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Learn More - Tuareg
Known as “the Blue Men of the Sahara” for their indigo turbans that sometimes stain their skin blue, the semi-nomadic Tuareg tribe has captivated travelers and historians for centuries. World-renowned for their tradition of jewelry making, the Tuareg’s desire to live unencumbered once allowed them to roam freely in an environment that they controlled. In recent decades, however, life has changed drastically for the Tuareg. Former owners of much of the Sahara, today boundaries between nations prevent them from getting the water and pastureland they need to survive. The Tuareg now must pay a heavy price for preserving their cultural traditions and the threat of destitution or starvation is a daily concern.
Tuareg camel caravans played the primary role in trans-Saharan trade until the mid-20th century when European trains and trucks took over. Goods that once were brought north to the edge of the Sahara are now taken to the coast by train and then shipped to Europe and beyond. Tuareg history begins in northern Africa where their presence was recorded by Herodotus. Many groups have slowly moved southward over the last 2,000 years in response to pressures from the north and the promise of a more prosperous land in the south. Today, many Tuareg live in sedentary communities in the cities bordering the Sahara that once were the great centers of trade for
western Africa.
Since the early 1960s, when independent states were established in their regions, the Tuareg have lost economic power. They tend to be underrepresented in city and town jobs, including government positions. In rural areas, their once-strong local economy has been weakened by drought and by the decreasing value of livestock and salt. Catastrophic droughts in 1982-1985 drove thousands of Tuareg from Mali and Niger into Algeria and Libya. In 1987, Niger and Mali invited them to return but once they were home the governments failed to honor prior promises and kept the Tuareg in detention camps and deprived them of aid.

In Niger an army massacre at Tchin Tarabadene became the signal for a general Tuareg revolt in 1990. Just prior to this time, some of the Tuareg men (calling themselves ishumar, meaning unemployed) left for Libya, where they received military training and weapons. In the early 1990's they returned to their homes and demanded their autonomy. When the revolt spread to the towns of Gao and Timbuktu in the Niger River Valley, it was brutally suppressed and thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to Algeria and Mauritania.

The Tuareg in rural areas still recognize social categories from the time before colonization. These are based on family descent and inherited occupation. For example, imajeghen (nobles) refers to Tuareg of noble birth, while inaden refers to the smiths and artisans. In principle, people are supposed to marry within their own social category. However, this practice has been breaking down for some time, especially in the towns.

In Tuareg culture, there is a great appreciation of visual and verbal arts. There is a large body of music, poetry, and song that is of central importance during courtship, rites of passage, and secular festivals. Visual arts consist primarily of metalwork, some woodwork, and dyed and embroidered leatherwork.

In direct contrast to Arab custom, all Tuareg men wear a veil, while their women are unveiled. The men's veil is the most distinctive and arresting article of clothing among the Tuareg. Self-respecting Tuareg think it shockingly indecent for a man to let his mouth be seen by anyone to whom he owes formal respect. Nor will he show his face to anyone whose social standing he considers superior to his own. Both young men and young women adopt the veil or head cloth at initiation or marriage, which shows that their social functions are identical. The most preferred veils are dyed indigo, though many make do with black ones.

The major language of the Tuareg is Tamacheq, which is in the Berber language group. A written script called Tifinagh is used in poetry and also appears in Saharan rock art. Many of the Tuareg also speak Songhay, Hausa, and French, and read Arabic.


Most, if not all, Tuareg are followers of Islam. Among many Tuareg this practice is nominal, and while daily prayers are made to Allah, strict adherence to other religious requirements is rare. Most of the feasts are observed and celebrated with relish, but the fasting that is required during Ramadan is often excused because Tuareg travel so much. Like most followers of Islam in northern Africa, Tuareg believe in the continuous presence of various spirits (djinns). Divination is accomplished through means of the Koran. Most men wear protective amulets which contain verses from the Koran. Men also begin wearing a veil at age 25 which conceals their entire face excluding their eyes. Women are not veiled. Tuareg belong to the Maliki sect of Islam, resulting from the teachings of the great prophet, El Maghili, who came among them in the early 16th century.
Photo Credits: Linda Shen, Marge Robinson & Keely McGeehan
Music by Tidawt of Niger
Site Implementation by Bob Kasai
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