Visiting Gerewol Festival. The debate can become a bit heated when a group of traveler’s endeavors to define “off the beaten path”. The definition is somewhere between subjective and slippery. It is moving target based upon where you are from and where you live. Something exotic to you, is pedestrian to the person that lives there. From the western perspective, I will posit that Chad fits the definition of off the beaten path location.
Let’s start with visitors. Chad ranks 189th in tourist arrivals on the most recent year of data I could find in 2017. That’s not good. The best-known gateways to fly in from are Casablanca, Istanbul, Cairo, Addis Ababa, and Paris. Paris is the only European gateway and has only two flights a week.
For those Chasing 193, when you visit Chad a land-locked country, in north-central Africa, you might want to check the box and spend the night in the capital, N’Djamena, have dinner and head out. This city of one million, is not recognized as a world class city. Its dusty, hot, and lacking in charm.
So, what to do? What is there to see. Chad has some of the most beautiful desert and mountain landscapes. It takes several days of driving to reach these magnificent areas. And there are no amenities in these remote lands.
Or, you can time your visit for the Gerewol Festival. The Gerewol Festival is annual courtship ritual competition for the Wodaabe Fula people. The Wodaabe are traditionally nomadic cattle-herders from the Sahel. They can be found mostly in Niger and Chad.
At the end of the rainy season, the Wodaabe people congregate to socialize, relax, and trade with the fellow tribesmen. The highlight of this time is the courtship tradition. Young, eligible men dress in elaborate, colorful costumes with extensive ornamentation and extravagant makeup. The men for hours on end, dance and sing, striving to grab the attention of marriageable-aged women. The roles are in reverse as the women decide who their future partner will be.
Attending The Gerewol Festival
Our camp was located in an open expanse in the midst of the Wodaabe people. During the day, we would take walks visiting different families at their “homes”. This was an opportunity to witness daily life and interact and take photos with them.
Many of the young men would spend their day preparing for festivals. This meant working on their outfits and adorning themselves with jewelry and decorations.
Usually beginning in late afternoon, the young men gathered together. Small packs grew into larger groups. The men sang and danced.
Repeating the same dance moves and songs over and over. Watching them was both enthralling and mesmerizing.
There were two primary dances … the line dance and the circle. As the name implies the men would line up in a row to dance and sing, during the performance, individuals or smaller groups would dance forward with eyes wide open and teeth showing, and then return walking backwards, melding back into the line.
The circle would see the men circle together to dance and sing and to constantly rotate the circle. I was afforded the opportunity multiple times to stand in the center and photograph the men.
Another fun part of the performance were the small kids imitating their idols, the older men. Some of the kids would join the line, with eyes wide open and showing off their teeth. Often they stole the show.
The men highlight both their teeth and their eyes. The whiteness is a sign of beauty. Eyes are held wide open so admirers can appreciate the whites of the eyes. And mouths are opened wide showcasing their teeth, which are often chattering.
The rest of the Wodaabe would join us tourists, watching this amazing spectacle. Everyone enjoyed this performance.
At times, several young women would be escorted to the front of the dance line (note the woman in the blue headdress). The woman would subtly point to one of the performers and hastily drift back into the crowd. This action could result in marriage or a brief tryst between the couple.
The young men had immense stamina. The weather was extremely hot and humid. The songs and dances would literally last throughout the entire night into the morning. I would be resting in my tent listening to their non-stop singing.
The Wodaabe number approximately 100,000 people over multiple countries and they are not a monolithic people, their traditions vary. On our last morning, we had an additional surprise, a fellow tribe joined our group. The men performed as well, but this group sang different songs, performed different dances, and also dressed and adorned themselves differently. It was a great way to end our trip to see the variety.
The end of the rainy season ends in late September or October, and Gerewol is planned shortly after that. That means your provider will not know the dates until a couple of months beforehand.
How Long Is The Trip
My trip was one night in N’Djamena before and after the trip to Gerewol. We stayed at the uninspiring and overpriced Irrisor Hotel. It is a walled in complex which does have a swimming pool and nearby outdoor restaurant. It is a favorite with expats living in the capital.
The challenge of visiting Chad and the Gerewol Festival means you are in store for a great, non-touristic experience. This festival is not set up for the benefit of the foreigner but is a tradition that dates back for generations. My provider, SVS Chad ran two groups, totaling about 25 people. Our camps were separated and managed separately by different support teams. Our groups intermingled during the day. The other travelers were veteran travelers who were familiar with challenging travel. I met a lot of great people during my trip.
Most visitors will need a visa before traveling to Chad. There is no VOA or eVisa. This is old school send your passport to the embassy. In most cases, you will need a Letter of Invite supplied by the provider. But the embassies around the world vary their requirements and even if they will process your application.
