The Tuaregs are a Berber people of the Sahara. Nomadic in spirit, their modus operandi is based on moving around in search of resources that can meet their needs and those of the herd they manage.
If every era were defined by its greatest advance, ours would be immediacy: all the information we seek is obtained instantly, and to obtain something we only have to click on its photo. But this sometimes causes a feeling of emptiness, probably because the reality around us is more stimulating than nourishing.
In a diametrically opposed scenario are those who reject any advantage of civilization, because they think that their life, although much harder, is in their need of continuous effort where freedom and personal development are achieved. They are the Tuareg, nomads of the desert.
History of the Tuareg
Despite being disintegrated into small communities and lacking political unity, they have come to possess a very defined social structure divided into two categories (free men and slaves) and different social classes, such as vassals, artisans, warriors or religious.
Although they have traditionally been pastoralists, they acquired great importance over thousands of years in the large commercial caravans that crossed the Sahara. They were the ones who drove and controlled them, thanks to their perfect command of such inhospitable terrain.
However, the introduction of modern means of transport, two great droughts, colonisation and unstoppable progress have caused their population to be drastically reduced.
A unique way of life
The Tuareg identity has always been linked to survival: survival in an environment as hostile as the desert, but which is also their home. They have two tools at their disposal to cope with the continuous threats of hunger and harsh weather.
The tents, composed of a wooden frame covered with different types of fabric, such as animal hair or carpets. Light and with a triangular structure, they allow at the same time to give shelter, to protect from wind and sand and to provide the necessary mobility for the continuous search of water and grass.
Each camp has several tents. There is usually a larger one as a common dormitory and a simpler one as a living room. Sometimes they build a small adobe construction for the kitchen and pantry. Other possible spaces are plots for the animals and a small tent, far from the camp, so that the adults can enjoy moments of intimacy.
However, their most important asset is their livestock, without which they would have no chance of survival. It is from the cattle that the milk is obtained, and it is the cattle that provide the meat and skins. It is also the cattle that, in a case of need, can be exchanged for another resource in a barter.
It is therefore these two elements that define both day-to-day life and competition: while the men march with the cattle, the women remain in the cages.
They explore the land, look for the grass, inspect other wells and go to the nearby markets. They are usually the ones who, when they return in the late afternoon, milk the cattle. Sometimes they spend several months away from their family.
The Tuareg women perform the intrinsic tasks of the household, such as cleaning, washing clothes, cooking or filling water cans. For practical purposes, staying in the house becomes a kind of matriarchy: they are the ones who manage the resources, who master reading and writing and who decide on the camp. They are also the ones who stay with the camp and with everything inside it in case of divorce.
But as important is feeding the stomach as the mind and soul. The little time allowed by a life of continuous alertness is filled with conversations around a tea, group activities related to speech or music and education, either by receiving it from another Tuareg or by attending small classrooms scattered around the territory.
They live the adoption of the Muslim religion in a very personal way, as they have done it without renouncing to what culturally identified them, such as the belief in different spirits or the manifestations of nature as a direct proof of the divine will, considering the desert almost as an entity.
Thus, Islam is integrated into them in a less evident but always present way, as one more layer of their particular vital vision. As an example, they do not usually fulfill the five prayers to the letter throughout the day, but if something good has happened, instinctively the whole family murmurs a prayer thanking them. In the same way, covering your head is more a way of protecting yourself from sand and wind.
The Tuaregs today
The Tuaregs who survive today do so in many ways. Those who preserve this way of life do so in similar camps, although it is no longer so common for them to cluster in small towns. There are those who opt for a semi-nomadic lifestyle, alternating between living with their nomadic community and staying in urban centres.
If a family decides to abandon their nomadism definitively, they sell all their possessions and, once they arrive in the city, they show their survival instinct and reconvert by taking advantage of the skills they have acquired. It usually happens that the father devotes himself to construction.
It can also happen that only some members decide to separate. Most often, the youngsters, either on their own initiative or on the advice of their parents, put a lot of effort into their education, with the idea of continuing their training once they leave the camp and get a specialized job.
And although different decisions make physical disconnection inevitable, the Tuaregs are a people with a strong sense of family, forged by sharing the harsh conditions to which the desert subjects them. That is why communication between all of them persists, whatever the circumstances of each one.
Interesting Facts About The Tuareg
Our anecdotes define us as much as our principles. These are some of the ones that best define the Tuareg world.
They are often referred to as “the blue men”. This is because a natural dye, indigo, is used to die their turbans.
Another widely used nickname is ‘desert bandits’, as their role on the trade routes was not restricted to driving them, but also to demanding tribute or looting. They would even rob the same caravans that they had previously been paid to protect.
Tuareg jewelry is a very characteristic element of their culture. Tuareg and other ancient Berber jewellery is often used as student jewellery, such as crosses
An important part of their culture is made up of amulets. The most important ones are in the shape of crosses, which represent compasses and are passed from parents to children. In that fraternal moment it is usually said: “Here I give you the four cardinal points to guide you in life, because we never know where we are going to die”.
As they usually live far from urban centers, it is common for the father to “take advantage” of a trip to the city to notify the birth of several of his children, indicating an approximate and even random date. The result is that they do not know their age for sure (nor do they give them any importance).
They process a special devotion to the dromedaries, a feeling that probably goes back to when they accompanied them on the routes through the desert, using them both for transportation and drinking their milk. Such is their admiration that they claim that if you fall off a dromedary it goes to Allah so you don’t get hurt.
We end with a legend, made popular by the highly recommended book “Y a pas d’embouteillage dans le désert !” by Moussa Ag Assarid. There is no better way to explain this relationship of the Tuareg people with the Sahara and their commitment to a life of pure survival.
This story was born at a time when all peoples were nomadic in search of land of asylum. As they crossed the desert, they would come before it and say:
- We want to live in the Sahara.
- I am very hot.
- It doesn’t matter.
- I am cold, very cold.
- It doesn’t matter either.
- I don’t have enough water.
Then the villages would retreat in silence. Other villages would arrive, and the same dialogue would always take place. When the desert evoked wind, silence or light, the people fled. One day, a village arrived and directed their questions to the desert. It reminded them of all the fears that this land presents, so hostile to human life.
- There is too much light here.
- We have our turbans.
- It is cold.
- We have our gandouras.
- It hardly rains at all.
- We have our wells and our wineskins.
- I’m a big silence.
- We have room in our hearts.
- What do you expect from me?
- We want peace.
- You shall have it.
- And freedom.
- You will have it.
- And strength against our enemies.
- You shall have it.
And so a pact was sealed that still stands.
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