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In 1963, in neighboring Mali, when the Tuareg perceived that they would be sedentarized

and educated, rebellion broke out against the apparent “recolonization “of their culture,

but was quickly and “bloodily crushed, after which the survivors retreated into Algeria”



The Effects of Time and Place on the Nomads of Niger

By K.L. Barron


"[Even] from space the Sahara is a brilliant band of caramel and beige, stretching from the dried- blood red cliffs of Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean to the bleached bone of Egypt’s Eastern Desert hard by the Red Sea. In the North , it laps up against the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, which the ancients thought held up the firmament itself; to the south it extends to the Sahel, the southern fringes of the desert on a line somewhere from the Niger River to Lake Chad" (De Villiers 9).

The Sahara Desert is immense, 3,320,000 square miles. What is it when we see it, a small part of it, even an image of it, that captures our attention and imagination? Perhaps it is the seemingly vast endlessness, in the driest and most desolate places, the reiteration of wave upon wave of sand, the shifting contours in which nature is at its most virginally sensuous. Some might marvel at the brutal beauty of it, while others might wonder what can be done with it.

There is a certain timelessness there, literally, from a Western point of view, or at least the impression that Saharan time is severely warped as if from the repetition of relentless heat.  The people there don’t live by clocks. They have no deadlines. They will tell you, “Deliberation comes from God, haste from Satan” (Porch 50).

Although ecological and archaeological evidence suggests that this landscape was once lush, the Sahara is as starkly blinding and as mesmerizing in its seeming emptiness as it has been for a thousand years. ‘The southern frontier of Algeria and the northern one of Niger are said to be the most unchanged of Saharan landscapes, which is where the desert nomads, including the Tuareg, found refuge after the Arab invasions of the seventh century, and it is where generations of them have lived since’ (De Villiers 11). 

Tamanrasset, Algeria, often referred to as the Tuareg capital, is to the north of the desert village of Tchin Tabaraden, the focus of this particular view of the Sahara that has severely affected, through drought and hordes of locusts, the nomads trying to survive it.

 Today, the Tuareg are struggling to protect and preserve their culture from the “dramatic socioeconomic upheaval caused by the national independence of  their countries, the droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, and the rebellion against the state [government] in [neighboring] Mali  and Niger in the 1990s” (Lecocq 87)  that, although temporarily mitigated, is currently in the throes of resurgence. The environment of the Tuareg culture has changed over time and the complicated balance between tradition and transformation remains to be navigated and negotiated between them and the country in which they live, but also among the Tuareg themselves.

Throughout much of history, the image of the Tuareg astride a camel, robe and veil rippling with the wind has been synonymous with the desert landscape itself.  In particular, the blue people shrouded in their indigo veils cut a contrasting and powerful figure against the khaki landscape and bleached white sky; it was and maybe still is a romantic vision that seems to rise directly from the sand. The Sahara has been, for centuries, their sanctuary. “Even the Arabs, who conquered so much of Asia, Africa and even Europe, were unable to impose their language or, in any serious form, their religion on these fiercely independent nomads,” which was why they called them the “Tuareg”—“the abandoned of God” (Porch 7-8).  It should be noted that the Tuareg do not refer to themselves nor consider themselves as such, but rather as Kel Tamasheq, people who speak Tamasheq.

The Tuareg thought of themselves, and were, in fact, warriors who made an art and livelihood of raiding and trading with those who encroached on their territory, which consisted of an abundance of arid land, some salt, and relatively little water, or “taxing” caravans for passage and use of the wells, or providing security so that the caravans would not be raided (Seligman 27). 

At the cusp of the twentieth century, when the race between European countries to colonize the continent of Africa was in full stride, no one had particular designs on conquering and claiming the desert; yet, they did, for the prestige of power more than for any other reason. “Colonialism was not, as Lenin claimed, ‘the highest stage of capitalism [,]’ [r]ather it was the highest stage of nationalism” (Porch 10).

Still, the desert nomads in the countries in the southern Sahara such as Niger, Mali, and Chad were left to their own regional sultans and tribal chiefs and thought of as “ungoverned or ungovernable” (De Villiers 16).

