The Gerewol Festival

Each year the semi-nomadic Wodaabe people gather for a week of incredible celebrations known as the Gerewol. This colourful festival is one of Africa’s most spectacular and few westerners are privileged to see it. However, we have built up excellent local contacts over the years, which means we are able to take you to this remote part of Chad to stay with these deeply traditional people. We join them as they congregate for feasting, racing, dancing and finding lovers.

The Gerewol is renowned for the way in which young Wodaabe men decorate themselves. Donning make-up and jewellery they ‘display’ to young women, in search of a partner either for life, or something less ‘permanent’!

Camping in the Sahel, we stay with the Wodaabe for several days, gaining more than just a fleeting glimpse of their lives. We immerse ourselves in a culture that lives very much outside of mainstream society. The Wodaabe adhere to a complex set of traditions that stretch back centuries and across borders, but are in danger of becoming lost in the future. This is a rare opportunity to meet these unique people for a celebration of their culture that will simply take your breath away.

Of all our Chad tours, this is the most exciting for those who are fascinated in the varied ethnography of Africa. It’s an absolute delight for photographers as this is essentially an elaborate and archaic beauty contest. The Wodaabe are keen to show themselves off to visitors! Many people have heard of the Gerewol Festival of Niger, immortalised by Michael Palin in his Sahara series. However, almost no tourists venture this far into Chad and we can expect to have a very intimate experience.

Africa is known for its festivals, but few – if any – can rival the Gerewol.

Itinerary Chad-Gerewol-Festival

Highlights

  • Witness the spectacular Gerewol Festival
  • Camp in the Sahel with the Wodaabe
  • Experience daily Wodaabe culture

Day 1 - N’Djamena

Arrive in N’Djamena and transfer to the hotel. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore, or you can simply relax at the hotel and prepare for your adventure. Overnight Hotel Ibis or similar.

N’Djamena

Formerly known as Fort Lamy, Chad’s capital sits on the banks of the Chari River facing Cameroon and is the largest city in the country. Founded by the French at the turn of the 20th century, it has grown from a town with a population of around ten thousand in the 1930s to something approaching a million now.

Over the years it has seen its fair share of conflict, largely destroyed during the civil war of the 80s and stormed by rebel forces in 2008. Its wide boulevards were once flanked with trees, but these were cut down to deprive attackers of covers, and only in recent years did its dusty streets become paved.

Rather devoid of traditional sights, N’Djamena is home to a large and sprawling central market which is interesting to explore, and also contains the National Museum with a collection of prehistoric artefacts from the surrounding area. It is also the most ethnically diverse place in Chad, with people from both the southern and northern ethnic groups as well as Lebanese, European and more recently Chinese populations.

Day 2 - Durbali

We drive to the region of Durbali, through the Sahel, to join the Wodaabe people in their celebration of the Gerewol festival. Overnight camping. (BLD)

Wodaabe People

The Wodaabe form part of the largest group of semi-nomadic people in Africa, stretching from Senegal to Sudan and following a migratory lifestyle in search of grazing for their cattle. The Wodaabe belong to the Fulani ethnic group (a distinction typically being made between the Wodaabe and the Peul, who tend to live more sedentary lives). In Chad you can often hear them being referred to as the Mbororo but this a slightly derogatory term given to them by outsiders, meaning something like ‘dirty shepherds’.

The Wodaabe can be distinguished from the Peul not only by their migratory habits but by the fact that they are still largely animist, while the Peul have become mostly Islamised. The origins of the Wodaabe are shrouded in mystery but it is thought that they first arrived in the region from the north, moving south as the Sahara became drier and offered less grazing for their cattle. Ancient rock paintings in parts of the Sahara depict some of their characteristics. Groups of several dozen relatives, typically several brothers with their wives, children and elders, travel on foot, donkey or camel, and stay at each grazing spot for a couple of days.

