Story and Photos by Shanna Baker
Once a year, deep in the Sahara, nomads gather to celebrate life, love and an almost forgotten way of life.
The men on camels emerge like ghost riders through thick veils of Saharan dust, sleeves and pant legs flapping as they stampede toward the festival grounds. Tightly wound turbans conceal all but the riders’ eyes. The men peer down from their tall leather perches as they rush past. Another group of 15 or so circles in from behind, followed by a third, then a fourth. Soon everywhere I look there is a flurry of criss-crossing knobby beige legs.
I jump back seconds before a stray camel tramples me into vulture feed. When I’m done picking grit from my teeth, people on foot have started gathering around a small wooden platform. A woman steps on stage and settles behind a microphone.
Wwwwwaalalalalalalala. Her tongue ricochets against the sides of her mouth, producing the characteristic, ear-splitting trill of Nigerien song.
It is a sweet sound for the Nigerien nomads—the Tuareg and Wodaabe peoples—because it signals that the Cure Salée festival has begun. Desertification and drought in this landlocked West African country are forcing more and more nomads to give up their livestock and settle in cities. But those who can persevere cling tightly to their traditions, and the ancient Cure Salée (“Salt Cure”) is one of their most significant events.
Each September, at the end of the rainy season, they lead their cows, goats and camels here, to the oasis city of Ingal. Salt-laced water and grasses in the area help rid the livestock of parasites. But more than that, the gathering is a much-anticipated break from the solitude of traversing the Sahara, a rare opportunity to reunite with friends, argue politics, meet lovers and party.
A man with the stature of an off-season quarterback, dressed head-to-toe in indigo, parts the crowd and strides toward me. He holds out a bottle of water with one hand and pulls his face veil to his chin with the other. I recognize my guide, Sidi-Amar Taoua, a Tuareg now living in Arizona, who has returned home for the annual festival.
“Shanna, are you happy?” he asks, his favourite refrain.
I try to nod between gulps of warm, plastic-flavoured water. It’s only 8:30 a.m. and the temperature’s already 35 degrees C and climbing fast. Before I can respond, a man shoos us out of the way of an approaching Pathfinder.
Delegates and government officials are slowly arriving in a train of dusty SUVs and pickups. The officials have reserved seating on plastic chairs arranged in front of the stage and shielded from the sun by two overhead tarps. The most prestigious seat, a broken armchair with tattered red floral upholstery, is reserved for the Sultan of Agadez, the overseer of this region.
As the VIPs settle in, the participants and bystanders gather into a loose semicircle. The 150 or so Wodaabe and Tuareg men on camelback gather at one end, looking regal with their tall backs and flowing robes. Tuareg are known for their dark blue head scarves; the ink from the cloth stains their skin, which prompted early explorers to dub them “The Blue People of the Sahara.”
Today they’re dressed in every vibrant shade, from orange to turquoise to green. Many wear Ray-Ban-style aviator sunglasses, one of only a few imports here today from the Western world.
Suddenly, a camel breaks rank, trots in a circle, stumbles to its knees, shuffles forward, then heaves itself up again. My throat catches—I’m expecting the animal to buck its rider. But this is a carefully practiced display of agility, and the man quickly steers it back into position.
A long line of young Wodaabe women, dressed mostly in shades of purple and strings of bright beads, file in front of the camels and huddle under umbrellas, their expressions dour or indifferent as they wait their turn. Each woman wears her hair piled into a poof on her forehead, held in place with silver clips, while the rest is hidden by scarves that drape over slender shoulders.
The personal performers of the Sultan of Agadez step into the makeshift arena first. A handful of men beat drums slung over their shoulders while others blow into trumpet-shaped alghaitaflutes. Three women dip and sway in unison as the group tours around the circle. Another troupe of the Sultan’s performers, with purple fans mounted on their heads, follow, shuffling and spinning to a cacophony of drums and shouting.
