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TRAVELING IN STYLE

Beauties Of The African Desert

The Brightest Blossoms Springing Up After Niger's Rainy Season Are the Beguiling Men of the Wodaabe Tribe

March 16, 1997|AMANDA JONES | Amanda Jones is a native of New Zealand. She lives in the Bay Area, where she is a writer and photographer

"So this is the part where we get lost, right?" I leaned forward and asked Moussa, our perennially cheerful driver. I expected a denial, but didn't get one. In fact, Moussa looked positively despondent.

"Oh, I get it." I said, collapsing back into my seat. "We're already lost."

I gazed out the window of the Land Cruiser--the same dirty window I'd been looking out for the past two days. We were deep in the West African country of Niger, in the Sahel, the searing, flesh-colored semi-desert fringing the southern Sahara. The harmattan, the hot wind that whips across the desert, was blowing again, carrying a fine sand that leaves eyes stinging and skin raw. I hadn't bathed in three days. It was 105 degrees; the Toyota had no air-conditioning. You could boil an egg in my water bottle.

Eventually our entourage--four four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying 13 Americans, ranging in age from 29 to 67, and enough supplies for a 12-day journey--stopped at a roadside stall to drink tepid Coke and reconnoiter. We were searching for Pirogi, a friend of tour leader Irma Turtle, and his clan of Wodaabe. There was only one hitch--we didn't know quite where to find them. "They are nomads," Turtle reminded me when I inquired about probabilities. "They move every few days, and even they don't know where they'll stop until they get there."

The Wodaabe are one of the world's better-known but least visited African people. We'd all been intrigued by photographs of their flamboyant beauty pageants--pictures of dramatically decorated faces grimacing maniacally. After the rainy season, Wodaabe clans hold ruumes, costumed dances where clan members compete against each other in a kind of combination cultural event and mating ritual. Ruumes are dress rehearsals for larger gerewol festivals, where numerous clans gather to be judged on face, body, dancing ability and "charm." The one refreshingly emancipated difference between a Wodaabe gerewol and a Miss Universe pageant is that the contestants are men.

Hoping to see either a ruume or a gerewol, I had flown two days to reach Niger's capital, Niamey, from California. I met the rest of Irma Turtle's tour group there and, after a few hours of sleep, climbed into a Land Cruiser with three other exhausted strangers. There are no set dates for these festivals, which occur at various times from September to November. We had 12 days to find some Wodaabe and hope they were planning to dance.

Turtle is a former New York advertising exec who threw it in 12 years ago to found an adventure travel company, Turtle Tours. She looks much younger than her 52 years, and she somehow managed to maintain a level of personal hygiene and chic in the desert that escaped the rest of us. Each day she wore a different dress of gauzy African fabric and masses of ethnic jewelry.

It was an intimate but unstructured trip. The advance itinerary was merely an approximation. "That's West Africa," Turtle would say with an ethereal smile when moving from Plan C to Plan D or E, "and you'd better get used to it."

The first day, we drove east through Sahal grasslands to Tahoua, a shabby market town bordering the Sahel and edged by dunes. Numerous police blockades delayed us for long hours. Niger has had trouble with rebel Tuaregs, a nomadic Saharan people, and police detained all those heading to Tuareg country, making sure they weren't gun smugglers.

As we continued east, away from civilization, the terrain grew increasingly silent and stark. At the end of the second day, with night near, our lead driver pulled over to speak to a turbaned man on camelback. The rider squinted and waved a finger vaguely into the murky miles of featureless desert. At that moment, my spirits flagged. I was suddenly tired of being filthy, tired of being tired. How could we find a small band of nomads in this dark wasteland?

We veered off the road in the direction of the pointed finger and began driving over trackless stretches of sand, scrubby bush and sporadic acacia trees. Hours of dusk and darkness streamed by, until, miraculously, a fire flared on the horizon. We had found Pirogi's Wodaabe, miles from civilization and light years from home.

As we unfolded ourselves from the vehicles, lean silhouettes emerged from the gloom and moved into the campfire light. There was something almost spectral about them. They were tall and thin, with carved cheekbones, sloe eyes, blue-black lashes, lofty foreheads and razor-straight noses. The entire clan, about 30 people, drifted forward, one by one taking our hands lightly in both of theirs, whispering, "foma, foma, foma"--meaning, roughly: "Welcome, how are you, how is your family, your herd, your life?" They smelled of smoke and herbs, of warm skin and dust.

Their angular bodies were wrapped against the cold desert night in lengths of deep blue cotton. Sometimes when they moved, the cloth fell aside, exposing the naked shoulders of a Giacometti statue. Firelight dusted their faces with iridescence, copper on ebony.

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