Human Planet Explorer
Securing a mate is a competitive business. Some people might prove their worth by being funny, while others aim to be pretty or rich. But in Vanuatu men show they are marriage material by throwing themselves off towers with vines around their ankles, while the Wodaabe men of Niger prefer to show off in the Gerewol beauty contest.
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Photo from Human Planet
Wodaabe men in Niger perform a dance during Gerewol, a festival of beauty and courtship.
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Bruce Parry meets Kencho, a member of the Layap - a tribe who still practice polyandry.
Kencho explains to Bruce Parry how he and his brother were married to his wife at the same time – a practice known as polyandry.
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Tuppence Stone describes Gerewol, a male beauty contest held by the Wodaabe people, Niger.
Producer/Director Tuppence Stone describes Gerewol, an extraordinary male beauty contest held by the Wodaabe people in Niger. Photography: Timothy Allen.
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In the UK, one in five people now meet online but in places where internet dating is less common, there are still many tried and tested ways to charm and impress a potential partner.
On the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, men quite literally jump at the opportunity to impress the local women, launching themselves from a tower thirty meters above the ground with nothing but a vine around the ankles to stop them from biting the dust. The skill lies in judging the length of the vines so that they come as close to the ground as possible, just grazing their heads, without actually injuring themselves. While the tradition was once linked to the fertility of the yam harvest, it has now become more of a death-defying feat to impress the girls and attract a wife.
The men of Niger’s Woodabe tribe also put themselves on display, but instead of putting on feats of derring-do, the men stage a beauty contest in which they are the contenders. Painting themselves with bright symmetrical patterns, the suitors dance for hours, competing to be chosen by the female judges as one of the three most beautiful men. Even though the winners may already have a partner, they get the honour of spending the night with a judge. Luckily for the married men, their wives actually want their husbands to win as it is very prestigious to be married to someone so attractive.
Having found and successfully wooed a suitable partner, the next step is usually the wedding. Or weddings, in the plural. Moonies, members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, have been getting married in mass weddings for decades but now the idea has spread into the mainstream. In China, it is now not uncommon for couples to marry in groups of 50–100. Not only does this reduce the up-front cost of a wedding but it also allows for economies of scale when it comes to spectacle and entertainment.
But just as there is no such thing as a typical wedding, there is also no such thing as a typical marriage.
The Bhutanese villages of Laya and Lunana are some of the highest and most remote human settlements on earth, with yak camps at altitudes of 6,000m. At these dizzying heights, resources are few, hardiness is essential, and possessions and land are precious. As a result, the Layap people of the Himalayas do everything they can – including practicing polyandry - to ensure that their prized assets remain in the family.
Polyandry is one of the rarest forms of marriage in the world, one in which a woman is married to more than one man at the same time, sometimes even in the same house. While it may seem unusual to us, it is well suited to this harsh environment and helps keep land, yaks and money in the family. And, after all, family is a large part of what finding a partner is about.