaction with outsiders has allowed this code to be passed down through generations with little modification.

Wodaabe taboos & customs:

  • Greeting—no eye contact
  • During daylight hours, a man cannot hold his wife’s hand in public, call her by name, or speak intimately to her.
  • To ensure a child's future beauty, a mother will mold the skin and bones of her infant by pressing the nose, or stretching the limbs to make her child more attractive.
  • Wodaabe women decorate their ears with several large rings of brass or silver (up to 8 in each ear).
  • Wodaabe women dot their temples, cheeks and lips with geometric tattoos to ward off evil spirits.
  • Kohl eyeliner.
  • Leisure time is a luxury for the Wodaabe, so the Wodaabe usually commission their jewelry from others, such as the Tuareg, who live nearby.
  • Men and women eat separately and elders eat together.
  • When a boy becomes a man @ 15, he is given a cow, there is a communal event to mark his coming of age, and he begins to look for women
  • value traditions above all else
  • ancient codes of chivaly set expectations of behavior.
    • shame comes from not demonstrating patience, self-control, mental discipline, prudence, modesty, and respect


  • never speak directly to their 1st born children or speak their name
  • only physical contact that isn't taboo between a mother and her 1st & 2nd born is nursing.
  • Grandparents + uncles + other wives play a prominent role in the rearing and nurturing of children


  • young women may sleep with 2 men (at the same time) before she’s married. 
  • Keep clothes on during sex.
  • Men compete for women by dancing
  • Because physical beauty is so important to the Wodaabe, a husband who isn’t particularly handsome will allow his wife to sleep with a handsome man so that she will bear a handsome child.


  • men may have multiple wives who do most of the work

  • wife stealing--happens throughout year @ markets & wells but mostly during Geerwol
  • marriages are arranged when girl is 7 and will happen when the girl is in her mid-teens.
  • woman's family chooses 3 of husbands cattle as bride price
  • new brides can't sleep with husband until the cattle are delivered
  • Teegal—Any marriage not prearranged by parents (sometimes called “love marriage”)

  • KoobgalIn these traditional marriages, only cousins of the same lineage, pledged to each other in infancy by their parents may wed.
    • Wodaabe men are polygamous: The first wife of a Wodaabe must be arranged marriage.  After that, he may choose up to three more wives.
  • Maagani—Knowledge of secret love, health, beauty potions
    à "magic" in leather pouches worn around the men’s necks and is not to be used to harm anyone else
    à protection from snakes, scorpions, sorcery, fear, evil words & evil spirits, injury
    à increase charm and virility
    à eat it, drink it, wear it, rub it on clothing
    à no more magical to them than our medicine is to us
    à believe certain roots, leaves, grasses, barks="magic" powers
    à bestows invisibility to young lovers on the prowl
  • Wodaabe are known by neighboring tribes for their knowledge of herbal remedies and magic potions.


  • highly valued; it is customary for male friends to hold hands; females do the same.
  • waldeebe--male cousins of the same age for whom many prohibitions are lifted and who sometimes share women.
  • 3 glasses of tea before parting: 1st strong like life; 2nd sweet like love; 3rd subtle like friendship.

Wodaabe values & behaviors (code of behavior & taboos given by ancestors):

  • Never stay anywhere more than 7 days and never overgraze pastures
  • Travel according to moon cycles
    • no travel on 1st or 7th day of new moon,
  • would rather set up camp on sand than on grass because it offers more protection from snakes and scorpions
  • Reserve and modesty semteende
    • Daylight hours, a husband's interaction with his wife is very impersonal. He may not address her by name, speak to her in an intimate way, or even hold her hand. This quiet reserve, called semteende, extends to the first and second-born children, whom the parents may not directly address at all.
  • Care and forethought hakkilo
  • Grace and fortitude munyal
  • Charm, personality, magnetism togu “For us that is far more important than physical beauty.  Those blessed with togu will never be alone.”
  • Tradition of reserve pulaaku
  • Hospitality/generosity:  “If you have guests and there is little milk, you give what you have to them and you eat nothing.  With plenty of cows and milk to share, the heart is happy.  Everyone will come and see you and respect you.”
  • Elegance and beauty are at the heart of Wodaabe culture.
  • Yakke dance-competition lasts 1 week
    • may involve 1000 men competing for beauty & charm
    • judged by 3 most beautiful unmarried girls
    • watched by large audience
    • most are trying to hook up
    • woman indicates interest subtly
    • if dancer is interested, he'll wink @ her
    • she lowers her eyes, but not all the way
    • if he wants to up the anty, he flashes her a slight twitch of the mouth to indicate which bush to meet behind


àAt their collective gathering at the end of the rainy season, there are 3 days of rituals associated with births and marriages.

àHospitality is key to Wodaabe worldview--there's no greater happiness, no greater honor, than friends and guests.

à“We are like the birds in the bush.  We never settle down, and we leave no trace of our passage.  If strangers come too close, we fly to another tree.”