The Tuareg


The Tuareg are Berber-speaking pastoralists who inhabit an area in North and West Africa ranging from Touat, Alg., and Ghudamis, Libya, to northern Nigeria and from Fezzan, Libya, to Timbuktu, Mali. Their political organizations extend across national boundaries. In the late 20th century there were estimated to be 900,000 Tuareg.

The Tuareg are the famous camel riders of North Africa, wearing turbans and braving the wasteland of the desert, sand and heat in their nomadic quests. For thousands of years the Tuareg people have been transporting and trading between the north and south (central) ares of Africa, often the only means of moving goods before the arrival of cars, trucks, trains and airplanes. The Tuareg protected their business well.  They long dominated the central and west-central areas of the Sahara desert (including portions of what is now Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco) and had a reputation as effective warriors and as highwaymen, exacting heavy tolls from trans-Saharan caravans for over a millennium.  Until technology displaced them from this traditional role, they were among the most wealthy and powerful of the northern African groups.

Caravan Tracks

Tracks of the Caravans (1820)

The Tuareg descended from ancient Berber tribes of North Africa. They moved southward to escape Arab invasions, which began in the 7th century to take refuge in southern Algeria. Niger, Mali and covering portions of what are now Algeria Libya Mauritania and Morocco. Named Taureor "abandoned of God" by crusading Arabs the refer to themselves as the "Isashaghen" (the noble and the free). 

Historically, camel breeders and traders, the Tuareg ruled the trade routes that crossed the Sahara and brought silver, gold, ivory and gold to the north. Tuareg traders staged raids on other caravans and groups of herders. 

Traditionally they refused to integrate with other Berber tribes maintaining their own distinctive style. The Tuareg are known as speakers of the Tamashek language of "Kel Taggelmoust" (wearers of the blue veil) and as the blue men of the Sahara because the indigo used to dye the robes rubs off on their skin. “Tuareg” means “abandoned by God, a name given to them by Arabs during the time of the Crusades.  It is not a name they use for themselves; they say they are “the noble and free”, or “wearers of the veil”, or even “speakers of the Tamashek language”. 

However one refers to them, the Tuareg are easy to identify and distinguished from other tribes because of their blue robes, turban and veils.  They love the color indigo, and the blue of their fabric has also given them the name, the “blue nomads” as the indigo dye gradually changes the color of their skin. A custom which distinguishes the Taureg people is the wearing of a veil.  Men begin wearing the veil at about age 25. It is never removed, even in front of family.  Taureg women, however, are not veiled.  It is thought that this veiling custom arose from the need to protect their faces from wind and sand during their long desert treks.

The northern Tuareg live mainly in true desert country, whereas the southerners live primarily in steppe and savanna. The Tuareg consist of confederations including the Ahaggar (Hoggar) and Azjer (Ajjer) in the north and the Asben (Aïr Tuareg), Ifora, Itesen (Kel Geres), Aulliminden, and Kel Tademaket in the south. The southerners breed zebu cattle and camels, some of which are sold to the northern Tuareg. Raiding of caravans and travelers was important in pre-European times, as was caravan trading, which declined with the introduction of motor vehicles. Droughts across southern Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), and Chad in the 1970s and '80s both reduced the numbers of the southern Tuareg and eroded their traditional pastoral way of life.

Tuareg society is traditionally feudal, ranging from nobles, through clergy, vassals, and artisans, to labourers (once slaves). The conventional Tuareg dwelling is a tent of red-dyed skin (sometimes replaced in the later 20th century with plastic). Traditional weapons include two-edged swords, sheathed daggers, iron lances, and leather shields. Adult males wear a blue veil in the presence of women, strangers, and in-laws, but that practice began to be abandoned with urbanization. They have preserved a peculiar script (tifinagh) related to that used by ancient Libyans.

The Tuareg hang sheathed swords from their shoulders or wear them low at their hips. This leather and metal scabbard is decorated with cutwork and stamped, pierced and engraved designs.  The takuba has been adopted for wear by prosperous men of numerous ethnic groups in Sudanic Africa. The smiths, “Ineden”, who make and mount these swords are predominantly of Negroid Sudanic African ancestry, and form a separate caste which has its own secret language “ténet”. Members of the blacksmith caste do not intermarry with the Tuaregs and are often regarded as possessing dark mystic powers.



"A Tuareg in Bilma. For more than 3,000 years, the Tuareg were known as the bandits of the Ténéré, robbing camel caravans as they headed across the void."

National Geographic


Resources

The Tuareg

Tuareg Tribe - Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Libya, Burkina Faso and Niger

The Bradshaw Foundation

Encyclopedia Britannica

Who are the Tuaregs?