As such, after their independence in 1960, the greatest effect colonization had on these countries was the artificial boundaries they had imposed, which shaped today’s political map. Previously, the nomads had divided it according to the natural elements of the landscape such as the vast plains of sand, the mountains and cliffs, and the salt flats. For the sedentary population, the greatest effect of colonization was a desire for modernization, the vision of which cast the pastoral, nomadic life of the Tuareg as its antithesis.

In 1963, in neighboring Mali, when the Tuareg perceived that they would be sedentarized and educated, rebellion broke out against the apparent “recolonization “of their culture, but was quickly and “bloodily crushed, after which the survivors retreated into Algeria” (Lecocq 89).

This struggle would not make its way East until the 1970s when inhabitants of Niger suffered the worst recorded drought in history; the nomads were doubly affected due to the devastating loss of livestock, including camels, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats, which would affect those who managed to survive well into the decade as they struggled to recoup the numbers in their herds, which formed the economic basis of their culture.

Seyni Kountché ousted the then weakened President Hamani Diori and became a military dictator of Niger who used uranium revenues (from the mine in the desert) to strengthen his rule, and determined to educate the offspring of the nomads. The children were forcibly taken from their families in the bush to live at French built schools by armed gendarmes who often couldn’t speak the nomadic languages.  Eventually, the Nigérienne nomads adapted to the system in which their children spent six months in the French schools and six months traveling with their families. 

When another drought and hordes of locusts descended on Niger in the mid-eighties, the herds were essentially annihilated. The nomads migrated toward the cities for aid from the government only to find insufficiency and corruption in its distribution. Some stayed as refugees, while others migrated to the urban centers of the Maghreb and West Africa to look for work.  “Thus, a generation of Tuareg born in the 1950s grew up with forced sedentarization and education, social economic destruction by drought and state agents, and the social economic marginality in the nation-states ruling their land[,which] led to strong resentment” (Lecocq 89-90) .

This was around the time I was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to the children of the nomads in Tchin Tabaraden, Niger. It was a dream job to me as an idealistic twenty year old, an adventure in the great Sahara, a chance to see how people lived on such a desolate and exotic part of the planet, an answer to the call of two presidents, Kennedy and Kountché. The nomads themselves welcomed me as someone Allah had placed on their path, and because they felt sorry for me having traveled so far alone, with no husband, and not even my mother, and because I wasn’t French. 

As a sedentary member of that village, I lived in a mud house in the middle of a sand road in the middle of the desert. I walked the mile to school every day intentionally weaving myself through the paths of my neighbors. The students picked up English as if it were a card game, and they patiently played charades with me as I tried to learn  Tamasheq, Hausa, and the national language of French. I bought a young dog from an old man and one of my students told me to name it Patience.

Pregnant mothers invited me to their children’s births as good luck, and to their children’s deaths, also as good luck. They asked me for medical advice and I gave them vitamins and good luck from my copy of Where There is No Doctor.  I became addicted to Tuareg tea. After a year or so, I learned enough of the languages to communicate and joke with my neighbors. Eventually, I became patient; the desert sun demands it, and then it was time to leave, which I did with much deliberation.

It wasn’t until I’d heard about the massacre of Tuaregs in Tchin Tabaraden in 1990 that a slight inkling occurred to me that I might have had something to do with it. Following Mali’s Tuareg rebellion against a government under which they felt marginalized, some Tuareg in Niger, after initial peaceful negotiations failed, also resorted to violence against a government post at a political prison in Tchin Tabaraden killing some gendarmes and stealing weapons to make themselves heard. The Economist (Oct. 13, 1990) reported the retaliation:

…the government [under military President Ali Saibou] sent in young and inexperienced soldiers, drawn mainly from the black Djerma and Songhai tribes who live around the capital. Unable to find the guilty men, they went on a rampage, killing hundreds of Tuareg civilians. According to one account, they made Tuareg men (for whom it is shaming to expose even their heads in public) stand naked during interrogation. “The Tuareg were not treated in a particularly orthodox manner,” the communications minister confessed. (47)

The sporadic rebellious events in both Mali and Niger were considered low-intensity conflicts due to the fact that the dead victims numbered only close to a thousand and the displaced between the two countries approximately 250,000. However, it should be noted that the Tuareg rebellions took place in the most desolate regions of two of the world’s poorest countries, by the most marginalized people whose economy had failed, and were initiated by a small group of young intellectuals and informal leaders of the generation of forced Western education with the intention of saving their culture from oblivion by altering its socio-political structures (Lecocq 90).

