African Ceremonies

The Wodaabe, Niger: Male Beauty on Display
Colorful jewels in a barren landscape, the nomadic Wodaabe people live a life defined by complex rituals, taboos, and a striking sense of visual and aural beauty – all set amid the harshness of the sub-Saharan Sahel of Niger.

Wodaabe men use ornate face makeup to compete in a charm competition to win wives or lovers. The contestants line up in front of hundreds of female judges, says Beckwith, “rolling their eyes around and showing their teeth and broad smiles and then puckering their lips up, and all the while they’re making these clicking and hissing sounds.” A man does not have to be beautiful to win but must have what the Wodaabe call togu, magnetism and character.

The Bedik, Senegal: Becoming the Mask
For the Bedik people of Senegal, masks have great ceremonial importance. Made of tree fiber, with slits for eyes, the masks are worn with costumes made of hundreds of leaves. Only members of secret societies are allowed into the mystical forest groves where the masks are kept. And it’s only during the annual ceremonies to bless the crops that the masks come out of the forest.

The Bedik behind the mask is not donning a disguise, but taking on a new identity that is no longer human. So the expression “mask” includes the costume and the individual inside.

Bedik Villagers welcome the masks into the community. (1:07)

“Their role is to enter all of the houses, to go into every nook and cranny of the village and make sure that there is nothing evil or negative that could impact the agricultural activity that’s soon to take place,” says Carol Beckwith. “The Bedik believe that the land was something given to them by the spirit world, and if you make any adjustment to the land, you have to ask permission of the nature gods.”

The Bedik – Land

The Surma, Ethiopia: Body Painting and Stick Fighting, In the Name of Love
“Surma land is like an absolute paradise,” says Angela Fisher, describing a remote area in southwest Ethiopia, green with pastures, valleys, and rain forests. “The Surma are very peaceful, serene people who are in love with their own lifestyle. They believe that God has given them everything, and the cattle they own are probably the best cattle in the world.”

A Surma plays a thumb piano

Surma men stick fight

Every year after the harvest, Surma men and women enjoy a leisurely courtship period, spending days by the river, painting their bodies with beautiful designs to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex. “Young girls sit under trees and play the thumb piano,” says Fisher. “It’s a very beautiful instrument found in different areas of Africa, and the Surma have perfected many tunes on the thumb piano.”

When the body-painting stage ends, the Surma courtship ritual turns violent, as men from different villages meet in day-long tournaments of stick fighting. The fierce jousting with donga sticks, six-foot-long (1.8 meter-long) hardwood poles, serves to prove their masculinity and settle vendettas, but most importantly, to win wives.

The victor at day’s end is carried to waiting girls on a platform of palms, and one of the girls accepts the man as her husband-to-be. The girl’s lower lip is then pierced and, over a period of months, stretched over a series of ever larger plates. The size of the final lip plate indicates how many head of cattle must be paid as the bride’s dowry.

The tribal customs of Africa, in all their vibrant variation, testify to a common human spirit that crosses all boundaries. “[You have] a sense that we’re all sharing the same emotions,” Beckwith says, “and the same desire to find meaning in our lives. No matter how different we are in terms of religious beliefs, body adornment, whether we wear clothes, whether we don’t wear clothes, who our gods are, we come to find we have an extraordinary common ground.”

Related Links, Products, Articles, and Events

Look for African Ceremonies, Beckwith and Fisher’s two-volume masterpiece, at your local bookshop.
“Passages,” an exhibition of selected photographs by Beckwith and Fisher, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through September 17, 2000, and will be touring to other museums thereafter. For more information, visit

Webcast: Beckwith and Fisher show and tell what it took to take these groundbreaking photographs in an exclusive National Geographic presentation.

David Bradnum recorded all sound in this feature story. Copies of his’s evocative African Passages CD are available through the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Call +1 718 638 5000 extension 238. Or e-mail

Learn more about African ceremonies in the following NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine articles:

Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. “African Marriage Rituals.” Pages 80-97, November 1999.

Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. “The Eloquent Surma of Ethiopia.” Pages 76–99, February 1991.

Beckwith, Carol. “Niger’s Wodaabe: “People of the Taboo.” Pages 483–509, October 1983.


One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2000.

All photographs are courtesy of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher.

All sound recordings are courtesy of David Bradnum.

Text is by Mauri Small, Rachael Teel, and Jim Metzner.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.