The Wodaabe are very traditional. Women plait their hair and often wear silver coins or discs into their hair, and often have tattooed faces. The code of behaviour of the Wodaabe is called ‘pulaku’ and emphasizes reserve and modesty (semteende), patience and fortitude (munyal), care and forethought (hakkilo), and loyalty (amana) to their chiefs, as well as the right to dismiss the authority of those who are thought to be undeserving. They also place great emphasis on beauty and charm. Parents are not allowed to talk directly to their two firstborn children, who will often be cared for by their grandparents. During daylight, husband and wife cannot hold hands or speak in a personal manner with each other.

The Wodaabe are split into several different clans – perhaps eight or nine exist in Chad and two of the most significant are the Sudosukai and the Njapto. Normally we spend time with the Sudosukai during our time here but often the Njapto are close by and if there is an opportunity we are able to meet both. Of the two, the Njapto are slightly more traditional – their faces and bodies are more heavily tattooed and women are often bare-breasted, whereas the Sudosukai women cover themselves. Both have different styles of dress, which are particularly pronounced among the dancers of the Gerewol.

Days 3-7 - Gerewol Festival

These days are spent staying amongst a Wodaabe community and witnessing the rituals and ceremonies of their annual Gerewol festival. Due to our excellent relations with the local Wodaabe sultan, we are welcomed as guests amongst these incredibly friendly people, and have the opportunity to see one of Africa’s most fascinating cultural encounters, unchanged for centuries and with very few traces of modernity.

We can expect to see traditional singing and dancing, and perhaps some horse racing. Young Wodaabe men daub themselves with extravagant and colourful makeup, feathers and traditional jewellery to ‘display’ to young women – the Gerewol is an elaborate mass courtship ritual and truly one of the most fascinating ceremonies you can see in all of Africa. Dances generally take place during the morning and evenings, and can last well into the night, with people coming from far and wide to take part and watch.

Unlike the festival in Niger, this has maintained its traditions largely intact, and makes no concessions to the outside world. We have plenty of time to visit the various camps dotted around the landscape and learn about Wodaabe culture. The Wodaabe are an open and curious people and we are made to feel very much at home in a completely authentic community. You should be prepared for the fact that this is not a ‘non-stop’ festival and during the middle of the day, the Wodaabe are generally resting in preparation for the evening’s festivities, which gives us a great opportunity to meet the various families camped here. On the afternoon of Day 7 we reluctantly leave the Wodaabe and start to make our way back towards N’Djamena. Overnight camping. (BLD)

The Gerewol Festival

The Gerewol festival takes place at the end of each rainy season, and the specific place is chosen according to where local elders deem there to be the best grazing for their cattle. The Gerewol takes place at the same time as the ‘cure salee’, when cattle are brought to grazing grounds that are rich in salt and minerals; the minerals help to strengthen the cattle and rid them of parasites. The Gerewol itself is an opportunity for scattered groups of Wodaabe to meet once a year, exchanging news and embarking on a series of dances. The purpose of these is for the young Wodaabe men to show off their beauty, with the intention of finding partners – the men usually range from about 17 to 25 in age, although ‘noble’ men, those who have the potential to become chiefs or sultans, do not take part.

The Wodaabe place an emphasis on male beauty and the dancers will spend hours applying makeup, which differs greatly from clan to clan – the Sudosukai typically paint their faces red and orange while the Njapto decorate themselves with white dots and patterns.

The morning dances are generally a sort of rehearsal, with the main event taking place in the evening and often going on quite late. At some point in the festival young girls – typically 14-16 years old – will approach one of the dancers and signify their choice by humbly walking up to him and touching him, before returning to the crowd. This can signify either a desire for marriage or for something more brief; the Wodaabe are polygamous and only the very first marriage is fixed by the family according to tradition, while during the Gerewol festivals men and women can embark upon casual affairs – to which no stigma is attached – or develop stable relationships.

