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April 03, 2004

Wodabout the Wodaabe?

I was planning to write a critique of Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind (Vintage, 2001), but I got sidetracked by an intriguing passage about the Wodaabe tribe of North Africa. In Miller’s account:

“Perhaps human aesthetics emerged through runaway sexual selection, with aesthetic tastes evolving as part of female mate choice... Something like this still happens among the Wodaabe people (also known as the Bororo), cattle-herding nomads who live in the deserts of Nigeria and Niger. At annual gere wol festivals, hundreds of people gather, and the young men spend hours painting their faces and ornamenting their bodies. The men also dance vigorously for seven full nights, showing off their health and endurance. Towards the end of the week-long ceremony, the men line up and display their beauty and charm to the young women. Each woman invites the man she finds most attractive for a sexual encounter. Wodaabe women usually prefer the tallest men with the whitest teeth, the largest eyes, the straightest nose, the most elaborate body-painting, and the most creative ornamentaion. As a result, Wodaabe men have evolved to be significantly taller, whiter-toothed, larger-eyed, straighter-nosed, and better at self-decoration than men of neighboring tribes. This divergence probably happened within the last few hundred or few thousand years, illustrating runaway’s speed...” (pp.276-7)

On reading this, two problems occurred to me. One was that the process described by Miller would lead only to a one-to-one pairing of males and females, with no reproductive advantage to the most attractive males, unless the females who chose the most attractive males happened to be the most fertile. The other was that the Wodaabe, like all other ‘primitive’ peoples, must have an elaborate system of kinship and marriage, and Miller gives no indication how the selection process fits into this.

So I decided to find out what I could about the Wodaabe...

This is easier said than done. Miller gives no references for his statements about the Wodaabe, and searching bibliographies for the Wodaabe hits the problem of variant names and spellings. I soon found that one alternative spelling is ‘Wodhaabhe’, but a bigger problem is that the Wodaabe are just a subgroup of the Fulani, and the Fulani are also known as the Fula, the Fulahs, the Fule, the Fulbe, the Felaata, the Peuls, and doubtless other variants. But a search of the online British Library catalogue turned up half-a-dozen promising references, and two of these proved to be right on the button:

Derrick J. Stenning: Savannah Nomads: A study of the Wodaabe pastoral Fulani of Western Bornu Province, Northern Nigeria, 1959

Marguerite Dupire: Peuls Nomades: Etude descriptive des Wodaabe du Sahel Nigerien, 1962.

The following is based on these excellent anthropological studies.

The Fulani consist of a few million people speaking dialects of the Fulfulde language, and are spread across several countries of North-West Africa. Traditionally they were nomadic cattle herders, moving around the grasslands of the savannah south of the Sahara. Over the past few hundred years many Fulani have settled down as farmers and intermarried with other peoples of the region. But some Fulani remain as nomads, and the Wodaabe [singular: Bodaado] are one of the largest tribes of these ‘pastoral’ Fulani. The Fulani, including the Wodaabe, are now at least nominally Muslims, though the Wodaabe have retained many of their pagan traditions.

From early times explorers and anthropologists have been intrigued by the appearance of the Fulani, which differs from that of the Negroid peoples around them. According to Stenning: “The Fulani are not basically of Negro stock, although it is clear that through the centuries Fulani populations have interbred in various degrees with the Negro populations among whom they are dispersed...[the pastoral Fulani] retain non-Negroid physical characteristics to the greatest extent, speak the purest Fulfulde, and in general have been the least amenable to conversion to Islam... The desirable physical qualities of a Fulani are a light colour, slight bone structure, straight hair, thin lips, and, above all, a long narrow nose...” (pp. 2-4 and 56; see also Dupire, pp. 1-10, but Dupire points out that only a minority of Wodaabe have all of these features).

These are obviously ‘Caucasian’ characteristics, and the natural explanation is that the Fulani have a partly Caucasian ancestry, either from East Africa (e.g. Ethiopean) or more likely from the North (e.g. Tuareg). The Fulani themselves believe they are related to the Tuaregs and Arabs. They despise the Black populations to their South, describing them as ‘hyenas, apes, and asses’ (Dupire, p. 322). Intermarriage with Blacks is deplored, and described as ‘eating the fruit of the bitter black plum tree’ (Stenning, p. 57). (Sorry, that’s not very PC, but don’t blame me, blame the Wodaabe!)

