Legendary herders and caravaners of the Sahara desert, the Tuareg are among the last nomads on earth. Their ancient written language, Tifinagh (or Tamasheq), their music, dance and culture have been the subject of fascinated study and speculation by generations of explorers, archaeologists and scholars. Tifinagh is thought to have derived from the ancient Berber script. The word Tifinagh means 'the Phoenician letters," or possibly comes from the Greek word for writing tablet, pínaks. It is not taught in schools, but is still used occasionally by the Tuareg for private notes, love letters and in decoration.
Tuareg people have a long tradition of music and poetry. Many of the songs sing the praises of women. At festivals and gatherings, women clap and sing together in tende drum circles A matrilineal society, the Tuareg trace their families through women. For example, men hold political power, but when a chief dies, the title goes to his sister’s son. In each family, it is the wife who owns the portable family home. She has her own herd of goats, sheep and camels – affording her financial independence should her husband leave her through death or divorce. At left, a Tuareg women on her way to her wedding.
The camel is the primary mode of transportation for Tuareg men, and is a badge of joy and pride. Each year, Tuareg men engage in camel races at the annual Cure Salee (Salt Cure) festival in Ingall. Women prefer donkeys for their transport, and children also use donkeys to fetch water. Men are the sole creators of the famous Tuareg jewelry, while women work in straw and leather. Tuareg men cover their heads and mouths, to protect from dust and wind as well as observing respect for the power of the spoken word. Modesty in speech, manner and dress is expressed in both genders; however, women are not expected to veil themselves as the men.
The Cross of Agadez is the most famous among the 21 emblems of the Tuareg - 21 different designs, each representing a specific nomadic enclave of Niger. One interpretation among many of the cross design is a representation of the Four Corners of the Earth - a metaphysical and spiritual compass for a people who are always on the move.
These legendary desert nomads live in the most severe of environments, yet their love of the desert and the freedom they find there is core to their identity. Many are finding it a challenge to adjust to a more sedentary lifestyle as they lose pastureland to farming and herds to increasing drought. Often, men must live in "exod," migrating to difficult lives on the outskirts of cities such as Agadez and Niamey.
Tuareg men participating in camel racing at the annual Cure Salee festival.
The Tuareg are famous for their stunning silver jewelry, hand etched in traditional designs. Often using silver melted down from vintage coins, Kel Inaden (as the blacksmiths are referred to) was traditionally a calling you are orn into - and jewelry making a distict profession for men only.
RAIN for the Sahel and Sahara is a nonprofit 501(c)3 working to make a lasting difference in Africa.