Here in the Niger, on the southern edge of the Sahara, live the Wodabe, a 125 000-strong tribe
wandering from oasis to oasis. For them, brawn and brain do not matter, but beauty - and that too,
male beauty! In a cut-throat world where men often compete for status with the power of their guns
or the size of their cars, the peaceful Wodabe have decided looks are all it takes to get on in life.
Beauty contests are held similar to the Miss Universe competitions where contestants preen,
sing, charm and dance to be chosen. In this case, it's the young men that vie for the covetous Mr Sahara or Mr Oasis title. Two or three of the prettiest maidens in the community do the
judging, and the reward after that is usually their hands in marriage to the winners. The pageants
are played out under palm trees across the far reaches of the Sahara in December after rains bring
relief from the year-round search for fodder or grass.
Friendly and courtly, the Wodabe have escaped West Africa's bloody slave raids of centuries
past thanks to their isolation. Cancel-riding groups estimate them among the most stunning: 'To be
ugly is to be unforgiven', a Wodabe proverb says. "It is our heritage. Even our ancestors are
handsome and our women beautiful." says Derre Chafou, a past pageant winner and son of an even
more famously beautiful father. "Lots of women come to marry me. If a man is fat or is not
beautiful, the women won't get close," he says.
Trailing after longhorns all their lives, Wodabe carry with them little more than shepherd's
crooks, sleeping mats, and for the men, pocket mirrors entrusted to them soon after birth. Women
of the family coach toddling boys how to use the mirror to check for grime on their faces or
unsightly leftovers in their teeth. Starting from babyhood, mothers and sisters pull the limbs of
boys to make arms and legs long and lean. They also tweak their noses trying to mould them to a
Beauty is so important that a homely man will not mind his wife having a child by another man
- as long as it comes out looking good. The Wodabe allow men to have several wives. On the flip
side, the Wodabe woman can have two husbands.
At the beauty pageants, it's the survival of the cutest. If they are fat, they don't come to the
pageant. Men with big stomachs cannot win. Generally standing at 1.8 meters, the men use milk of
white cows for a good complexion, black kohl to bring out the eyes, and the powdered bones of a
roasted white baby eagle to accent their lips. The judges pick the top three winners with a tap on
the shoulder. The losers slink off into the bush alone or try winning a bride the old-fashioned way -
with the gift of cattle.