The Tuareg

© Catherine Reisser, Laurence Quentin (in Le Sahara, coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan 2004)


"The desert is my cradle, I was born here
The desert is my road, I travel here
The desert is my grave, I will die here."

A Tuareg poem



What is their real name?

The Tuareg are Berbers, a tribal people who have lived in North Africa since prehistoric times. They are often called " the blue men" because of the colour of their clothes and because the indigo dye they use ends up getting rubbed off on their skin. They were nicknamed "the desert lords" by early explorers who travelled to North Africa, before it was colonized by France at the beginning of the nineteenth century.


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

The Tuareg live in the Saharan desert, where temperatures can reach 50° C during summer and drop to 0° C during the winter nights. The climate is dry, with little rainfall. The Tuareg’s main worry is the lack of water. They dig wells sometimes as deep as 60 metres in order to reach underground water tables. In some areas, when it rains within a couple of hours, a carpet of short-lived flowers blossoms. Trees are rare, so the tent poles they use are precious belongings.


© Catherine Reisser, Laurence Quentin (in Le Sahara, coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan 2004)


The Tuareg are nomads who have always travelled with their caravans over a huge region that the French started dividing up with borders in 1905. In order to follow their trails from well to well, from pasture to pasture, they must cross the borders that separate Algeria, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.


What is the size of the population?

There are around 1.3 million Tuareg, divided into tribes, each of them under the control of a leader, the Amenokal, who is elected after long days of endless discussion.


What languages do they speak?

The Tuareg speak tamashek, a language written in a special alphabet, the tifinagh. Throughout the desert, rocks engraved in tamashek that are several centuries old have been found. Texts are also written on bone or on leather, because paper isn't traditionally used by the Tuareg.

In the evenings, families gather around the fire to drink tea whilst singing and clapping in rhythm to poems in tamashek that recount the history of their people. Mothers have to teach their children to read and write in tifinagh, because school is in French.


How do they dress?

The men wear a loose-fitting dress, the boubou, on top of a baggy pair of trousers held up by a leather belt. A proverb says : "A woman is like the trousers' belt: without a woman, man is naked ".

The Tuareg wrap a turban, called the tagelmust, which is around 4-5 meters long, around their head. It protects them from the wind, the sand and the cold at night. A Tuareg is never without his turban. They come in different colours, red, yellow and green, and two more that have a special meaning : a white shows respect, and an indigo coloured linen turban is used for celebrations and for when it gets cold, linen being thicker than cotton. The way in which the turban is worn, covering more or less of the person’s nose and mouth, can indicate different attitudes : respectful, aggressive, wary, sad, arrogant...

Les femmes se couvrent la tête d'un voile qu'elles laissent davantage voler au vent. Les tissus de leurs robes et de leurs voiles sont teints aussi à l'indigo, qui donne une couleur bleue proche du noir et un aspect brillant. Elles se maquillent les yeux avec du khôl, une pâte très noire, se couvrent les mains de motifs peints au henné et portent de lourds bijoux en argent.


What are their houses like?

Tents, khaima, are typical nomad dwellings. When the Tuareg arrive in a camping spot, the camels, which have knee-pads, kneel down. The Tuareg help the children down, who either travel on top of all of the luggage or with their mothers on a saddle shaped like a tray. Then they pitch the tent poles and unroll the tent canvas made out of camel and goat hair, spread the mats on the ground, and install the furniture : chests, cushions, trays and stoves.


Young Tuareg, Northern MaliYoung Tuareg, Northern Mali

© Sophie Ganeau


During cold winter nights and sand storms, the Tuareg carefully pin down and close the tents, but during the day, they also stay inside in the shade and roll up the bottom of the canvas so that a breeze can blow through.


Which animals live around them?

The Tuareg's companion is the camel. They are a means for transporting men and goods, and can build up a reserve of 135 litres of water and 50 kilos of food before travelling across the desert for a week. Camels have hairy nostrils and a second set of eyelashes that protect them from desert sand storms. The camel’s wool is woven to make clothes, and its leather is used to make sandals, bags, belts, saddles, and knife sheaths. The camel’s urine can disinfect wounds. The dromedary is an elegant white camel, trained to race.


