The Tuareg nomads of Africa


The Tuareg belong to the large Berber (Imazighen) community, which stretches from the Canary Islands to Egypt and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. They are the only Berber speaking community, to have preserved and used the Tifinagh writing. Nomads of vast arid lands, the common denominator of the dispersed Tuareg are the language, Tamasheq.

They identify themselves variously such as: Kel Tamasheq (people of Tamasheq), Imouhar, Imuhagh, Imazaghan, or Imashaghen (the free). For the sake of simplicity; Tuareg is used in this document. Although the origin and early history of the Tuaregs are cloudy, these tribal nomads appear to have travelled down from North Africa in a series of migrations as early as the 7th century. By the end of the 14th century, Tuareg tribes had established themselves as far south as the Nigerian border.

Raids against settlements
As they advanced, the Tuareg met the Songhay and the Hausa, who were forced to acknowledge their regime. Raids against sedentary settlements and caravans were central to their ethos and hierarchy, and increased their herds of cattle. Because of their swift camels and superior weapons, the Tuareg generally had the better of their enemies.

The Tuareg also conquered the Harratine, who were a farming people of Negroid stock. These people were not trained for war and gave in without a struggle. In return for protection from other desert marauders, they agreed to give the Tuareg half their garden produces. Thereafter they continued to farm their land as serfs.

The Tuareg population
The Tuareg themselves claim to be more than three million. Yet, their number has variously been estimated at some one point five to two million, with the majority of some 750,000 living in Niger, and 550,000 in Mali. In Algeria, they are estimated at 40,000, excluding some 100,000 refugees from Mali and Niger, and the same number is officially admitted to live in Burkina Faso. Proper figures are not established in Libya and other West African French-speaking countries.

Location and country
Tuareg country ranges from Savannah in the south, with 10-20 inches (50cm) of rain per year, to barren desert in the north, dominated by the mountains of Ahaggar, Tassilin-ajjer, Adrar-n-Foras and Air. The northern region is very hot in summer, often reaching temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (55C). Violent winds are also very common and add considerably, to the discomfort of the climate.

A sandstorm does far more damage than rain and they are much feared. Travelling is extremely hard under such conditions and most people spend the day in the shade of rocks and trees, sleeping and drinking water. The rains in the Sahara are irregular and in some places, it has not rained for six years. In contrast, it sometimes fall snow, on the higher slopes of the Ahaggar during winter.

Shelter of tents and huts
Shelters take the form of small lightweight tents of leather or sometimes grass huts. The average size of a tent is about 10 feet (3m) deep and 10 to 15 feet (4.5m) wide. The average household can pack its goods on the backs of two camels, while a donkey or two may be used to carry the small stuff. Clothing is loose, voluminous, and light in weight. A Tuareg would also consider himself undressed, if he does not carry a knife. Women go barefaced but with a head kerchief.

People of the Veil
In direct contrast to Arab custom, all Tuareg men wear a veil (tidjelmoust), while their women are unveiled. The men’s veil is the most distinctive and arresting article of clothing among the Tuareg. Self-respecting Tuareg think it shockingly indecent for a man, to let his mouth be seen by anyone to whom he owes formal respect.

Nor will he show his face to anyone, whose social standing he considers superior to his own. Both young men and young women adopt the veil or head cloth at initiation or marriage, which shows that their social functions are identical. The most preferred veils are dyed indigo, though many make do with black ones.

Society and classes
Within their society, the main division is between the noble class (Ihaggaren or Amaher) and the vassal classes (Imrad). In the past, each of the noble tribes with its respective vassals formed a political unit, under a chief whose authority was symbolized by a drum. The drum chief held supreme political and judicial authority in the drum group, and it was he who had to regulate all relations between nobles and vassals within that unit.

Ineslemen/ Marabouts
In most Tuareg groups there are also whole tribes of Ineslemen (Marabouts). Those are the “holy people” of the religious class, established after the introduction of Islam and were led by their own chiefs. The relationship among Ihaggaren, Imrad and Ineslemen, was deeply affected by European intervention. The noble class was decimated, during the revolt against the French in 1917 and today they represent probably no more than 15% of the total Tuareg population. In this matrilineal society (belonging to the mother’s lineage), the family of the wife is important, and the women have more freedom than the women of neighbouring tribes do.

Nomadic stockbreeders
Before the arrival of the Europeans, most Tuareg were nomadic stockbreeders, with large herds of camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Many Tuareg remain nomadic, moving their herds between dry and rainy season pastures, according to the quality and distribution of rainfall.