Next, half a dozen Tuareg women in traditional embroidered blouses and skirts circle on their donkeys. Then, a women’s drum group starts up as the camels do their round. One girl uses a green flip-flop to pound on an aghalabba—half of a gourd overturned in a plastic tub of water.
Trip photographer Grant and I watch transfixed. Around us, the Sahara, the world’s largest hot desert, stretches more than nine million square kilometres in total—roughly the size of the United States, and growing. It spreads over nearly all of Northern Africa, including four-fifths of Niger. Desert gives way to vegetation in the southwest corner, where the country’s namesake river drains into Nigeria.
Niger—officially the Republic of Niger—is often confused with its southern neighbour, Nigeria, a country that has been in the news for years because of recurring conflict over oil revenues. The Federal Republic of Nigeria (home to Nigerians, rather than Nigeriens) is roughly 300,000-square kilometres smaller than Niger, but has more than 10 times the people, twice the arable land, and is the wealthier and more developed of the two. It also has a slightly less forbidding climate.
This parched terrain has been home to the Tuareg, descendents of North African Berber pastoralists, for approximately 3,000 years. As Sidi’s fond of saying, “Tuareg know the desert like our pockets.”
Today, there are close to two million Tuareg worldwide, most residing in Niger, Mali and Algeria. Niger has the largest Tuareg population—between eight and 10.5 percent of the country’s 13.5 million people. The majority consider themselves Muslims, but many of them also maintain their traditional spiritual beliefs.
The Wodaabe have a more mysterious past. They make up a subgroup of the Fulani, which account for about 8.5 percent of Niger’s total population, and may have descended from Ethiopians. Other theories link them to Egyptian Jews, Arabs, nomads from Iran and others. Like the Tuareg, the Wodaabe worship Allah with varying degrees of orthodoxy.
For the most part, the Tuareg and Wodaabe coexist amicably, sharing pasture land, wells, a centuries-old lifestyle—and a festival. Their ancestors, and those of their animals, have been coming to the Cure Salée for so many years it has become practically instinctual.
“The animals come here on their own, even if we don’t bring them,” a local herder tells me.
In recent years, government officials have become involved, and the festival has taken on political undertones. The Tuareg and Wodaabe fear the Cure Salée is in danger of becoming more of a tourist attraction than the traditional, unscripted gathering it’s intended to be. Since the suits started attending, photocopied programs have begun circulating, alcohol is sold in the adjoining market area and dancers from Niger’s other ethnic groups sometimes show up and get in the way.
But the desert dwellers also recognize that it is the one opportunity they have each year to meet with the administration, state their cases and solicit assistance, which has become increasingly important in recent years.
In 2004 and 2005, Niger suffered major droughts and locust infestation, leading to widespread famine. Many nomads lost some, if not all, of their livestock. Cyclical drought is to be expected in the desert, but combined with unsustainable agriculture, overgrazing and population growth, among other factors, it has led to increased desertification of pasture land, making it harder for nomads and herds to subsist.
Official numbers aren’t available, but it’s estimated that only half of Niger’s Tuareg pastoralists are still nomadic. The others have had to retreat to cities such as Ingal, Agadez and Arlit. Past political unrest and the new trend of young people leaving their families for city life have contributed to the exodus.
As a result, the Cure Salée has taken on new importance as a cultural identifier, both for the settled folk, who are nomads in spirit, and for those struggling to remain untethered.
The opening ceremony has the feel of a dress rehearsal.
Half a dozen men run around ordering participants to shuffle down, change order, stand to the side, parade, dance, sing, stop. Despite their attempts, chaos prevails. Performers don’t shush when they’re told to, their songs competing with one another. Spectators and the few photographers from local and European media cut across the arena, colliding with participants.
The Wodaabe men competing in a ritual known as Gerewol—the Saharan nomad equivalent of a beauty pageant, minus the stilettos, big hair and bikinis—are the showstoppers. About 40 men, ranging in age from early teens to 30s, step forward in long embroidered tunics, beaded necklaces and wide-brimmed hats or turbans topped with an ostrich plume. Their faces are masked in ochre and black makeup, which is applied to emphasize their slender noses, high foreheads, big, bright eyes and the whiteness of their teeth.