With the Wodaabe people I felt completely safe and secure. But Chad is a country under duress from terrorist threats on the borders, a president who died after 30 years in power, and general insecurity in N’Djamena. The US State Department ranks Chad Level 3, reconsider travel to the region. In general, don’t take photos of the capital, it is not appreciated. Of course, security can always change, so do your research before you go.
I needed a Covid test to enter the country and a Covid test to exit. Our tour provider arranged for our covid tests to be taken at the hotel for $50 the day before our flight. Otherwise, the country for the most part acts as if there is no Covid. There were no masks or precautions at the festival.
What To Know For Your Visit To Gerewol Festival
The Wodaabe speak their own language and the Chadian dialect of Arabic. So communication (unless you know these languages) with them is series of smiles and gestures.
Asking For Free Stuff
The Wodaabe have very few belongings as they are nomadic and have very little money. They are intrigued with some of the trappings of the West. They will grasp or point to your watch, phone, or sunglasses. This happens often, but they are not aggressive. They also have a yearning for your socks. I thought this was a bit odd, but I imagine our socks are newer and cleaner.
Sadly, another desire for the Wodaabe is water. There is a limited water supply where we met the Wodaabe and sometimes requires long walks to retrieve more water supplies. The Wodaabe will point and motion to your water bottle. I felt a pang of guilt in refusing them, but we interacted with hundreds of Wodaabe and we had limited water supplies in our camp.
If you are going to the Gerewol Festival, you are probably intent on taking a ton of photos. And for the most part the Wodaabe are ready to oblige. I personally took several thousand photos during my visit. While I interacted constantly with the Wodaabe there were breaks during the day. Our group would retire to our camp to escape the blazing heat. At times, some of our new friends would gather and observe us … eating, talking, or taking an afternoon nap. It seemed fair to me since we were constantly watching and taking photos of them.
As I mentioned before, the Wodaabe had very few belongings, but a minority had mobile phones. These phones were smart phones, but the equivalent of something you would see in 2004. The phones had a camera, an antiquated 2 MB photo. And just like us, they enjoyed taking selfies and photos of each other.
And there was also a reverse aquarium effect regarding the camera where some of our new friends would take photos of us or asked us to join in a photo with them. I was happy to oblige.
We take so many things for granted. And there was one thing I noted that really was an eye-opener. At our camp, we had a series of chairs set up under some trees for shade. We would relax here and some of Wodaabe friends would come visit us. Sometimes, some of the courageous youths would grab an empty chair and sit down and join us. At some point, I realized this was a guilty pleasure for them. The Wodaabe do not have chairs in their society.
It is pretty much open season to take photography. Of course, be respectful. The men enjoyed the photos more than the women and girls. They were bit elusive or simply waved off the photos. The subjects always enjoyed seeing the photos, so please share with them so they can take a look. I used my Sony a7riii and used both my 24-70 and also enjoyed the close up shots with the 70-200.
The Wodaabe people scar themselves at a young age. In the past, needles were used for the tattoos but today a razor is used to cut the face and charcoal for the coloring. The tattoos differ depending on what clique you are in. The scarring also covers arms, back, and other parts of the body.
Independent Verse Tour Provider
In short, it is not feasible to do this trip independently. First, our trip from capital, N’Djamena, took a day and a half. This trip was initially over paved roads to dirt roads to off road completely. There is no public transportation option. Second, the Wodaabe are nomadic, meaning there is not necessarily a fixed point until possible the day or two before you get there. You need to have a Wodaabe contact to know of their precise location. Third, I believe you need to have a personal relationship with the Wodaabe to spend time with them. You can not simply just show up and embed yourself with the tribe. Fourth, you are isolated with no resources. The Wodaabe are in the bush, there is no nearby town or village. You would need all of your own supplies to sustain yourself over multiple days.
My group was 12 people. Two of us booked directly with SVS Chad while the majority booked their trip through Native Eye who outsources to SVS Chad. So you get the same product.
I traveled with SVS Chad. SVS Chad is an Italian owned, local Chad based tour provider. The owners started this business in the 1970s and know their way around Chad. Despite a rocky start to the trip upon my arrival with some poor communication, SVS Chad knows Chad. They organize and run a tight operation which was evident after spending 6 nights with them in the bush.
SVS Chad has had a relationship with the Wodaabe for years, meaning they are able to embed their guests within the community for the Gerewol Festival. We were welcomed and able to freely take photos. SVS Chad presents the chief with gifts which greases the wheels.
