Tuareg People


Tuareg / Twareg / Touareg / Tamasheq / Tamachek /.../

The Tuareg people are a large Berber ethnic confederation. They principally inhabit the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, small groups of Tuareg are also found in northern Nigeria.

The Tuareg speak the Tuareg languages (also known as Tamasheq), which belong to the Berber branch of the Afroasiatic family.

The Tuaregs have been called the "blue people" for the indigo-dye coloured clothes they traditionally wear and which stains their skin. A semi-nomadic Muslim people, they are believed to be descendants of the Berber natives of North Africa. The Tuaregs have been one of the ethnic groups that have been historically influential in the spread of Islam and its legacy in North Africa and the adjacent Sahel region.

Tuareg society has traditionally featured clan membership, social status and caste hierarchies within each political confederation. The Tuareg have controlled several trans-Saharan trade routes and have been an important party to the conflicts in the Saharan region during the colonial and post-colonial era.

Tuareg people Map

Demography and languages

The Tuareg today inhabit a vast area in the Sahara, stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Their combined population in these territories exceeds 2.5 million, with an estimated population in Niger of around 2 million (11% of inhabitants) and in Mali of another 0.5 million (3% of inhabitants. The Tuareg are also the majority ethnic group in the Kidal Region of northeastern Mali.

The Tuareg traditionally speak the Tuareg languages, also known as Tamasheq, Tamachen, Tamashekin, Tomacheck and Kidal. These tongues belong to the Berber branch of the Afroasiatic family. According to Ethnologue, there are an estimated 1.2 million Tuareg speakers. Around half this number consists of speakers of the Eastern dialect (Tamajaq, Tawallammat). The exact number of Tuareg speakers per territory is uncertain. The CIA estimates that the Tuareg population in Mali constitutes approximately 0.9% of the national population (~150,000), whereas about 3.5% of local inhabitants speak Tuareg (Tamacheq) as a primary language. In contrast, Imperato (2008) estimates that the Tuareg represent around 3% of Mali's population.

Tuareg people clans


History of the Tuareg

In the Fifth Century BC, Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Tuaregs. In Arabic language, their name suggests “abandoned by God.” They however refer to themselves as "freemen", or “Imohag.” Their origin is somehow unknown but they were first identified in the Sahara desert in Libya. An ancient Tuareg queen was credited to have united all the Tuareg tribes in the 4th Century. Historical records by prominent geographers and historians from the 10th Century all have written accounts about the Tuareg people. Ibn Khaldûn, a 14th Century historian has recorded a most complete historical account of the Tuareg nation. The Tuareg nation has also been linked to the ancient Egyptian in recent research.

Tuareg People


Precolonial Tuareg communities were predominantly rural and nomadic, with a few urban settlers. Today most Tuareg are seminomadic and remain in rural areas. Rural communities range from clusters of six to ten nomadic tents, temporarily camped to follow herds in search of pasture, to semisedentarized hamlets with compounds of tents and adobe houses reflecting the mixed subsistence of herding and gardening, to fully sedentarized hamlets, the inhabitants of which engage primarily in irrigated gardening. In all communities, each tent or compound corresponds to the nuclear household. Each compound is named for the married woman, who owns the nomadic tent, made by elderly female relatives and provided as a dowry, from which she may eject her husband upon divorce. Within compounds in more sedentarized areas, residential structures are diverse: there may be several tents, a few conical grass buildings, and sometimes, among the more well-to-do, an adobe house, built and owned by men. There are thus significant changes taking place in the property balance between men and women as a result of sedentarization.


Traditional Ways of Life

The Tuareg nation was organized into seven "drum group" confederations in the 19th Century. Each group was headed by a chieftain who had clan elder advisers. These groups were distributed in the Saharan desert areas of Africa. Each tribe has their own distinct way of life influenced by their location but they all share the same traditional dances and dwellings. Although they have kept some religious pre-Islamic practices, they worship under the Maliki sect of Islam dating back to the 16th Century. The Tuaregs also maintained a trade route across the desert that allowed for goods to move from one end of the desert to the other cities in Africa. These trade caravans were known for trading only in luxury goods that made them a huge profit

Tuareg People

Subsistance and Commercial Activities

Traditionally, occupations corresponded to social-stratum affiliation, determined by descent. Nobles controlled the caravan trade, owned most camels, and remained more nomadic, coming into oases only to collect a proportion of the harvest from their client and servile peoples. Tributary groups raided and traded for nobles and also herded smaller livestock, such as goats, in usufruct relationships with nobles. Peoples of varying degrees of client and servile status performed domestic and herding labor for nobles. Smiths manufactured jewelry and household tools and performed praise songs for noble patron families, serving as important oral historians and political intermediaries. Owing to natural disasters and political tensions, it is now increasingly difficult to make a living solely from nomadic stockbreeding. Thus, social stratum, occupation, and socioeconomic status tend to be less coincident. Most rural Tareg today combine subsistence methods, practicing herding, oasis gardening, caravan trading, and migrant labor. Nomadic stockbreeding still confers great prestige, however, and gardening remains stigmatized as a servile occupation. Other careers being pursued in the late twentieth century include creating art for tourists, at which smiths are particularly active, as artisans in towns, and guarding houses, also in the towns. On oases, crops include millet, barley, wheat, maize, onions, tomatoes, and dates.