The rebellion did ultimately dismantle Saibou’s military rule and the two main rebel groups in Niger agreed to a truce in 1994; however, Mano Dayak, a Tuareg leader and negotiator was killed in what some think was a suspicious plane crash on his way to peace talks in 1995, and although all the Tuareg rebel groups finally signed onto the peace accord by 1998, it was a tenuous proposition and remains so under a succession of government leaders including current President Tandja Mamadou.

Western education seems to have stimulated the minds of many such Tuareg to take the matter of their cultural survival into their own hands. However, among the Tuareg still exist contrasting ideologies of how to accomplish this, which generally tend to follow along divisions in education. In the article “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement in Tuareg Society,” Baz Lecocq  divides the Tuareg into two general groups, the Western educated, évolués, and a group of autodidacts, ishumar, whose debate centered around their nation and their culture.

While the ishumar were focused on the Tuareg nation and its desired independence from the existing nation states, the évolués were rethinking the nature of Tuareg society as based on pastoral nomadism and a social hierarchy expressed through the social strata in which one was born, and tribal affiliation. While both expressed a need to change the society to one based on equality between members and the need for a more diversified economy, the younger generation rejected the “…older elite of tribal leaders and traditional Muslim intellectual who had interests in a social and political (but not an economic) status quo” (Lecocq 92) illustrating the natural struggle between generations, the traditional established elite versus the young upcoming intellectuals. 

The traditional intellectuals were the ineslemen (or marabout), the Muslim religious, who, along with the tribal chiefs, who acted as mediators between the  government and the Tuareg population, were the ruling elite who created and enforced social and civil law, and which could be characterized as politically conservative (92). While the évolués attained a higher (Western university education) and saw themselves as independent of the ruling elite, they were somewhat connected with the existing power structures and could be considered as a modern elite, somewhere between the ruling elite and the ishumar, the young upcoming intellectuals or leaders.

Lecocq describes the ishumar as:

mostly autodidactic intellectuals whose reflections developed through the experiences of international travel, smuggling, and (un)employment in various industrial sectors previously unknown to Tuareg society. Their reflections turned largely around the modernization of Tuareg society and the need for political independence through revolutionary action. (93)

The exposure to published or broadcast revolutionary discourse from Algeria and Libya influenced their political views, and they adopted as new signs of identity, “the wearing of turbans in the manner of the Polisario guerrillas of the Western Sahara, the occasional replacement of the traditional two-edged sword (takuba) with the Kalashnikov assault rifle[, and] the acquisition of martial songs[,]” which resulted in the rebellions in Mali and then in Niger (Borel 131). The ishumar prepared themselves from the 1980s on for an armed rebellion and perceived themselves as “the military vanguard which would lead their people to independence…” [T]hey put their thoughts on migration, modernity, and politics into words: the poems and songs of the Teshumara (loosely translated as ‘unemployed’) movement” (93). 

The fracture in Tuareg society may be most audibly apparent in a shift in their music from acoustic to electric. Inherent in a nomadic culture, the Tuareg are regularly in contact with other cultures, musical and otherwise, which influence their own, but whereas the traditional music repertory has remained predominantly stable over time, with only minor adaptations in bowing or the slight variations inherent in oral tradition, during the past decade the music has also evolved for political and ideological reasons. 

Traditionally, women play the instruments; in particular, those of the highest social classes play the anzad, a single-stringed lyre, while women of the inadan (artisan), or formerly enslaved classes, usually play the mortar drum or tende.  Women solo singers are accompanied by a responsorial chorus, whereas men sing solo or a cappella or in duet, sometimes accompanied by the anzad. The repertoire of men’s songs is closely linked to the past and to the epic oral tradition of the Tuareg, the values of courage and action on the themes of war, love and the pastoral lifestyle. The Tuareg have not written their poems down “because they do not want to relegate the most important matters of the group life to a material as transitory and as perishable as paper” and so they are passed from mind and memory from singer to singer (Gattinara 36).