The day was typically broken into several segments … a morning walk of visiting families and watching the men prep, lunch and a rest, followed by another walk which transitioned into the performances, then dinner, and at night back to watch the men perform. After a while, you would see and recognize the same people. It was like running into an acquaintance on the street or local pub back home except you were in the savannah. My BFF ended up being Ikey, around 10 years old. I ended up seeing him everywhere and I would yell out a big “osee (hello) Ikey”. Ikey wasn’t nearly enthusiastic about seeing me, but he made my day.
We took a day and a half to drive to Gerewol Festival. In reality, this could be accomplished in one day with a really long day in the car. SVS Chad opts to break up the drive which means a night of wild camping on your way there as well as the drive back to N’Djamena.
We roadtripped there in a convoy of older Land Rovers. Depending on the vehicle, there would be a driver and one passenger in the front. In the back seat, there would be two or three passengers. There is no AC so expect a long hot ride.
As I mentioned earlier, the roads transition from dirt roads to off-road. If you have traveled in parts of Africa, this will be a familiar ride for you.
Again, SVS Chad demonstrated their professionalism with their organization. My group was led by Andrea, a charismatic and experienced guide. Andrea speaks English, Chadian Arabic, and his native Italian. Andiamo!
SVS Chad brings a team of six, including a chef. As you can imagine, this is a critical role for keeping the guest happy. The chef did a great job with such limited resources. The rest of team worked diligently to maintain the camp.
SVS Chad set up the camp right in the middle of all the action. The Wodaabe are spread over a large area, but our camp was set up just minutes’ walk from the performances. Remember, the three most important things in real estate … location, location, location.
A reminder, the camp is set in an isolated area. There are no towns, villages or stores anywhere near. Bring what you need.
You are provided with a quality tent, I opted for the single supplement. I would encourage this strongly. The tents are on the snug side. I am by no means an outdoorsman, but I was able to set up the tent on the second time, but the SVS Chad team is there to help or set up on your behalf. SVS Chad also supplies a sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
The SVS Chad team set up toilets, a male and female tent. I was impressed. Two small tents were erected which included a hole in the ground and a “toilet” set up over the hole. This provided some privacy from your fellow travelers and some of the curious Wodaabe.
And don’t forget the showers. SVS Chad also set up two showers, again male and female. A tank of water with a nozzle allowed you to cool off and clean off the dust and dirt from the day. Don’t expect a rainfall showerhead, but my nightly shower was a luxury in the heat.
Our group of 12 took our meals in the dining tent. A large tent was constructed which hosted our table with accompanying chairs. We took all of our meals here and this tent provided shade and kept the mosquitos at bay.
The chef and his team made a lot of effort in keeping our stomach’s content. Breakfast included coffee & tea, cereal, powered milk, bread, cheese, and every other day omelets. Lunch and dinner varied from fresh salads to pasta. We would also be wowed by desserts like a freshly made chocolate cake. With such limited resources in a remote place, I was impressed by the chef’s creations. And thanks to the Italian heritage of SVS Chad we would be surprised with Italian delicacies like mozzarella.
One of our daily luxuries was our daily beer or soda presented to us at dinner. SVS Chad managed to keep these drinks cool in a refrigerator they hauled from N’Djamena.
I was expecting SVS Chad to haul in 100s of plastic bottles. Instead, large containers of water filled via local wells provided our sustenance. At will, you could fill your bottle with water. The water was safe to drink as no one apparently got sick.
Always Be Charging
SVS Chad brought a portable generator. This was turned on a couple of hours a day around lunch and dinner. This was your opportunity to charge any devices. And this is also how they kept the refrigerator cool. Another surprise was we had a fan which was also turned on for lunch and dinner to cool us off.
There is no Wi-Fi or internet in the camp. So enjoy your internet detox and tell your family and friends you will be off the grid.
What To Bring
While SVS Chad provides for many amenities there are many items I would suggest you bring to make sure experience even better when visit Gerewol Festival. There are affiliates below, so buy away!
Yes, there are a lot of mosquitos so make sure you bring your DEET. And I would also suggest you take Malarone since there is Malaria in Chad.
It can be uncomfortably hot in Chad and the sun is strong. Make sure you bring some sunscreen to protect yourself.
Make sure you have a quick dry MicroFiber Towel for those showers.
And while SVS Chad gives you a sleeping pad and sleeping bad, I also brought a Sleeping Bag Liner.
Make sure you bring a head lamp, it is dark at night.
You should also bring a large water bottle since you will be constantly refilling your bottle from a central source.
Consider bringing a Kindle with some preloaded books or your iPad with a movie or two. And check out my book suggestions.
And remember to bring your chargers and spare batteries, you’ll be taking a lot of photos.
Check Out More Gerewol Festival Photos On My IG
Want to see more great pictures? Check out Unique Faces Of Gerewol Festival.