The caravan trade, although today less important than formerly, persists in the region between the Air Mountains and Kano, Nigeria. Men from the Aïr spend five to seven months each year on camel caravans, traveling to Bilma for dates and salt, and then to Kano to trade them for millet and other foodstuffs, household tools, and luxury items such as spices, perfume, and cloth.

Tuareg People

Division of Labor

Most camel herding is still done by men; although women may inherit and own camels, they tend to own and herd more goats, sheep, and donkeys. Caravan trade is exclusively conducted by men. A woman may, however, indirectly participate in the caravan trade by sending her camels with a male relative, who returns with goods for her. Men plant and irrigate gardens, and women harvest the crops. Whereas women may own gardens and date palms, they leave the work of tending them to male relatives.


Kin Groups and Descent

The introduction of Islam in the seventh century A.D. had the long-term effect of superimposing patrilineal institutions upon traditional matriliny. Formerly, each matrilineal clan was linked to a part of an animal, over which that clan had rights (Casajus 1987; Lhote 1953; Nicolaisen 1963; Norris 1975, 30). Matrilineal clans were traditionally important as corporate groups, and they still exert varying degrees of influence among the different Tuareg confederations. Most Tuareg today are bilateral in descent and inheritance systems (Murphy 1964; 1967). Descent-group allegience is through the mother, social-stratum affiliation is through the father, and political office, in most groups, passes from father to son.

Tuareg People

Kinship Terminology

Tuareg personal names are used most frequently in addressing all descendants and kin of one's own generation, although cousins frequently address one another by their respective classificatory kinship terms. Kin of the second ascending generation may be addressed using the classificatory terms anna (mother) and abba (father), as may brothers and sisters of parents, although this is variable. Most ascendants, particularly those who are considerably older and on the paternal side, are usually addressed with the respectful term amghar (masc.) or tamghart (fem.). The most frequently heard kinship term is abobaz, denoting "cousin," used in a classificatory sense. Tuareg enjoy more relaxed, familiar relationships with the maternal side, which is known as tedis, or "stomach" and associated with emotional and affective support, and more reserved, distant relations with the paternal side, which is known as arum, or "back" and associated with material suport and authority over Ego. There are joking relationships with cousins; relationships with affines are characterized by extreme reserve. Youths should not pronounce the names of deceased ancestors.



Cultural ideals are social-stratum endogamy and close-cousin marriage. In the towns, both these patterns are breaking down. In rural areas, class endogamy remains strong, but many individuals marry close relatives only to please their mothers; they subsequently divorce and marry nonrelatives. Some prosperous gardeners, chiefs, and Islamic scholars practice polygyny, contrary to the nomadic Tuareg monogamous tradition and contrary to many women's wishes; intolerant of co-wives, many women initiate divorces.

Tuareg People

Domestic Unit

Tuareg groups vary in postmarital-residence rules. Some groups practice virilocal residence, others uxorilocal residence. The latter is more common among caravanning groups in the Aïr, such as the Kel Ewey, who adhere to uxorilocal residence for the first two to three years of marriage, during which time the husband meets the bride-wealth payments, fulfills obligations of groom-service, and offers gifts to his parents-in-law. Upon fulfillment of these obligations, the couple may choose where to live, and the young married woman may disengage her animals from her herds and build a separate kitchen, apart from her mother's.



Patrilineal inheritance, arising from Islamic influence, prevails, unless the deceased indicated otherwise, before death, in writing, in the presence of a witness: two-thirds of the property goes to the sons, one-third to the daughters. Alternative inheritance forms, stemming from ancient matriliny, include "living milk herds" (animals reserved for sisters, daughters, and nieces) and various preinheritance gifts.

Tuareg People


Fathers are considered disciplinarians, yet other men, particularly maternal uncles, often play and joke with small children. Women who lack their own daughters often adopt nieces to assist in housework. Although many men are often absent (while traveling), Tuareg children are nonetheless socialized into distinct, culturally defined masculine and feminine gender roles because male authority figures—chiefs, Islamic scholars, and wealthy gardeners—remain at home rather than departing on caravans or engaging in migrant labor, and these men exert considerable influence on young boys, who attend Quranic schools and assist in male tasks such as gardening and herding. Young girls tend to remain nearer home, assisting their mothers with household chores, although women and girls also herd animals.