© Catherine Reisser, Laurence Quentin (in Le Sahara, coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan 2004)


The Sahara is populated with small animals, such as the Fennec Fox, a sort of fox that eats birds, reptiles and rodents; it can easily be recognized because of its pointy ears. There are also horned vipers that hide in the sand with only their eyes showing in order to look out for prey. If a viper attacks a camel, the venom can kill it within a couple of minutes.

The desert rat’s whiskers are as long as the rat itself. They are like antennae, allowing it to leap up to three meters away when confronted with danger. So that its offspring are comfortable, the desert rat lines its burrow with camel hair.


What do they eat?

The female camel produces milk. The Tuareg were the first to invent powdered milk. The most common dish is called chorba. It is a thick soup cooked on a fire fueled by camel dung. The bread, taguella, is cooked on the edge of the hearth, buried in the sand and hot ashes. The Tuareg love dipping their bread in their soup.

The Tuareg also herd goats, which give milk and meat. The goat’s skin is used to make flasks to store water in. The water is then transported strapped onto a donkey’s belly. Dates are the main fruit. When a group arrives in an oasis, it exchanges milk, meat and leather against cornmeal, corn flour, oil, sugar, tea and fabric.

The tea ceremony is an occasion to gather around the teapot boiling on the stove. The teapot is full of tea leaves and very sugary mint. The Tuareg pour the first pot, which is very strong, then add more water for the second pot, which is a little weaker. Last but not least they pour the third round that is even weaker. The Tuareg say "the first pot is bitter like life, the second strong like love, and the last soft like death".


What are their beliefs and rites?

The Tuareg are scared of genies that live in the desert and hide in wells, burrows and inside rocks. It is said that genies live off dead flesh. The Tuareg cover their mouths with veils to stop the genie getting inside them. Every Tuareg wears a talisman around his neck to protect himself. A talisman is a little box made out of silver or leather. Inside there are texts from the Koran, Muslims sacred book.

Like all Muslims, the Tuareg pray five times a day, bowing down on a little mat facing east, towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.


What do they celebrate?

When there are big gatherings, tribes flock in from all directions to take part in camel races. Today the tourist trade has rejuvenated certain festivals, particularly music gatherings in Algeria, Niger and Mali. Weddings are also big ceremonies, where everybody gets dressed up and brings presents. The bride receives a dowry from her family, a tent equipped with everything she will need to live in it. If a couple divorces, the husband leaves, and the wife keeps everything.


What does Tuareg art look like?

Like all nomadic people, the Tuareg only travel with what is strictly necessary, and with objects that can be easily transported. They make objects for everyday life, but also for special occasions. All the objects that they make out of leather are magnificently decorated with brightly coloured patterns and long flowing tassels: bags, knife sheaths, camel saddles and sandals.

Their jewellery is very delicate, using silver and copper. The silversmiths produce and sculpt earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches and above all the famous Tuareg silver crosses. Each tribe has its own cross, which makes it easier to recognize which group people come from.


What problems do they face today?

In 1960 the Tuareg’s gigantic territory was divided up when the borders between the new African countries, formerly French colonies were drawn up. In 1974 Algeria banned nomadic commercial caravan trails. Then Mali and Niger went to war against the Tuareg.

After the drought in 1973 and 1988, and because of the political problems, some groups left and sought refuge as far as Sudan or Mauritania. More and more Tuareg have settled in shantytowns outside big cities and despite their wishes have become sedentary and often unemployed. In this miserable situation, they have lost their pride and their rich culture based on the code of honor, called Ellelu in tamachek.

Some think that in order to adapt to the modern world, to be fully educated, to find new jobs, the solution would be to become semi-nomadic. That is to say, to settle down in one area so as to farm, to take tourists out to camp in the desert, and yet to still remain nomadic headers with livestock.


Kindly translated by Alice Hertzog.


Documents : Le Sahara : Touaregs, Maures et Woodabe de C. Reisser et L. Quentin, Coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan. Touaregs, voix solitaires sous l'horizon confisqué, H. Claudot-Hawad et Hawad, Ethnies 20-21, Survival 1996.