Werner Herzogs film Wodaabe - Herdsmen of the Sun, documents life with the Wodaabe, a subgroup of the Fulani tribe, known for their pastoral nomadic lifestyle and for their unique cultural celebrations and rituals, the most iconic of which is the Gerewol which highly elaborate displays to showcase the attractiveness of young males to attract prospective mates. Filmed in 1989, the Wodaabe has become one of the most featured African tribe in natural history but remains to be one of the most elusive to the Western world because of their continued adherence to it s nomadic traditions. Herzog says that it the film was provides a brief glimpse into the world of the Wodaabe, of lifestyle that is fast becoming extinct but remains to be fascinating (Herzog, 2001).
The opening of the film featured the young men of the Wodaabe preparing for the Gerewol. The scenes imagery in itself could be incongruous but combined with an archaic recording of Ave Maria it is not surprising that some viewers would find the film at first quiet perplexing (Herzog and Sandrin, 1989). Personally, at the beginning I was not even sure whether it was men or women preparing for the festival. Though the Gerewol is now a tourist attraction with spectators in their thousands annually making the pilgrimage into the Sahara just to see this Wodaabe ritual, when the film was being filmed, very few people knew anything about it. This may be one of the reasons why one is given the impression of being the film itself as someone dropped into the middle of the festival. Though the film is a documentary, it lacks the anthropological perspective that many of similar films focus on. In more contemporary media, it seems more like a reality show than a documentary.
However, one can easily find himself becoming immersed with the life of the Wodaabe. It was not so much being absorbed but more like being carried away into a world that seems so foreign from ones own context but on some primeval level, familiar. Yes, seeing men being the ones engaged in something akin to a beauty pageant is not something one sees every day but the use of physical attractiveness to attract partners is familiar (Berger, 2005). Yes, men donning elaborate costumes and make up borders on the disturbing, but then again, the cosmetics and aesthetics industry is one largest industry globally. The Wodaabe is characterized as a very traditional and conservative community, but their attitudes towards sex and relationships undoubtedly raised eyebrows (Beckwith, 1983).
    During the Gerewol, usually held in September and marking the start of the dry season, men wear elaborate make-ups and costumes to present themselves with the idealized features of male beauty. In the film the festival documented occurred after a prolonged drought and was well attended showing also the variances between subgroups. For the Wodaabe, there is preference for men with fine features, tall and lithe, with white eyes and teeth. Some of the participants looked effeminate or at the very least androgynous (Sherrow, 2001). In addition, the men display their physical prowess with the performance of the Yaake, dances and songs that are designed to serenade the tribes women and at display their athleticism. The winners are selected by women who are considered to be the fairest among the women in attendance (Berger, 2005).
    Reflecting on the rituals involved, there are realizations of the dichotomies and even contradictions in the event rituals and more general customs and traditions of the tribe. The film shows that there is a distinct gender reversal though the Wodaabe afford more freedom to women in relationships than other tribes, the degree of power or choice they are given during the event is still remarkable (Bovin, 2001). Moreover, though there is emphasis in masculinity of the male participants, the prescribed costumes and cosmetics actually create a feminine look (Berger, 2005).
    According to the film, the first marriage of the Wodaabe is pre-arranged and contracted by parents with the families of the same patrilinear line. However, men are allowed to have four wives of their choice. Though women are not allowed to formally take more than one husband at a time, there is no restriction in having sexual relationships before marriage and even after marriage if with consent of the womans husband. However, in terms of division of labor, the Wodaabe follow the set-up of most other African tribes wherein women bear the most burden of work which include the maintenance of the household, care for children and gathering of provisions (Bovin, 2001). In general mens work is limited to pastoral duties and caring for livestock. There is a high regard for children. However, the Wodaabe first and second child are given to the care of grandparent, with parents not allowed having any interaction with them or even verbally recognizing them as their children (Herzog and Sandrin, 1989).
    For the Wodaabe, freedom is being able to practice the traditions and lifestyle of their ancestors. Though there are distinct incorporations of Islam into their culture, they remain for the most part true to their ancestral beliefs. Because of their reliance on seasonal rains to feed their herds, the Wodaabe believe of the need to minimize ones impact to the environment. Work is considered to be the main means of economic and social enrichment and dominates the daily life of the tribe above all other activities (Berger, 2005). The tribe considers its herd as not only its greatest source of wealth but also as a sign or the familys success. As such, livestock are not consumed for their meat and thus, milk and milk-derived products dominate their diet. This focus on their work is a source of pride for the Wodaabe, their clothes they weave pastoral expertise and craftsmanship are sought after in the regions that they travel through.
    Before Herzogs Wodaabe - Herdsmen of the Sun, the impression was that all African tribes are the same. That any difference was more because of geography and politics. However, with the release of the film, the rest of the world was made to see just how much diversity exists among tribes in Africa. This perspective will eventually give rise to more sensitive anthropological research into indigenous peoples traditions and cultures. Thus, a study of the evolution of the Wodaabe culture as well as how it was able to subsist despite the influx of new cultures and regimes provides researchers and viewers alike a glimpse into a new world which is also a very old one. Inc contrast to city life, the existence of the Wodaabe is harsh. But seeing how closely their community is, how at peace they are with their environment and how much joy they find in their daily life, one questions the rationale of modernity. There are undoubtedly areas of improvement in the film. It is easy enough to see that by todays documentary standards, the film can be considered be lacking.  However, for its time the film is a hallmark not only cinematically but also in terms of the limited view then of what it meant to be an indigenous group and ultimately, what humanity, culture and civilization truly means.


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