LOCATION: Saharan and Sahelian Africa (mostly Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso)
POPULATION: About 1 million
RELIGION: Islam, combined with traditional beliefs and practices
1 • INTRODUCTION
The Tuareg are an Islamic African people. They are classified as seminomadic , meaning that they travel with their herds on a seasonal basis but also have a home area where they grow some food crops.
The Tuareg are best known for the men's practice of veiling their faces with a blue cloth dyed with indigo. Early travelers' accounts often referred to them as the "Blue Men" of the Sahara Desert, the region where many Tuareg live. It is believed that the Tuareg are descendants of the North African Berbers, and that they originated in the Fezzan region of Libya. They later expanded into regions bordering the Sahara, bringing local farming peoples into their own society.
By the fourteenth century, trade routes to the wealthy salt, gold, ivory, and slave markets in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East had sprung up across Tuareg territory. The Tuareg grew rich as livestock breeders and traders in the Saharan and Sahelian regions. (The Sahel is the region south of the Sahara Desert that is marked by times of drought but is not a real desert.
In the late nineteenth century, European exploration and military expeditions led to French rule of the Tuareg homeland. By the early twentieth century, the French had brought the Tuareg under their colonial control. They ended Tuareg trade activities, including the collection of tariffs and the protection services for camel caravans crossing the Sahara.
2 • LOCATION
Most of the Tuareg live in the Saharan and Sahelian regions—southern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, northern Niger, and northeastern Burkina Faso. The landscape includes flat desert plains, rugged savanna (grassland), and volcanic mountains. Due to drought and famine, many Tuareg have migrated to rural areas and cities farther south. Political tensions with the governments of Mali and Niger have also caused migration.
The total Tuareg population has been estimated at about 1 million.
3 • LANGUAGE
The major language of the Tuareg is Tamacheq, which is in the Berber language group. A written script called Tifinagh is used in poetry and also appears in Saharan rock art. Many of the Tuareg also speak Songhay, Hausa, and French, and read Arabic.
4 • FOLKLORE
There are many proverbs, riddles, myths, and folk tales among the Tuareg. Animal tales depicting human moral questions are popular with children. They feature the jackal, hyena, and rabbit—animal characters widespread in African folklore.
Many Tuareg groups have myths about female ancestors who were founders of traditions. One is Tagurmat, who fought a battle on Mount Bagzan in the Air region. Her twin daughters are said to have founded the herbal healing profession.
Another popular figure in myth and folk tales is Aligouran, a character in a series of adventures involving an uncle and his nephew.
Many stories are about spirits, called jinn, who are believed to play tricks on humans beings who are traveling alone in the desert.
5 • RELIGION
Most Tuareg are Muslims. But their traditional belief system and rituals overlap with Islam. For example, there is a widespread belief in spirits. Most spirits are considered evil and are believed to cause illnesses. Some Tuareg perform fortune-telling with cowrie shells, lizards, mirrors, and the Koran (the sacred text of Islam).
Unlike women in many other Islamic societies, most Tuareg women do not wear veils in public. They may also independently inherit property and begin the process leading to a divorce.
Islamic holy men, called marabouts, are believed to possess a special power of blessing, called al baraka. They educate children in verses from the Koran and they officiate at ceremonies marking rites of passage and Muslim holidays.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
The Tuareg celebrate Muslim holy days, as well as secular (nonreligious) state holidays. Tabaski commemorates the story of Abraham's willingess to sacrifice his son. Each household slaughters a goat or ram, feasts on its meat, and prays at the prayer ground. The Tuareg celebrate Ganni (also called Mouloud ), the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, with special sacred and secular songs and camel races. The end of the month-long Ramadan fast is celebrated by animal sacrifice, feasting, prayer, and evening dancing festivals. Secular holidays that the Tuareg celebrate include Niger Independence Day (August 3) and Niger Republic Day (December 18). On these days, there are camel races and feasting in the countryside, and parades and speeches in the towns.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Name day is held one week following a baby's birth. On the evening before the name day, the older female relatives carry the baby around the mother's tent. They give him or her a secret name in the Tamacheq language. The next day, the baby's hair is shaved in order to cut off the baby's ties to the spirit world. At the mosque, the marabout (Islamic holy man) and the father give the baby an Arabic name from the Koran. As the marabout pronounces the baby's official Koranic name, he cuts the throat of a ram. Then there are feasts, camel races, and evening dancing festivals.
Tuareg men begin to wear a veil over the face at approximately eighteen years of age. This signifies that they are adults and are ready to marry. The first veiling is performed in a special ritual by a marabout. He recites verses from the Koran as he wraps the veil around the young man's head.
Weddings are very elaborate, lasting for seven days. There are camel races and evening festivals featuring songs and dances. The groom's family arrives in the bride's village on gaily decorated camels and donkeys. Older female relatives of the bride build her a special tent.
Burial takes place as soon as possible after a person has died. It is quickly concluded with a graveside prayer led by a marabout. Burial is followed by iwichken, or condolences. Relatives and friends gather at the home of the dead person, and the marabout offers a prayer and blessing. The guests eat a memorial feast.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Like many other African societies, the Tuareg have very elaborate greetings. In the Air regional dialect, Oy ik? signifies "How are you?" This is followed by Mani eghiwan, meaning "How is your family?", and additional greetings such as Mani echeghel? (How is your work?). The usual polite response to these questions is Alkher ghas, or "In health only." Exchanging gifts is an important sign of friendship between women.
