Who Are The Tuareg People Of The Sahara?

A Tuareg nomad in the Sahara Desert.
A Tuareg nomad in the Sahara Desert.

5. The Tuareg Diaspora

These nomadic Berbers have for centuries led a pastoral lifestyle in the Sahara Desert. The Tuareg diaspora, with a total population of around 2 million, is spread across Saharan Africa in such places as southeastern Algeria, Niger, southwestern Libya, northern Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, and Mali. They easily move across borders leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The name Tuareg is derived from Targi (inhabitants of the Targa), a region in Libya where they live. Other variations that refer to the Tuaregs are the “Blue People” and the “People of the Veil”. The Tuaregs speak Tamacheq, which is one of the Berber languages, but some subgroups of Tuareg are also literate in French, Hausa, and Songhay.

4. History of the Tuareg

In the Fifth Century BC, Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Tuaregs. In Arabic language, their name suggests “abandoned by God.” They however refer to themselves as "freemen", or “Imohag.” Their origin is somehow unknown but they were first identified in the Sahara desert in Libya. An ancient Tuareg queen was credited to have united all the Tuareg tribes in the 4th Century. Historical records by prominent geographers and historians from the 10th Century all have written accounts about the Tuareg people. Ibn Khaldûn, a 14th Century historian has recorded a most complete historical account of the Tuareg nation. The Tuareg nation has also been linked to the ancient Egyptian in recent research.

3. Traditional Ways of Life

The Tuareg nation was organized into seven "drum group" confederations in the 19th Century. Each group was headed by a chieftain who had clan elder advisers. These groups were distributed in the Saharan desert areas of Africa. Each tribe has their own distinct way of life influenced by their location but they all share the same traditional dances and dwellings. Although they have kept some religious pre-Islamic practices, they worship under the Maliki sect of Islam dating back to the 16th Century. The Tuaregs also maintained a trade route across the desert that allowed for goods to move from one end of the desert to the other cities in Africa. These trade caravans were known for trading only in luxury goods that made them a huge profit.

2. Importance of Islam

Religious practices of the Tuaregs date back to the animistic faith of the early Tuaregs. The introduction of Islam by 7th Century mystics converted the Tuaregs, but they somehow managed to keep elements of their early animistic beliefs. However, early Tuaregs did not really keep to the Islamic traditions. Among different Tuareg groups, similar Islamic traditions have slightly different interpretations specially in religious rituals, such as births, name-giving, weddings, and funerals. Male circumcision is also practiced, while "face veiling" is a tradition among men beginning at age 18 or 25 according to group traditions. Women do not veil their faces, and are free to divorce and own property, unlike in many Islamic cultures. Afterlife beliefs of the Tuareg people subscribe to those of the Islamic faith.

1. Cultural Threats and Territorial Disputes

The 1960s brought independence to Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, and Niger from France, and to Libya from French and British oversight. This resulted in the Tuareg people's territories being broken up into several independent countries. Some Tuareg groups staged minor revolts against their countries as a result of claims over rights to access resources such as water and grazing lands. France and Algeria intervened, but nevertheless the Tuaregs still suffer from poverty and inequality. Today, some Tuareg groups have settled into stationary lifestyles in cities or conducting crop agriculture, and less moving about crossing territories. Meanwhile, in northern Niger, the Tuaregs have not been able to do anything about the uranium-rich deposits in their land which are being extracted by a French firm. Mining the precious uranium has affected the water resources in the desert, and the Niger government has refused access to environmental groups.


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