One strikes a low note, and the others respond. Soon they’re singing and clapping in unison. Gerewol dances are characterized by exaggerated, effeminate movements, bared teeth, rolling eyes and rhythmic chanting. The contenders will show off their charm this way throughout the Cure Salée and for several days following, until female judges finally select a winner.
He’ll earn bragging rights, admiration and marriage prospects. The men are not the only ones competing for a title. Before the three days are up, the most attractive woman, camel, goat and cow will also be honoured.
In Tamashek, the language of Tuaregs, Ingal means “beauty.”
As the sun sets on the Cure Salée’s first day, the city’s squat, square buildings—by day the orangey beige of the surrounding sands—turn burnished pink. Just like most of the standing structures north of Niger’s capital city, Niamey, a two-days drive to the south, they were built one hand-shaped mud brick at a time. But it’s easy to imagine that.
“Everything in Ingal is the best in Niger,” Sidi proclaims as we set up camp at the back of the city, following an afternoon recuperating under an acacia tree. Ingal is home to people of Songhay origin and sedentary Tuareg, and he is unabashedly proud of anything Tuareg.
When storm clouds do roll in, they can present their own problems. A month before we arrived, torrential rains knocked down an area of Ingal and left about a thousand people homeless. Now, however, nearby children shriek with laughter as they splash in a muddy pool left over from the deluge.
At our camp on that first evening of the three-day festival, our “chef,” Adam Ramou, a man from Agadez with the sort of unfettered smile worthy of a sonnet, cracks open a can of lentils and dices a cucumber for dinner. Nearby, Sidi’s younger brother Moussa, who is on leave from the military, pokes at some embers in preparation for making sweet green tea—a Tuareg and Wodaabe institution.
Sidi and Moussa grew up nomadic. “I was born somewhere here under a tree,” Sidi told us. “My parents don’t know which one.” But Sidi’s mother has since moved to an adobe hut along the highway. Relatives take her livestock out with their own while she cares for her mother and aunt, who are now too old to travel.
Her two-room home, about an hour’s drive east of Ingal, has become a rendezvous point for extended family on their way to the Cure Salée. When we stopped by yesterday, a couple dozen relatives were lounging in the shade of a traditional dome tent made of wooden posts and palm-frond mats.
The younger women were stringing glass beads on thread, as toddlers napped on the ground around them. The two oldest women sat draped in dark clothing at the edge of the shelter, one slowly, methodically smoothing her blanket with a spoon, the other tracing shapes in the sand with a finger. They looked at me occasionally, through creamy-blue cataracts, each face an accordion of wrinkles, and smiled.
In one corner of the compound, a male cousin dipped a teapot into an old oil barrel full of water, then meticulously washed his face, arms, hands and feet before bowing toward Mecca. Meanwhile, three girls, about eight to 12 years old, pounded millet for dinner with a wooden pestle and pail-sized mortar. A goat that had been tied up, bleating incessantly when we arrived, was suspended by its back legs nearby, blood leaking from a slit in its throat—a customary slaughter in honour of guests.
I knelt to take a photo of one of the children, and through the viewfinder, could see loose hairs from her braid standing on end. The storm was upon us in an instant. A dust-cloud tsunami enveloped the compound, and fat, warm droplets of rain chased us as everyone ran for the hut, then piled onto thin foam sleeping pads lining one of the rooms.
We grinned at one another as we waited side by side in the sweltering air, the awkwardness of an unfamiliar language between us.
Though the Tuareg I meet are among the most good-hearted, hospitable and charismatic people I’ve encountered, historically they had a fierce reputation. They controlled the trans-Saharan caravan routes and traded salt for millet, cloth and other essentials, but also made raiding a main occupation. As warriors, they were revered for their strength, bravery and unyielding independence.