The Ahaggaren Tuareg of Algeria pitch their camps in or close to mountain massifs, of which the most important are Ahaggar and Tassili-n-Ajjer. Rainfall is irregular, and persistent vegetation cannot generally exist outside river valleys and depressions. Pasturage is either very sparse or very scattered, so that the people are continually breaking up into small and highly mobile camp units. They move at intervals of between a week to a month, always within the territorial limits of the tribe.

The Saharan and Sahelian regions
The camel caravans

The Tuareg also came to prominence as caravaners, in the Saharan and Sahelian regions (Sahelia= the borderland between the Savanna and Sahara) at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Then trade routes to the lucrative salt, gold, ivory and slave markets in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East sprang up across Tuareg territory. Nobles controlled the caravan trade, owned most of the camels and remained more nomadic. They came into the oasis only to collect a proportion of the harvest, from their client and servile people.

The caravan trade persists today, in the region between the Air Mountains and the city/ state of Kano in the Northern Nigeria. Men from Air spend five to seven months each year on camel caravans. They travelled to Bilma (a small oasis town in the east of Niger) for dates and salt, and then to Kano to trade them for millet and other foodstuffs, household tools, and luxury items such as spices, perfume and cloth.

Although the Tuareg generally live on the products of their animals, owing to natural disasters and political tensions, it is now increasingly difficult to make a living solely from nomadic stockbreeding. Most rural Tuareg combine subsistence methods, practising herding, oasis gardening, caravan trading and migrant labour.

Tuareg culture
In Tuareg culture, there is a great appreciation of visual and verbal arts. There is much of music, poetry, and songs that are of importance during courtship, rites of passage and secular festivals. Visual arts consist primarily of metalwork, some woodwork, and dyed and embroidered leatherwork, all which are specialities of smiths, who formerly manufactured these products solely for their noble patrons.

Women plays music
Women play a single chord violin, the imzad, the sound box of which is made by stretching a skin across an enamel bowl. A drum is similarly made by stretching a wet skin across a grain mortar and the men sometimes play a wooden flute. Parties are held around the campfires in the evening and both men and women sing.

Difficulties and migration
Realizing by early autumn 1972 that the rains had failed disastrously after a run of bad years, the nomads and their families were forced to trek south in search of pasture for their herds. This massive southward migration intensified as water supplies began to fail, and generated conflicts over rights and obligations among the people and governments of the region.

Many animals perished of thirst and hunger or simply from fatigue during the long journey; others were slaughtered prematurely or sold at buyer’s price. Thousands of Tuareg nomads, having lost everything drifted to the bigger villages and towns, where they set up cowhide shelters and lean to shanties on the outskirts of the settlements.

In Algeria, the government was successful in its attempts to denomadize local Tuareg. In the wake of Algeria’s oil and gas boom and the 1968-1974 drought in the southern Sahel, most Algerian Tuareg opted (were forced) for urban life. However, development programs involving the Tuareg that were started from the 1940’s to the 1970’s failed miserably because they worked against the traditional pastoral production systems.

The rains in 1974 were good, but they did not wash away the serious economic and social effects of the drought, and life for the Tuareg was never to be the same. Many Tuareg tempted by the less rigorous urban life never returned to their original homes.

Catastrophic drought
Further catastrophic droughts in 1982-1985 drove thousands more of the Tuareg from Mali and Niger into Algeria and Libya. In 1987, Niger and Mali invited them to return but once they were home, the governments failed to honour prior promises, kept the Tuareg in detention camps, and deprived them of aid. In Niger, an army massacre at Tchin Tarabadene became the signal for a general Tuareg revolt in 1990.

Just before this time, some of the Tuareg men (calling themselves ishumar – unemployed) left for Libya, where they received military training and weapons. In the early 1990’s, they returned to their homes and demanded their autonomy. When the revolt spread to the towns of Gao and Timbuktu in the Niger River Valley, it was brutally suppressed, thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled to Algeria and Mauritania.

Religion and beliefs
Although the Tuareg retain many of their pre-Islamic magico-religious (shamanistic healers) beliefs and practices, they are all nominally Muslims. They have earned a reputation for being lukewarm about Islamic practices and religion in general. Even the important annual Muslim fast of Ramadan is not generally observed. The Tuareg revert to a passive form of Islam, which is permeated by local superstition and magic. Amulets are very common, and belief in jinns and spirits is not confined to women. Several Marabout and Shorfa (noble) families are found in the area, and some run Qur’anic (Koran) schools in the garden centres.

Despite much romanticizing about the Tuareg, which was probably fuelled by the mystery attached to their remoteness and general inaccessibility and their habit of killing early European travellers, the Tuareg have paid a heavy price for their maintaining their lifestyle. Their apparent leisurely lifestyle cannot conceal the real poverty of most Tuareg families, whose margin of safety from destitution or starvation is very narrow.


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