Religious Beliefs

The local belief system, with its own cosmology and ritual, interweaves and overlaps with Islam rather than standing in opposition to it. In Islamic observances, men are more consistent about saying all the prescribed prayers, and they employ more Arabic loanwords, whereas women tend to use Tamacheq terms. There is general agreement that Islam came from the West and spread into Aïr with the migration of Sufi mystics in the seventh century (Norris 1975). Tuareg initially resisted Islam and earned a reputation among North African Arabs for being lax about Islamic practices. For example, local tradition did not require female chastity before marriage. In Tuareg groups more influenced by Quranic scholars, female chastity is becoming more important, but even these groups do not seclude women, and relations between the sexes are characterized by freedom of social interaction.

Tuareg People

Religious Practitioners

In official religion, Quranic scholars, popularly called ineslemen, or marabouts, predominate in some clans, but anyone may become one through mastery of the Quran and exemplary practice of Islam. Marabouts are considered "people of God" and have obligations of generosity and hospitality. Marabouts are believed to possess special powers of benediction, al baraka. Quranic scholars are important in rites of passage and Islamic rituals, but smiths often act in these rituals, in roles complementary to those of the Quranic scholars. For example, at babies' namedays, held one week following a birth, the Quranic scholar pronounces the child's name as he cuts the throat of a ram, but smiths grill its meat, announce the nameday, and organize important evening festivals following it, at which they sing praise songs. With regard to weddings, a marabout marries a couple at the mosque, but smiths negotiate bride-wealth and preside over the evening festivals.



Important rituals among Tuareg are rites of passage—namedays, weddings, and memorial/funeral feasts—as well as Islamic holidays and secular state holidays. In addition, there is male circumcision and the initial men's face-veil wrapping that takes place around the age of 18 years and that is central to the male gender role and the cultural values of reserve and modesty. There are also spirit-possession exorcism rituals (Rasmussen 1995). Many rituals integrate Islamic and pre-Islamic elements in their symbolism, which incorporates references to matrilineal ancestresses, pre-Islamic spirits, the earth, fertility, and menstruation.



In Tuareg culture, there is great appreciation of visual and aural arts. There is a large body of music, poetry, and song that is of central importance during courtship, rites of passage, and secular festivals. Men and women of diverse social origins dance, perform vocal and instrumental music, and are admired for their musical creativity; however, different genres of music and distinct dances and instruments are associated with the various social strata. There is also the sacred liturgical music of Islam, performed on Muslim holidays by marabouts, men, and older women.

Visual arts consist primarily of metalwork (silver jewelry), some woodwork (delicately decorated spoons and ladles and carved camel saddles), and dyed and embroidered leatherwork, all of which are specialties of smiths, who formerly manufactured these products solely for their noble patrons. In rural areas, nobles still commission smiths to make these items, but in urban areas many smiths now sell jewelry and leather to tourists.



Health care among Tuareg today includes traditional herbal, Quranic, and ritual therapies, as well as Western medicine. Traditional medicine is more prevalent in rural communities because of geographic barriers and political tensions. Although local residents desire Western medicines, most Western-trained personnel tend to be non-Tuareg, and many Tuareg are suspicious or shy of outside medical practioners (Rasmussen 1994). Therefore rural peoples tend to rely most upon traditional practitioners and remedies. For example, Quranic scholars cure predominantly men with verses from the Quran and some psychological counseling techniques. Female herbalists cure predominantly women and children with leaves, roots, barks, and some holisitic techniques such as verbal incantations and laying on of hands. Practitioners called bokawa (a Hausa term; sing. boka ) cure with perfumes and other non-Quranic methods. In addition, spirit possession is cured by drummers.


Death and Afterlife

In the Tuareg worldview, the soul ( iman ) is more personalized than are spirits. It is seen as residing within the living individual, except during sleep, when it may rise and travel about. The souls of the deceased are free to roam, but usually do so in the vicinity of graves. A dead soul sometimes brings news and, in return, demands a temporary wedding with its client. It is believed that the future may be foretold by sleeping on graves. Tuareg offer libations of dates to tombs of important marabouts and saints in order to obtain the al-baraka benediction. Beliefs about the afterlife (e.g., paradise) conform closely to those of official Islam.


Cultural Threats and Territorial Disputes

The 1960s brought independence to Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, and Niger from France, and to Libya from French and British oversight. This resulted in the Tuareg people's territories being broken up into several independent countries. Some Tuareg groups staged minor revolts against their countries as a result of claims over rights to access resources such as water and grazing lands. France and Algeria intervened, but nevertheless the Tuaregs still suffer from poverty and inequality. Today, some Tuareg groups have settled into stationary lifestyles in cities or conducting crop agriculture, and less moving about crossing territories. Meanwhile, in northern Niger, the Tuaregs have not been able to do anything about the uranium-rich deposits in their land which are being extracted by a French firm. Mining the precious uranium has affected the water resources in the desert, and the Niger government has refused access to environmental groups.