The Wodaabe’s Age-Old Wife-Stealing Ceremony

Fredrick Ngugi July 10, 2017

Courtship and marriage have been an integral part of the African tradition since the dawn of time and are considered a requisite phase in a person’s lifetime. It’s a rite of passage that involves a lot of formalities and merrymaking, even among communities that have embraced the Western ways of life.

But among the Wodaabe people, a nomadic ethnic group living in several countries within the Sahel region, courtship and marriage are celebrated in a rather peculiar way that appears to go against what is widely considered as the norm.

Wodaabe men

Wodaabe men during a wife stealing ceremony. Photo credit: Joyeux Magazine

Aside from rating themselves as the most beautiful people on earth, the Wodaabes are among the few communities in the world that allow women to marry two husbands at the same time – a practice commonly referred to as “Sigisbesim.”

While some women prefer to leave their first husbands before moving in with the second, some like to have both husbands at the same time.

For the men, they find their mates at a popular “wife-stealing” festival known locally as “Yaki,” which can sometimes last for 10 days.

At the ceremony, men adorn themselves with special jewelry and makeup, including a black natural paint that is applied on to the lips to make their white teeth more noticeable. They also dance on the tips of their toes to appear taller and show off their widened eyes and teeth.

Men participate in tests of dance and beauty in a bid to impress the women — most of whom are already married.

Wife stealing dance

Wodaabe men participating in a wife stealing dance. Photo credit:Daily Mail

In fact, a few days before the fair, men approach the women they are interested in and invite them to the dance with the hopes of winning them over.

A man who is able to roll his eyes and grin simultaneously is considered attractive. Other physical features, such as light skin, thin lips, long jaws, and white eyes make a man irresistible among Wodaabe women.

During the dance, women are not allowed to look at men, their objects of desire, directly; they are required to stand shyly in the crowd at a considerable distance.

At night, men participate in what is considered a “sacred” dance, which is based on natural physical beauty, but since men are not allowed to apply makeup during this dance, only those who are confident about their natural looks participate.

After midnight, couples begin pairing up and then spend the night in the bush. A woman is allowed to pair with as many men as she pleases until she finds her perfect match.

wodaabe women

Wodaabe women watch from a distance as men engage in the wife stealing contest. Photo credit: Daily Mail

The pairing (wife stealing) can therefore last a night, several nights, or a lifetime.

After marriage, a man becomes a hero in his family and clan while his bride’s family despises him for stealing their young and pretty woman.

The ceremony happens on a 52-week cycle, and its dates and location are kept secret until just a few days before the event.

Although some people argue that the wife-stealing festival promotes promiscuity and contributes to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, the Wodaabe people see it as a marriage market and a unique way of celebrating love and beauty.

Last Edited by:Abena Agyeman-Fisher Updated: July 10, 2017


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