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Tuaregs: The Blue People

Georgia Hanson
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The Tuaregs are of Berber descent, having probably moved south from African areas now labeled as Mauritania, Morocco, Libya and Egypt. As Arabs pushed east into Berber lands, both the Muslim faith and Arabic language prevailed. Yet the Tuaregs continue to speak a Berber-rooted language, Tamashaq. They are “white” – of Semitic character as opposed to the black tribes that inhabit sub-Saharan Africa. They have been labeled “The Blue People” for centuries because of their fabulous flowing turbans and robes. The indigo dye rubs off on skin, leaving a blue cast.

Tuareg clans move around in a harsh climate, and their nomadic travels are determined by the seasons and the environment, not political boundaries.When the French tried to harness Tuareg movements, the resistance was so impressive that Tuaregs command an awed respect from Frenchmen and other Europeans. They can spark fear among people with whom they share physical boundaries today, based on this reputation.Tuaregs are devout Muslims who defy some Muslim traditions. Women work side by side with men and command respect. They are included in family decision-making. It is the men who cover their faces. Courting practices are relaxed and surprisingly permissive, not only by stereotypical Muslim standards but also by Western ones. Women enjoy considerable freedom to spend time with young men, but pregnancy out of wedlock is frowned upon. Rape is virtually unheard of in Tuareg society, except when strangers are involved.

Rites of passage are relatively insignificant without painful practices. Boys don a turban and cover their faces at age 18. When girls are able to reproduce, they are “fattened up” to meet Tuareg standards of beauty. Any gifts involved with rites are later given away to the poor. Divorce is accepted as a fact of life, and marriages are frequently dissolved without rancor. The woman simply returns to her family with all her possessions. Rituals and celebrations are rich with poetry and songs. Music is an important and vital part of Tuareg lifestyle.

In the early 1970s many Tuaregs fled from Mali and Niger to Libya and Algeria because they could not survive a devastating drought. In the late 1980s economic woes in their host countries pushed many Tuaregs back to Mali, bringing military training and weapons with them. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s there were massacres in Mali and Niger that bordered on genocide, leaving Tuareg clans decimated and trapped. The return of young trained warriors from Libya led to attacks on government troops and skirmishes with other ethnic groups who were banding together in the area of Timbuktu.In the early 1990s trouble between formal governments and the Tuaregs hit crisis level. A national pact in 1992 contained provisions for a lasting peace, but implementation was slow in coming. Violence continued and polarization grew. Finally disarmament began as many Tuaregs began to integrate into the larger society and abandon their nomadic lifestyle.In 1996 there was a symbolic burning of weapons and the Flame of Peace was lit to commemorate the occasion.


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