As early as the 1970s with the availability of cassette tapes, the rural Tuareg were introduced to the Malian tachardant music, which consisted of satirical songs critical of both traditional leaders and of traditional hierarchy in general. “The new repertoires unleashed awareness among these youths of the rigidity of their musical patrimony and the difficulty of modernizing it, given that it was so bound up with the hierarchical social structure. It is not surprising that these young people were on the lookout for new references for their cultural identity, and that is what the songs of the ishumar offered them” (Borel 131)

The ishumar songs were composed primarily by Tuareg exiles from Mali, “a sort of sung popular press, a political news bulletin for propaganda and mobilization, disseminated largely through cassettes. These revolutionary songs evoke an array of subjects including the cultural submission imposed by traditional Tuareg society, the collaboration of certain Tuareg chiefs with the governments in place, as quoted in Lecocq from “I Heard You Were Educated and Understand” Tinariwen:


I heard you are educated,

We have not seen your benefits,

Our history is known to all


And you tell me you live normally,

An organized quiet life.

Since your birth you run in vain,

Surrounded by enemies.

The easy life always escapes you.

Unless you make some effort to engage yourself,

To reach the truth that belongs to you.(99)

the mismatch of young Tuareg girls with young sedentary men, [and] the need to have a territory and a homeland”… (132). The model of instrumental accompaniment was inspired by the Tuareg musical groups from Niger and Mali such as Takres n akal or Tinariwen (Building of the Country), a reflection on the Tuareg existence as quoted in Lecocq from “Chants des fauves” song 11:

            We are mangled between the Arabs and the West,

But even more so by Mali against whom we fight.

I have a question for my brothers in my nation,

Consider the situation you are in. (97)

However, they were likely influenced by the songs of the Polisario, the Western Saharan liberation movement not only in the use of guitar, but also in the Spanish rhythms (Borel 132).

Not surprisingly, the music appealed, appeals to the young rural Tuareg due to the constraints over tradition that it breaks; “the musicians justify their use of acoustic and sometimes electric  guitar [if access to electricity is available] by citing the freedom it gives them” (132).

For years, this music was available only underground, but in recent years, some Tuareg ishumar bands, most of which have a distinctly Western sound and appeal, have toured Europe and the U.S..  Criticism over the marketing of the Tuareg culture to appeal specifically to the Western audience raises concerns about the effects of the hybridization of Tuareg culture and memory on the audience and on the performers themselves (Rasmussen). Some former ishumar groups are even based in Europe such as Tartit, in Belgium (Lecocq 98).

The visual art of the Tuareg is in transition as well, although in a more economically lucrative form.  The inadan, the artists, have traditionally specialized in woodwork such as tent poles, drums, bowls and spoons, leatherwork such as camel saddles and cushions, metalwork such as swords, and jewelry making such as the traditionally silver cross of Agadez, which, now, also comes in gold. 

They had previously lived in the margins of the Tuareg society itself, aware of the cultural and social activities; they have also been the singers, those who recite poems at special occasions, and are considered the keepers of traditions (Gattinara 31). 

However, most of the inadan in the last decade have moved into cities and towns, producing jewelry and other work for Tuareg and non-Tuareg clients including other Africans, government officials, aid workers, Peace Corps volunteers, exporters, and tourists” (Seligman 27). 

Their business is thriving in Niger and in the West. Since 1993, Hermès of Paris has featured Tuareg leather and jewelry designs and has sold silver items produced by the inadan of A l’ Atelier (French expatriate Jean Ives Brizot’s guild of Tuareg blacksmiths) in Agadez. “The firm’s full-color magazine Le monde d’ Hermès  (1995, 2:45) feature[d] a woman’s alligator skin belt with a  silver buckle in the shape of the cross of Agadez” (Loughran and Seligman 261).

Art of Being Tuareg: Saharan Nomads in the Modern World was recently organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History in a first major exhibition in the U. S. to feature the art and culture of the Tuareg.  The aesthetic geometric shapes, textures, and changing angles of light of the jewelry, which reflect the desert landscape and the Tuaregs themselves, were on exhibit through September 2007.

For many Tuareg, their constant movement has stopped at the market, or at the oases where they are growing onions for export or tending date trees, or on the outskirts of desert cities such as Agadez where they are offering their services as guides for tourists who desire to venture into the Sahara. There are numerous articles that report on the sedentaration of the nomads. There are also reports dated October 2007 that fresh rebellions are being launched over uranium rights, the mines of which are located in Niger’s desert region, that the ishumar are at it again and that Agadez is at the heart of this rebellion.

