Tobay Tobay (Rabbit Rabbit)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Best of Morocco

Lately I’ve been fascinated by what other people like in my photos vs what I like. So as my trip to Morocco has come to an end, I thought I’d present my top three photos from the trip as ranked by the Instagram hivemind and by myself.

Instagram Hivemind Top 3                                 My Top 3

#1

#2

#3

Goudou’s Pottery House

Location: Boubon, Niger

We stepped out of the harsh morning sun and into the dimly lit hut constructed out of misaligned cinder blocks and crumbling slabs of dry mud. As our eyes adjusted, we made out the smiling face of a middle aged women. Her slight paunch emphasized her jovial expression and her laugh was exactly as you would expect from a woman of this demeanour and stature.

Her nephew, who had been the one to invite us into their home in order to witness the Nigerien pottery process, offered us a seat on the raised bed platform. He introduced his aunt, Goudou (Goo-do), as we shifted trying to find a comfortable position on the thin grass mat separating us from the intertwined sticks and rope that made up the bed.

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Goudou casually used her hand to scoop out a shallow depression in the dry sand floor as she conversed with us, using her nephew to translate from Zarma into French. She pulled a small grass mat over the hole and plopped down a shapeless lump of wet, river clay onto the mat with a satisfying squelch. Muddy water droplets scattered everywhere, accessorizing the mat’s intricate chevrons. Goudou sprinkled a coarse powder onto the clay and as she worked it in, she explained it was the crushed and pounded remnants of imperfect pottery which is used to strengthen the new clay.

Maybe ignorantly, I had anticipated the use of a pottery wheel during at least some portion of the experience, but with none to be seen around the dim interior, I was left to watch incredulously as Goudou slowly worked the clay with a small, curved press. To begin, her experienced hands shaped the powder infused clay into a elegant sphere which she gently laid to rest in the depression. She used the press to firmly crater the sphere. Slowly deepening the center, making the walls both thiner and higher as she went.

When satisfied, Goudou produce another shapeless lump of clay. She deftly folded it out into an elongated rectangle which she then wrapped around the opening of the pot. The resulting neck was as grotesque and out of place as that of Frankenstein’s monster. Unfazed, Goudou plucked a protruding piece of straw from the wall with one hand while wetting the pot neck with the other. Using a practiced precision, she transitioned the wet clay of the neck almost seamlessly into the body.

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Not unlike an over-enthused cooking show host, Goudou set aside the freshly formed pot and produced a similar, but dry one. She explained the pot she had just finished would need to sit in the sun for almost a week before if could be painted and fired in the communal village kiln. As she walked us through the drying process, her hands worked on autopilot to bring out several cracked and splattered containers from their various nooks. With no regard to her work station, she splashed indiscriminate amounts of water into each container to mix with the materials caked on their respective bottoms.

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Sensing the confusion in the room, Goudou’s nephew emerged from the shadowy doorway in order to explain these were the paints with which Goudou decorates the pots. Each one is made from a local mud or crushed rock and applied to the pots with a discarded millet stalk.

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The stalk applied the paint with an incredible ease and flow. After several coats, Goudou literally cut in each painted band using a knife in order to achieve the fine lines impossible with even the most delicate of stalks.

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Goudou also used the knife to repeatedly cute white diagonals into the darkest layer, creating an eye catching and high contrast design.

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As Goudou put the final touches on the pot, we could see pride swell in her eyes. She knew her work was neither perfect nor refined, but she knew what sat in front of us now was something she had created out of nothing. This is the way her family has made pots for generations. The practice is how she supports her family, how her mother supported their family, and how the generations before had supported theirs. It is a practical trade for Goudou, but it is also a connection to both the land on which she lives as well as the generations before her who have toiled in the exact same manner.