The social organisation of the Wodaabe is based on patrilineal (agnatic) lineages. The Wodaabe depend entirely on their cattle, feeding on their meat and milk, and trading for other commodities with the settled people around them. According to Stenning, ‘The traditional aim of a Bodaado elder was, and still is, to pass on more cattle to more sons than his father was able to do’ (p.46).

Marriage practices reflect these interests. A man may have up to four wives. A man with more cattle can marry and keep more wives. If he loses cattle, his wives may divorce or desert him. Divorce by both men and women is relatively easy, though compensation may be required.

There are two main forms of marriage. The most prestigious form is by betrothal (kooggal). In kooggal marriage the boy and girl are betrothed as children and marry when the girl reaches puberty. The marriages are arranged by their paternal relatives. Various exchanges of cattle and gifts are required. To keep cattle within the lineage, there is a strong preference for betrothal between close patrilineal relatives, often cousins. The great majority of first marriages are by kooggal.

Subsequent marriages, by people who are divorced or widowed (or by men acquiring an extra wife) are usually by contract (teegal). In contrast to kooggal marriage, teegal marriage is usually between lineages not closely related (or between Wodaabe and non-Wodaabe). In principle, teegal involves an element of hostility (the wife is regarded as being ‘stolen’), so it is not thought desirable among closely related lineages.

So where, if anywhere, does the gere wol dance come into this?

The gere wol is a ceremony involving two unrelated maximal lineages (clans). At irregular intervals the elders of a clan will decide ‘time for a gere wol’, and choose another clan to visit, the choice depending on how long since they last met, whether there is a duty to reciprocate, and so on. Clan leaders will then take the young men (above puberty but not yet heads of families) on a visit. The ceremony itself is described thus by Stenning:

Gerewol... is a dance before the elders: youths dressed in their finery... dance to a slow stamping rhythm unaccompanied by drums, while praising in song the charms of the maidens [of the other clan]. In this way the girls are graded in an order of beauty. Meanwhile the maidens, who dance in a circle nearby, choose the most handsome and best-dressed youth and point him out by oblique references in song. This goes on until three or four of the best-looking youths and maidens have been paired. At the hirde [evening] gathering which now takes place, the couples are expected to spend the evening together, the rest of the dancers pairing off as they may.

“Although the gerewol is connected with courtship it does not regulate or determine betrothal and first marriage, which have been decided on, often some years previously, by the parents or guardians of the partners. Gerewol has the effect of ranging the youths and maidens of a particular age group into a generally recognized order of physical desirability by which the status of a young man or woman in that age group is assessed. But after marriage this status is unimportant, for that of men - and in reciprocal terms that of women - is measured by the number of cattle and children they possess.” (Stenning p. 157; see also the more elaborate account in Dupire, pp. 312-19).

From this description it is clear that gere wol can have at most a marginal effect on the reproductive success of Wodaabe men. It does not affect the normal course of marriage arrangements, and the selection of the most handsome men in itself has little impact, since they get only one partner for the evening. (It is all rather reminiscent of the Senior Prom in an American high school, as portrayed in countless teen dramas!) This is not to say that the gere wol meetings have no effect at all. According to Dupire, they provide opportunities for flirtation and adulterous affairs, which may lead to divorces and sometimes to teegal marriages between members of the unrelated clans. But there seems to be no basis for Miller’s claim that sexual selection at the gere wol is responsible for the distinctive physical appearance of the Wodaabe. This is more simply explained by their mixture of Caucasian and Negroid ancestry. The gere wol may however have some indirect influence by reinforcing Wodaabe conceptions of beauty, which emphasise precisely those aspects of Fulani appearance, such as a narrow nose, which differentiate them from the neighbouring Negro populations. The gere wol would therefore help to perpetuate the Wodaabe preference for mating among themselves, and prevent or delay their merging into the surrounding gene pool.

Posted by David B at 03:26 AM