The dances themselves involve the men standing in a line, singing traditional rhythmic songs and chants while doing their best to show the whites of their eyes and baring their teeth, two symbols of male beauty. Every so often a dancer will step forward, almost as if in a trance, with jerky movements, which imitate the courtship dances of local birds. These songs and dances can last for a long time, seemingly without stop, during which time some of the dancers seem to almost enter into a different consciousness, trembling as they continue with their rituals.

The clothing of the dancers is highly decorative – the Sudosukai wear beautiful tall hats and turbans while the Njapto decorate their turbans with ostrich feathers. The Gerewol is an astounding celebration and something that few people will ever witness up close, and we have plenty of time to absorb the different facets of the celebration.

Day 8 - N’Djamena

We return back to N’Djamena, where day use rooms are available to freshen up. After heading out to a restaurant for a final farewell dinner, you will transfer to the airport for your onward flight home. (BL)


Important: Please note that the exact date of this festival is usually determined around June each year, when the Wodaabe elders have decided upon the best time to hold it. The Gerewol festival is held around the end of September (at the end of the rainy season) and so the precise date of this trip may move by a couple of days either side. You should not book flights until this date has been confirmed by us.

We arrive back in N’Djamena in the afternoon of the final day and you should not book any departure flight before the evening.

This trip can be combined with our Tribal Lands of Cameroon tour, starting a couple of days afterwards.

Gerewol Festival 1

Day 4 of the Gerewol Festival

Gerewol Festival 2

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers. However, if you are arriving apart from the main group (on Air France flights) there may be an additional transfer charge.

  • Accommodation

    You stay in a good quality tourist class hotel in N’Djamena, and camp while at the festival.

  • Guides

    You will be accompanied by an expert English-speaking guide who has good contacts with the Wodaabe.

  • Meals

    All meals are included outside of N’Djamena.

  • Entrance fees

    Not applicable.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

All travellers will require a visa to enter Chad, which must be obtained before travel. Most travellers will also need an invitation letter, which we will provide if requested. Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Please note that Yellow Fever is a compulsory vaccination for entering Chad and you must bring your vaccination certificate with you, otherwise you may not be allowed to enter.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Money

The local currency in Chad is the Central African CFA, a currency that is shared with many other countries in the region. It is not , the same as the West African CFA, and the two are not interchangeable. It is best to bring Euros for exchange purposes as the CFA is not obtainable outside of the region.

You will not be able to change money outside of N’Djamena and so we recommend that you change money at the hotel upon arrival.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

Chad is one of our most pioneering destinations. Not only is there very little tourism here but the nature of the destination means that you should be prepared for challenging conditions. Outside of the capital very few hotels or accommodation options exist – in the desert these are non-existent. There are few opportunities to buy supplies en route and so we carry the majority of these with us, stocking up on fresh vegetables and fruit in the small towns that we travel through, where possible.

There are no formal bathroom facilities on our trips in Chad, although on many nights you will be provided with water for washing, depending on how far we are from any wells and how much water we have used that day. Priority is given to drinking water, which is drawn from wells and treated with a sterilizing agent to make it safe to drink.

Our trips in Chad travel to some of the most remote parts of the Sahara, and it is essential that you appreciate what this entails before booking a trip. We cannot promise home comforts or luxuries and if you expect these, then Chad probably isn’t the right destination for you. However if you are prepared for sometimes challenging conditions, then Chad offers an adventure that is difficult to match through some of the most untouched, traditional and isolated corners of Africa.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO advises against travel to all parts of Chad.

We work very closely with our local team and are fully confident that we can operate tours safely in Chad. Should you have any concerns over safety please do not hesitate to contact us and we can address your concerns.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Updated May 2019

Gerewol Festival 1

Day 4 of the Gerewol Festival

Gerewol Festival 2
Date(s)
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Date -
29 September 2019
Price (PP) -
£2,249
Single Supplement -
£135
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Date -
05 October 2019
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£2,249
Single Supplement -
£135
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Full
Date -
27 September 2020
Price (PP) -
£2,249
Single Supplement -
£135
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Guaranteed
Date -
26 September 2021
Price (PP) -
£2,299
Single Supplement -
£135
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Available