During Ramadan, these young boys, painted white with long, cotton beards, started to show up around Niamey, the capital city of Niger. Normally at intersections, they approach cars, shaking water bottles filled with rocks, singing, and, sometimes, dancing.
It took quite a bit of digging, but it’s a Nigerien tradition called “Tobay Tobay”, or “Rabbit Rabbit” in English, with similar variations happening throughout West Africa and parts of the Muslim world although going under many different names (Quranchasho in Oman, Hag Al Laila in the UAE, Gergaoun in Kuwait and Bahrain). In the Nigerien tradition, the children dress up like rabbits (paint their bodies white, sometimes with a beard, and always a tail made of either a t-shirt or a leafy branch sticking out the back of their shorts). They go from house to house singing and dancing in an attempt to earn change, sweets, and sugar cubes. The simple song goes:
“Rabbit, Rabbit. Give me some sugar.”
With many Nigeriens moving into more urban settings, some children have adapted the tradition to include performing on street corners and at traffic lights.
As mentioned, there are traditions similar to Tobay Tobay in other Muslim countries around the world and Tobay Tobay most likely shares similar roots, but the animistic heritage of the Sahel has added it’s own unique element in the personification of local animals. No other celebration singularly encourages it’s participants to dress up as animals and none have as deep a connection to rabbits as Tobay Tobay.
Rumours swirl of some children dressing up as lions or other animals, but it only appears that rabbits emerge on the streets of Niamey. When one child was asked them “Why rabbits?”, he responded, “In the days of our grandfathers, they dressed as rabbits. Our fathers then dressed as rabbits. And now, we dress as rabbits.” Another one simply stated, “We dress as rabbits because that’s how you get the sugar.”
In the end, the origins of Tobay Tobay are obscured in the memory of most participants, but stories are told of the ancient Nigeriens, here when Islam first arrived in this part of the world. It’s said they struggled to fast during the month of Ramadan. They were tired, hot, hungry, and thirsty due to the demands of fasting in an already inhospitable part of the world. Tobay Tobay is told to have been developed as a way to bring some joy and laughing, through song and dance, back to their lives during this new Islamic festival.