Written by Shirley Sozinha
Part One (1)
At a time where gender roles are being questioned, reinvented, contorted some would even say, the idea of patriarchy is becoming a tight rope that parts of society will tow forever. In the Western world and being part of the diaspora, you can say the hinges of patriarchy are being rattled by the emergence of the ‘female boss’; several women in positions of dominance and power who then indirectly (and sometimes directly) give other women the platform to express themselves too. Although I said that this is something that’s big in the West, I mean you know it’s a whole movement now, “who run the world? Girls!” type thing. Matrilineal societies that have existed in Africa for centuries can stand as proof that Beyonce had the right idea. Is the West only just catching up?
Matriarchal / Matrilineal societies, or just unique gender structured societies, are more common than what is represented in Africa. Now, I don’t want to focus on the fact that much about women ruling (if you’ve read my work before, you’ll know I’ve touched on this subject as a younger version of me, and I was just impressed at how women were ‘calling the shots’ so to speak). But as I reflect I realise that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that women are “ruling”, just because we see a societal structure where predominantly, women are entrusted with making decisions and being capable leaders.
The existence of these societies in Africa to me, represents freedom, respect and fluidity of gender roles actually. Not ‘matriarchy vs patriarchy’. Since the inception of some of the cultural beliefs that I’m going to highlight in this paper, the women referenced have been endowed with respect, power and acknowledgment within their respective communities. Right from birth they’ve been regarded as community leaders, and contrary to popular belief, the men in these communities are all in; checking their masculinity at the door because they simply don’t need it. Some examples are more extreme than others of course.
Tuaregs and the “Tagelmust”
So we’ll start off lightly. And by lightly I mean, the last thing I said was that some of these men would check their masculinity at the door. That statement can be interpreted loosely so in this context, I mean that sometimes it’s the men who have to follow the rules, or be uncomfortable so that other people are not, or take instructions from women – literally turning patriarchy on its head. In this example, the Tuaregs, (nomadic people who are approximately 2 million in population living across the Sahara Desert, covering the North African regions of Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Chad) who are part of the Berber ethnic group and are largely Muslim, are one of the only communities where men wear veils instead of women, and it actually has a large impact on their physical appearance. The Vowel, named ‘tagelmust’ or the ‘allichu‘ veil is said to be worn for practical reasons, such as protecting them from the sun and sand in their environment, to allow them to carry out their duties. But it’s not just that. It’s a rite of passage; the men begin wearing the veil at age 25. It covers their entire face and body excluding their eyes. Because of the commitment to wearing the veil, the colour of the fabric dye gradually leeches out onto the skin. In the desert sun, because the dye bleeds freely onto the skin, those that wear the veils often, are left with a blue-grey complexion, and are referred to as the “blue men of the desert” (Macfarlane, 2015).
Sources have also said there’s more to it. As Macfarlane (2015), cited in his piece in the Guardian Africa Network, “in addition to giving protection from dust whipped up by desert winds, the veils are believed to prevent bad spirits from entering the body”. Throughout a man’s adult life, “a man would rarely be unveiled, either when travelling alone, when asleep, when eating or with other people” (Keenan, 2003); they also cover their faces when in a woman’s presence. Women are free to show their faces. However, they also do wear a head cloth that is taken at puberty. It is black and does not cover the face at all and it is more so placed on top of the head. So, this is a clear example of men being in a position where they have to adhere to some restrictions, rules, and change their identity in the presence of women. Interesting right?
Here’s something interesting about the allichu cloth: both the cloth and dye come from Nigeria. To retrieve it, merchants in camel caravans with up to 20,000 camels, Macfarlane (2015) notes, travel thousands of miles south, to the Nigerian towns of Tano and Sokoto to trade for the materials needed. A return trip can take six months. This trip also stands as a rite of passage for many young boys who accompany the merchants on the trips, “some as young as ten”.
Bodi Tribe – Ka’el obesity pageant
I’ll just get straight to the point. This is essentially an annual male beauty pageant, just a bit remixed. It depends on what you call ‘beauty’ but beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say. Every June – July in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia the “Ka’el” which is the Bodi New Year, takes place. With it comes a fascinating show of pageantry that only men participate in. In the months before the event, the men live in isolation and excessively drink a mixture of cow milk and cow blood for months, with the aim of becoming severely bloated and overweight. Each clan in the region will then present an unmarried male to everyone, to compete for the title of ‘the fattest man’ – with the glory, comes fame, admiration and a greater chance of finding a wife.Prior to the competition, each of the 14 clans of the Bodi tribe is expected to produce a male contestant who is unmarried, to compete in the contest. A photographer named Eric Lafforgue photographed a ceremony, which was described by Saro Suri (2019) as extreme dedication and commitment: “for 6 months, they take very unusual steps to put on excess weight. Feeding on blood and fresh milk for the entire period of 6 months, they must stay confined in their huts, they are not engaging in any physical activity including sexual intercourse”. Already, Bodi men are naturally quite overweight because they consume a lot of honey, so the ritual increases the weight gain immensely.
On the day of the Ka’el ceremony, the fattened men leave their huts for the first time since their solitude. Their bodies are covered with clay and ashes, they display their physical abilities before the elders of the community who serve as the judges. Once the event is over, contestants return to their size in a matter of weeks. Can you imagine that in your society? The men around you abandoning vanity, which is also an emerging industry in the West, men investing in self-care and their physical image more. I for one can’t! Which makes the Ka’el festival super interesting, and again a clear example of men abandoning rules and doing something to themselves to attract admiration from women.
About the Author:
Shirley Sozinha Vinda, is a 26-year-old freelance pan-African writer and content creator, based in London, UK. She is currently working to relaunch her platform called ‘Uncover.com’, which will be a Pan-African community with a blog, forum, video channel and much more. She is also the author of ‘The Dark Tales of Congo DR’, of which hard copies are available, upon request. She also wrote and hosted the @theresnosignal radio show on Congolese Independence Day in the #NSCONGO61show, and has also appeared on @LaBase radio shows and podcasts.
Keep up with Shirley by following her @shirleysozinha and @UncoverPlat on twitter – and @uncoverplat on Instagram.
Tuareg life in the Sahara Desert – In pictures (Clyde Marcfarlane, 2015): https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2015/may/26/tuareg-sahara-desert-in-pictures
Celebrate Ka’el Ceremony and New Year of Bodi Tribe: https://sarosuri.online/2019/05/29/celebrate-kael-ceremony-and-new-year-of-bodi-tribe-june8-15/
Sex in our strange world : The Male Beauty Pageant where Female Judges sleep with the winners – Dr. Kate Lister (2019): https://amuse.vice.com/en_us/article/bvg3p4/a-musical-tour-of-ibiza
The Bijago Creation Story: https://talkafricana.com/the-creation-story-of-the-bijago-people-of-guinea-bissau/
Image 1 – AJ Price on https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/363736107375380900/
Image 2 – by Frans Lemmens / Corbis on https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3131511/Sex-Sahara-Striking-photographs-mysterious-Islamic-tribe-women-embrace-sexual-freedoms-dictate-gets-divorce-don-t-wear-veil-men-want-beautiful-faces.html
Image 3 – by Hannah Murs at http://themelisting.com/
Image 4 – exclusiveprixmedia at https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3204776/ethiopian-tribe-hosts-annual-fat-man-contest-where-locals-gorge-nothing-but-cows-milk-and-blood-for-months-to-gain-weight/