Do the Tuaregs still exist? Yes! Their political organizations also extend across national boundaries.
The Tuareg people are a large Berber ethnic group that principally inhabit the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Some small groups of Tuareg, who are traditionally nomadic pastoralists, are also found in northern Nigeria.
In 2010 there were estimated to be more than two million Tuareg. The northern Tuareg live mainly in true desert countries, whereas the southerners live primarily in the savannas.
The Tuareg speak languages of the same name “Tamasheq”.
Tuareg is an Arabic term meaning abandoned by God. They call themselves “Imohag”, translated as free men. No one knows the true origin of the Tuareg, where they came from or when they arrived in the Sahara. Thought to have ancient Libyan roots, the Tuareg were recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th Century BC.
Tuareg camel caravans played the primary role in trans-Saharan trade until the mid-20th century when European colonial infrastructure – railways and roads – were introduced. Until then, there were five principal trade routes which extend across the Sahara from the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa to the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara.
Tuareg merchants were responsible for bringing goods from these cities to the north. From there they were distributed throughout the world. Because of the nature of transport and the limited space available in caravans, Tuareg usually traded in luxury items, things which took up little space and on which a large profit could be made.
The Tuaregs were also responsible for bringing enslaved people north from west Africa to be sold to Europeans and Middle Easterners. Many Tuareg settled into the communities with which they traded, serving as local merchants.
They have been labelled “Men of the veil” for centuries because of their fabulous flowing turbans and robes and “The Blue People” by others because the indigo dye rubs off on their skins, leaving a blue cast. Men begin wearing a veil at the age of 25 which conceals their entire face excluding their eyes. This veil is never removed, even in front of family members. It is believed that men began wearing the veil to protect their faces from the Sahara sands.
Tuareg women are not veiled.
One of the traditional dances of the nomadic Tuareg is the ‘Tam Tam’ where the men on camels circle the women while they play drums and chant.
Taguella is a flatbread made from wheat flour and cooked on a charcoal fire; the flat disk-shaped bread is buried under the hot sand. The bread is broken into small pieces and eaten with a meat sauce. Millet porridge called a cink or a liwa is a staple. Millet is boiled with water to make a pap and eaten with milk or a heavy sauce. Common dairy foods are goat and camel milk called akh, as well as cheese ta komart and Tona a thick yoghurt made from them. Eghajira is a beverage drunk with a ladle. It is made by pounding millet, goat cheese, dates, milk and sugar and is served during festivals.
The huts of the Tuareg nomad are easily constructed and comprised of weaved matting and traditional fabrics on a timber frame. This is because the Tuareg clans move around in a harsh climate, and their nomadic travels are determined by the seasons and the environment, not political boundaries.
Although most Tuaregs now practice some degree of Islam – the Maliki sect of Islam, resulting from the teachings of the great prophet El Maghili from the early 16th century – they are not considered Arabic. They have preserved many pre-Islamic traditions and do not strictly follow many Islamic rituals.
Tuareg society has featured caste hierarchies within each clan and political confederation. These hierarchical systems have included nobles, clerics, craftsmen and unfree strata of people including widespread slavery.
Tuareg culture is largely matrilineal. Tuareg women have high status compared with their Arab counterparts. Among the Tuareg, the women have great freedom and participate in family and tribal decisions. Descent and inheritance are both through the maternal line.
The 20th century saw profound changes in the way of life of the Tuaregs. Their social economy and organization have been substantially transformed. Today, most Tuaregs have given up their nomadic lifestyle, settling instead in villages and towns.
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