For the first time in history, the government of Niger  (under current President Mamadou Tandja) tried to cancel the Cure de Salée, the annual week-long gathering of Tuareg and Waadobe nomads at which the famed gerewol, or men’s beauty pageant where the men don face paint, coal lipstick and eye liner and compete for the women’s attention by dancing and showing the whites of their eyes and teeth in In Gall, Niger, but thousands came anyway, some from as far as a thousand kilometers away (“Oasis”).  Moctar, a displaced Tuareg chief, says, “If I had animals tonight, I would leave for the desert tomorrow. If we have animals, we can stay here. If we don’t, it is our obligation to move to town” (qtd. in Lovgren).

Much of the research on the location and the pulse of the Tuareg at this point in time is mixed and conflicting. Certainly, there are still Tuareg living in the desert with their remaining meager herds. I know this, not from my research, but from having spent some time with the Tuareg, African time, Saharan time. Now that the West has appeared on their path, they must adapt. Within their own concept of time they will remember or discover among themselves a common meaning of existence. They will persevere and figure out a way to survive as a people as they have always done.

*   *   *   *   *

Works Cited

Borel, François. “Tuareg Music: From Acoustic to Electric.” Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World. Ed. Thomas K.

           Seligman and Kristyne Loughran. Los Angeles: Iris  and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and UCLA

           Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2006. 117-133.

Callwell, Colonel C.E.. Small Wars, 3rd edition. Nebraska: Bison Books, 1996.

De Villiers, Marq and Sheila Hirtle. Sahara. New York:  Jacobus Communications Corp., 2002.

Gattinara, Gian Carlo Castelli. “Poetry as a Reflection of Tuareg Cultural Values and Identity.” Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a

          Modern World. Ed. Thomas K. Seligman and Kristyne Loughran. Los Angeles: Iris  and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at

          Stanford University and UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2006. 31-53.

Lecocq, Baz. “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement and the Revolutions in Tuareg Society*. 

          International Review of Social History. 49 Supplement (15 December 2004): 87-109. Academic OneFile. Gale. Washburn Univ.

          Mabee Library. 25 October. 2007. Gale Group.

Lovgren, Stefan. “Will All the Blue Men End Up in Timbuktu?” U.S. News & World Report (7 December 1998): 40(1). Academic

          OneFile Gale. Washburn Univ-Mabee Library. 29 October 2007. Gale Group.

“Oasis of Defiance”; Niger. The Economist (US) 385.8550 (13 October 2007): 49. Academic OneFile. Washburn Univ-Mabee Library.

          29 October 2007. Gale Group.

Porch, Douglass. The Conquest of the Sahara. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Rasmussen, Susan. “A Temporary Diaspora: Contested Representations in Tuareg International Musical Performance.” Anthropological

          Quarterly 78 no4 793-826 (Fall 2005). Wilson Web Washburn Univ-Mabee Library. 9  October 2007  Wilson Web

Seligman, Thomas K. “The Art of Being Tuareg.” Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World. Ed. Thomas K. Seligman  

          and Kristyne Loughran. Los Angeles: Iris  and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and UCLA Fowler

          Museum of Cultural History, 2006. 213-237.

“Tuareg Return.” The Economist (US) 317.n7676 (13 October 1990): 47(2). Expanded Academic ASAP Gale. Washburn Univ-Mabee

          Library.9 November 2007. Gale Group.

            *   *   *   *   *

K.L. Barron  currently teaches literature and composition at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas and serves as a board member of Bob Woodley Memorial Press, a nonprofit publisher devoted to work by Kansas authors, and the non-profit Project Rescue of Amazon Youth.

She is a member of the Associated Writing Programs, the association of writers and writing programs, P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists), an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship, and the Africa Faith and Justice Network, a non-profit organization that supplies aid to the Saharan region where Barron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1980’s.

posted 29 November 2007

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 11 April 2012





Home Black Librarians  Transitional Writings on Africa   

Related files:   African Libraries Project  Runoko Rashidi       The Black Presence in the Bible: A Selected Bibliography  Delany and Blyden  Tribute to Ivan Van Sertima

Runoko in Budapest   Niger and the National Museum    Photos of Global African Presence  Runoko in Papua New Guinea   Runoko Rashidi Speaks in Nigeria

Those Missing Noses in Kemet Sculpture    African Genesis Media Group    Nomads of Niger