Tuaregs, the Nomads of the Desert
Last Updated: 2021-04-28
If each era was defined by its greatest advance, ours would be defined by instant gratification: all the information we seek instantly at the tips of our fingers. To buy something we just click on its photo. But this sometimes causes a feeling of emptiness, probably because the reality that surrounds us is more stimulating than nourishing.
In diametrical opposition, are those who reject the conveniences of modern civilization. They think that the daily struggle of their lifestyle gives them more freedom and more opportunities for personal development. They are the Tuaregs, the nomads of the desert.
The Tuaregs are a Berber people of the Sahara desert. With a nomadic spirit, their traditional nomadic lifestyle keeps them on the move in search of resources to satisfy their needs and those of their livestock.
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Despite being divided into small communities and not being politically unified, they have a very defined social structure and are divided into two categories (free men and slaves) and into different social classes, such as vassals, artisans and warriors as well as the religious class.
Although they were traditionally herdsmen, they played an important role for thousands of years in the large caravans that crossed the Sahara, since they led and controlled them, thanks to their perfect command of this inhospitable terrain.
However, the introduction of modern means of transport, two major droughts, colonization and unstoppable progress have dramatically reduced their population.
A Unique Way of Life
The Tuareg identity has always been linked to survival: survival in a hostile desert environment that is their ancestral homeland. They have two tools that help them cope with the continuous threats of hunger and inclement weather.
The tents, made up of a cable-stayed wooden frame covered with different types of fabrics, such as animal hair or rugs, are light and triangular. They provide shelter as well as protection from the wind and sand. They are also quite mobile lending themselves to the nomads’ continuous search for water and pasture ground.
Each camp has different tents. There is usually a larger one used as a common sleeping area and a simpler one used as a living room. Sometimes they build a small adobe structure, for the kitchen and pantry. Other possible spaces in the camp are plots for animals and a small tent, away from the camp, so that adults can enjoy intimate moments.
Their most important capital is livestock, without which they would have no chance of subsisting. They get milk as well as meat and leather from their cattle. Livestock is also their main currency that they use when they need to barter for other resources.
These two elements define both day-to-day life and gender roles: men herd the cattle, women stay in the tents.
The men explore the terrain, search for grass, look for new wells and water sources, and go to nearby markets. They usually come back in the late afternoon and milk the cattle. Sometimes they spend several months away from their families.
Women perform household chores, such as cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, or filling water drums. For practical purposes, the home is a sort of matriarchy: they are the ones who manage resources, those who master reading and writing and those who decide on the camp. They also keep all of this and everything inside it in the event of divorce.
But it is as important to feed the stomach as the mind and soul. The short time that a life in constant alert grants is filled with conversations around tea, group activities related to storytelling, music and education, either receiving it from another Tuareg or going to small classrooms scattered throughout the territory.
They live the Muslim religion that their ancestors adopted in a very personal way, because they have done so without renouncing what culturally identified them, such as belief in different spirits or manifestations of nature as direct evidence of divine will, considering the desert almost like a living entity.
Thus, they practice Islam in a less evident but always present way, as one more layer of their particular worldview. As an example, they do not usually strictly observe the five prayers throughout the day, but if something good has happened, instinctively the whole family murmurs a prayer of thanks. In the same way, covering their head is more due to protecting themselves from the sand and the wind.
Tuaregs in the Modern World
The Tuareg who survive today do so in multiple ways. Those who preserve this way of life do so in camps with similar characteristics, although it is no longer so common for them to group together in small settlements. Some people choose semi-nomadism, alternating coexistence with their nomadic community with stays in urban centers.
If a family decides to permanently abandon the nomadic life, they sell all their property and, once they arrive in the city, they show off their survival instinct and reinvent themselves taking advantage of the skills they acquire. The father of the family usually works in construction.
Sometimes only some members of the family leave the desert life. The most common thing is for the younger ones, either on their own initiative or based on the advice of their parents, to put a lot of effort into their education, with the idea of continuing with their training once they leave the camp and thus get a specialized job.
Although these choices may separate Tuareg families physically, their strong sense of family, forged in the harsh conditions of the desert, means they always keep in touch no matter what.
Our anecdotes define us as much as our principles. These are some of the ones that best define the Tuareg world.
They are often known by the nickname “the blue men.” This is because they use a natural colorant, indigo, for their turbans, which can also stain their skin blue.
Another widely used nickname is “desert bandits”, as their role on trade routes was not restricted to driving them, but also demanding a tribute or looting. They even occasionally robbed the same caravans that had previously paid them for protection.
Amulets are an important part of their culture. The most important are in the shape of crosses, representing compass points. When a father passes one of these along to his son he often says: “These are the four cardinal points to guide you in life, because we never know where we are going to die.”
They have a priceless jewelry collection, which contrasts with their austere lifestyle. This has a historical reason that is still valid. When they were caravan merchants, luxury items allowed them to carry a lot of value in a small space. Today, as nomads, it is very useful to have something easily transportable and valuable that can be sold if need be.
Their sense of time is so unique that it even leaves a mark on their records. Since 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 or even random date. The result of this is that they do not know for certain their age (nor do they care).
They have a special affinity to their camels which probably dates back to when they accompanied them on routes through the desert, both using them for transportation and drinking their milk. Such is their admiration that they assure you that if you fall from a camel, the camel will pray to Allah so that you do not hurt yourself.
We end with a legend. There is no better way to explain the relationship of the Tuareg people with the Sahara and their commitment to a life of pure survival.
This story is from a time when all peoples were nomads in search of a land of asylum. When crossing the Sahara, they said to the desert:
– We want to live in the Sahara.
– I’m too hot.
– It doesn’t matter.
– I’m cold, very cold.
– That doesn’t matter either.
– I don’t have enough water.
Then, the peoples would all leave in silence. Other peoples came, and the same dialogue always took place. When the desert evoked the wind, the silence or the light, the peoples would flee. One day, a different people arrived and spoke to the desert:
– It’s too bright here.
– We wear turbans for that.
– But it’s cold.
– We wear our gandouras to keep warm.
– It barely rains here.
– We have wells and skin bottles.
– I’m nothing but a vast void.
– We have room in our heart for you.
– What do you want from me?
– We want peace.
– You shall have it.
– And freedom.
– You shall have it.
– And strength against our enemies.
– You shall have that too.
And so they made a pact that is still valid to this day.
Infinite thanks to Belen Serna, Spanish by birth but Tuareg in spirit, without which writing this article would not have been possible.
First (header), fifth and sixth images provided by Arlette Olaerts.
If you want to know more, visit our page with all the information about the Sahara.