The Tuareg in rural areas still recognize social categories from the time before colonization. These are based on family descent and inherited occupation. For example, imajeghen (nobles) refers to Tuareg of noble birth, while inaden refers to the smiths and artisans. In principle, people are supposed to marry within their own social category. However, this practice has been breaking down for some time, especially in the towns.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Compounds in the less nomadic rural communities may include several tents and a few cone-shaped grass buildings. Some of the wealthier Tuareg who have settled in oasis areas have adobe houses.
Since the early 1960s, when independent states were established in their regions, the Tuareg have lost economic power. They tend to be underrepresented in city and town jobs, including government positions. In rural areas, their once-strong local economy has been weakened by drought and by the decreasing value of livestock and salt.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
In rural communities, a nuclear family (parents and their children) live in each tent or compound (living area). Each compound is named for the married woman who owns the tent. She may make her husband leave the tent if she divorces him.
Fathers are the disciplinarians of the family. But other men, especially maternal uncles (uncles on the mother's side), often play and joke with small children. Grandmothers also have a close, affectionate relationship with the children. Cousins have a relaxed relationship marked by teasing and joking. Relationships with in-laws are reserved, distant, and respectful.
Traditionally, the Tuareg have married within their own social category, preferably to a close cousin. In the towns, both of these traditions are breaking down. In rural areas, they remain strong. However, many individuals marry close relatives only to please their mothers. Later they divorce and marry nonrelatives. Some wealthy Tuareg men practice polygamy (having more than one wife at the same time).
Two-thirds of a family's property goes to the sons as an inheritance; one-third, to the daughters. A political office usually passes from father to son.
Women who lack daughters of their own often adopt nieces to help with the housework.
11 • CLOTHING
The veil that Tuareg men wear on their faces has several meanings. It is, first of all, a symbol of male identity. It is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits. In addition, it is considered an attractive adornment and can be worn in various styles. The face veil is worn differently in different social situations. It is worn highest (covering the nose and mouth) to express respect in the presence of chiefs, older persons, and in-laws.
Once they marry, Tuareg women wear a head scarf that covers their hair. In rural areas, Tuareg men wear long Islamic robes. Women wear wraparound skirts and embroidered blouses. In the towns, clothing is more varied. It includes West African tie-dyed cottons, and also fashionable European styles for some wealthier people.
12 • FOOD
Almost 95 percent of the daily diet in rural areas consists of grains. Protein is added by dairy products (milk and cheese). Fruits such as dates and melon are eaten in season. Dried and pounded vegetables are added to sauces. Meat is eaten primarily on holidays and at rites of passage.
A very sweet, thick beverage called eghajira is also consumed on special occasions. It consists of pounded millet, dates, and goat cheese mixed with water, and it is eaten with a ladle.
In the towns, the diet is slightly more varied. However, it still consists mostly of nonmeat protein. Along the Niger River, some fish are caught and added to the diet.
13 • EDUCATION
Until recently, many Tuareg resisted sending their children to secular (nonreligious) schools because they did not like or trust the government. Nowadays, however, more Tuareg recognize the importance of formal education. Most rural residents finish at least primary school. Some continue on to junior and senior high schools in the towns. Very few Tuareg attend universities.
Koranic (Islamic) schools are important and respected among the Tuareg.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Music and poetry are of great importance during courtship, rites of passage, and festivals. Distinctive styles of music and dance are associated with various social classes. Sacred music is performed on Muslim holidays. Secular music is performed on instruments including the anzad (a bowed, one-stringed lute) and the tende drum.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Most camel herding and all caravan trade are still done by men. Men plant and irrigate gardens, and women harvest the crops.
Because of natural disasters and political tensions, it is difficult to make a living only from nomadic herding. Most rural Tuareg today combine different occupations, including herding, oasis gardening, caravan trading, and migrant labor. Others produce arts and crafts for the tourist trade or work as security guards in the towns. In the towns, a few Tuareg have become businessmen or teachers.
16 • SPORTS
In the countryside, most everyday occupations involve hard physical labor. The Western concept of "exercise" as a separate category does not exist.
In the towns, there are organized athletics at schools, including soccer and racing. There is also traditional wrestling.
17 • RECREATION
In the towns, television, films, parades, and culture centers offer entertainment. Films from India and China are popular.
In the countryside, most residents provide their own entertainment. Children make their own dolls and other toys. Adults dance, sing, and play musical instruments at festivals. In addition, people of all ages play board games with stones and date pits.
Some newspapers and magazines are available.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Tuareg crafts consist mainly of metalworking (silver jewelry), leather working (boxes and saddles for camels), and woodworking (delicately decorated spoons and ladles).
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Development programs from the 1940s into the 1970s failed to help the Tuareg because the programs worked against their traditional herding patterns. Between 1991 and 1995, Tuareg who had received military training and arms in Libya carried out a separatist rebellion. They demanded the right to rule their own region. Since that time, there has been continued off-and-on fighting in some regions of Mali and Niger. Some of the Tuareg have been forced into refugee camps.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Clarke, Thurston. The Last Caravan. New York: Putnam, 1977
Nicolaisen, Johannes, and Ida Nicolaisen. The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture and Society. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Rochegude, Anne. Tarlift, Tuareg Boy: My Village in the Sahara. Translated and adapted by Bridget Daly. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett, 1985.
World Travel Guide. Niger. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ne/gen.html , 1998.