Tuareg alone were able to resist French colonists for two decades after that country’s military invaded in the late 1800s.
They have continued to have a tumultuous, sometimes violent, relationship with the authorities since Niger became independent from France in 1960. Mounting tension led to a seven-year Tuareg rebellion against the national government starting in 1990. Sidi was a leader in the uprising, and rode with warriors into army camps at night, slaying soldiers as they slept. His broad, friendly face creases as he recounts the unpleasant memories.
Relations continue to be strained at times. “They’re all down in Niamey eating money,” Sidi rails repeatedly.
While in the capital city in 1998 attending peace talks, Sidi fell in love with an American exchange student, and now lives in the United States with his new wife and daughter. He gets an earful from every acquaintance he reunites with at the Cure Salée; tensions are on the rise again.
At our camp near Ingal, Sidi tells stories of war and injustice by the glow of my headlamp—an instant homing device for every bug within a 100-kilometre radius—until Grant, the photographer, gets tired of picking moths out of his pudding and my hair is teeming with grasshoppers. Later, I fall asleep to distant chanting—a Wodaabe pickup line.
I had hoped we would be Travelling in a Touareg, the SUV that Volkswagen claims “can get you places you have no business being.”
Instead, Sidi chose a Toyota Land Cruiser, which is currently stopped in what could be the middle of nowhere, hood up, engine idling. Sidi, Moussa and a couple of friends they met en route are leaning over the engine, cigarettes dangling from their lips. Adam is pouring diesel from old whiskey and gin bottles into the fuel tank. And Grant and I are slowly backing away.
This morning we passed the Cure Salée grounds, where people were filling goatskins and plastic bottles with water from a truck, bartering over goods at the market and waiting for the day’s activities to begin. Sidi drove north to the salt-mining community of Teguidda-n-Tessoumt, where workers evaporate water in hundreds of depressions dug into the ground, then form cakes from the salt left behind.
As we approached, a large flock of camels split like a curtain to let us pass, a woman looked up from scrubbing clothes in a shallow water hole, and children and men emerged from the labyrinth of adobe walls and stared. Children in Ingal claim the people here are sorcerers. But the unnerving intensity of their gaze likely has more to do with the fact that they don’t get many visitors these days, especially not pasty Canadians.
The community was once a regular stop on caravan routes, but today the miners mostly sell to passing nomads, or pack their bricks and head for city markets.
The landscape we crossed on the two-hour, brain-rattling, spine-crunching, jaw-clacking trip to Teguidda-n-Tessoumt was a conveyor belt of desert clichés. Palm-fringed oases and shimmering mirages dotted the horizon; bleached rib cages curled into the orange earth; vultures circled; and the odd camel silhouetted in the distance lifted its head to watch us pass. Occasional gravesites along the way, each marked by fist-sized rocks laid in the shape of a casket, are a reminder that the nomads often live and die off the grid.
We passed a Wodaabe family on the move with its herd of 100 or so cows and 75 goats, already leaving the festival in search of new pastures. Cows are to Wodaabe what camels are to Tuareg—a member of the family, a means of survival and a primary symbol of wealth. Three men led the way on camels, followed by women and children riding donkeys laden with all the family’s possessions. A naked boy ran on foot, rounding up strays, while two wild dogs chased back and forth, gnashing their teeth. Nomads rarely stay put for longer than three weeks. Home is where the tent legs land.
Sidi eventually slams the hood of the SUV and we clamber in, the problem fixed with a bicycle inner tube.
“Tired, Sidi?” I ask. “Want one of us to drive?”
“I’m from the Sahara,” he responds matter-of-factly, as he toward the nearby finish line, the riders’ chins down, heels bouncing off the horses’ flanks. The 20-kilometre camel race has already concluded.
A boy selling Coke weaves kamikaze-style between people and animals with his wooden cart, nearly taking me out at the knees as he chases a customer who forgot to hand back his glass bottle.