The art of being Tuareg: Sahara nomads in a modern world

The Tuareg, who once controlled the caravan trade routes across the Sahara, are semi nomadic, pastoralist people of North-African Berber origin. The actual total population of Tuaregs amounts to approximately 5,2 million. The Tuareg have been predominantly Muslim since the 16th century. They combine Sunni Islam (specifically the Maliki Madhhab, popular in North and West Africa) with certain pre-Islamic animistic beliefs, including spirits of nature (Kel Asuf) and such syncretic beliefs as divination through means of the Qur’an.

The Tuareg adopted camel nomadism along with its distinctive form of social organization from camel-herding Arabs about two thousand years ago, when the camel was introduced to the Sahara from Arabia. They are grouped into independent federations and live in Southern Algeria, Southwestern Libya, Mali and Niger and in fewer numbers in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Southern Morocco. Although the Tuareg are minorities in the countries they presently inhabit, their cultural unity is far-reaching.

Tuareg society is stratified and includes a noble class, tributary groups, and marginal classes made up by religious leaders and artist/smiths called ‘inadan.’ Their economy is based on breeding livestock, agriculture and trade. They speak Tamasheq, a language related to other North-African nomadic peoples, as well as French, and they read and write using a script called ’Tifinar’, which is related to ancient Libya. They are sometimes referred to as “people of the veil” or “the blue people of the Sahara” in reference to the indigo turbans worn by men, which stain their skin and define their identity.

The twentieth century saw profound changes in the Tuareg way of life: the end of French colonial rule and the creation of new countries with established borders; devastating, repeated droughts that decimated herds of livestock; and political marginalization and rebellions. Their social organization and economy have been substantially transformed, and today most Tuareg have given up their nomadic lifestyle, settling instead in villages and towns.


1 Response to “The art of being Tuareg: Sahara nomads in a modern world”

  1. April 1, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Fantastic blues in the last two photos–the vibrant blues against the sand.

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