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LOCATION: Saharan and Sahelian Africa (mostly Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso)
POPULATION: Approximately 1.2 million
LANGUAGE: Tamacheq
RELIGION: Islam, combined with traditional beliefs and practices
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Algerians; Burkinabe; Libyans; Malians; Nigeriens


The Tuareg, a seminomadic, Islamic African people, are best-known for their men's practice of veiling the face with a blue, indigo-dyed cloth. Hence, early travel accounts often referred to them as “the Blue Men” of the Sahara Desert, the region where many Tuareg live. Tuareg are believed to be descendants of the North African Berbers and to have originated in the Fezzan region of Libya. They later expanded into regions bordering the Sahara and assimilated settled farming peoples from regions south of the Sahara into their traditionally stratified, hierarchical society. Tuareg traded with these populations and also, in the past, raided them for slaves, absorbing the slaves into their families. Therefore, today Tuareg display diverse physical and cultural traits, ranging from North African Arabic influences to influences from Africa south of the Sahara.

The Tuareg came to prominence as livestock-breeders and caravanners in the Saharan and Sahelian regions at the beginning of the 14th century, when trade routes to the lucrative salt, gold, ivory, and slave markets in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East sprang up across their territory. As early as the 17th century ad, there were extensive migrations of pastoral nomadic Berbers, including the two important groups related to contemporary Tuareg: Lemta and Zarawa. Invasions of Beni Hilal and Beni Sulaym Arabs into Tuareg Tripolitania and Fezzan pushed Tuareg southwards to the Air Mountains, located in contemporary Niger Republic. Among these was a group of seven clans, allegedly descending from daughters of the same mother. There are “matrilineal” or female-based forms of inheritance and descent, which trace property and family ties through women, and many myths and rituals emphasize founding female ancestors. These institutions counterbalance more recent “patrilineal” institutions introduced by Islam, which emphasize male-based family ties and inheritance of property from father to son.

By the late 19th century, most trade from the Saharan interior had been diverted to the coast of Africa by the ocean routes. European explorers and military expeditions in the Sahara and along the Niger River led to French domination and incorporation of the region into French West Africa. By the early 20th century, the French had brought the Tuareg under their colonial domination, abolished slavery, and deprived Tuareg of their rights to tariff collection and protection services for trans-Saharan camel caravans.

Since the early 1990s, Tuaregs in Niger and Mali have sought either autonomous desert states or independence. In both countries, Tuaregs have been disappointed with the responses of national governments to serious droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, when many Tuaregs lost all or most of their animals. In Niger, Tuaregs also sought a greater portion of uranium revenues, as uranium comes from the historic Tuareg homeland in the Air Mountains. Peace accords were signed in both countries in 1995, but sporadic fighting began again in 2007.


Most Tuareg today live in the contemporary nation-states of Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso, where they are ethnic minorities. For example, Tuaregs constitute about 8% of the population of Niger. The total population of Tamacheq-speakers who identify themselves culturally as Tuareg has been estimated to be about 1 million. The Saharan and Sahelian regions of southern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, and northern Niger where most Tuaregs live includes flat desert plains; rugged savanna and desert-edge borderlands, where agriculture is possible only with daily irrigation; and volcanic mountains. The major mountain ranges are the Hoggar Mountains in Algeria, and the Air Mountains in Niger. Climatic features include extreme temperatures (up to 55°c or 130°f in the hot season), aridity and erratic rainfall (often less than 25 cm or 10 in of rainfall each year). Many herds of animals were decimated in the droughts of 1967–73 and 1984–85. During the brief cold season, there are high winds and sandstorms. Recently, many Tuareg have migrated to rural and urban areas farther south, due to natural disasters of drought and famine, and political tensions with the central state governments of Mali and Niger.


There are numerous dialects of Tamacheq, the major language, which is part of the Berber language family. A written script called Tifinagh is used in poetry and love messages and also appears in Saharan rock art and on some jewelry and musical instruments. Many contemporary Tamacheq-speakers also speak Songhay, Hausa, and French, and read Arabic.

Significant in Tuareg identity are names referring to the pre-colonial social categories based on descent and inherited occupational specialties, which remain important in rural communities. For example, imajeghen (nobles) refers to those Tuareg of aristocratic origin. Imghad refers to those of tributary origins, similar to the European category “vassal,” who in the past raided for nobles. Inaden refers to the smiths/artisans. Iklan and ighawalen refer, respectively, to peoples of various degrees of servile and client or “serf”-like origins, who in the past worked for and paid rent to nobles. In principle, individuals are supposed to marry within their own social category, but this practice has been breaking down for some time, particularly in the towns.


There are many proverbs, riddles, myths, and folk tales among the Tuareg. These are usually recited orally, by smiths/artisans and women in the evening at home. Animal tales depicting human moral dilemmas are used to socialize children. They feature the jackal, hyena, and rabbit—animal characters widespread in African folklore. Many Tuareg groups recognize mythical female founding ancestors such as Tagurmat, who fought a battle on Mount Bagzan in the Air region, and whose twin daughters allegedly founded the herbal healing profession. Other stories depict mythical Berber queens and ancestors such as Tin Hinan in the Hoggar Mountain region of southern Algeria; and Kahena, who allegedly fought the Arab invaders. Another popular figure in myth and folk tales is Aligouran, said to be the author of messages and drawings on rocks throughout the Sahara. Aligouran is portrayed in a series of tales about the adventures of an uncle and his nephew. Other heroes are Boulkhou, an early Islamic scholar who built the first mosque and sank the first well in the Air Mountain area; and Kaousan, leader of the 1917 Tuareg revolt against the French. Many stories are about spirits, called jinn, who are believed to trick humans traveling alone in the desert.


Most Tuareg are Muslims, but religious practices generally incorporate pre-Islamic beliefs in jinns, spirits that mediate interactions between humans and the natural world, as well. Most spirits are considered evil, the cause of many illnesses that require healing by special exorcism rituals featuring drumming and songs. Some Tuareg perform divination and fortune-telling with cowrie shells, lizards, mirrors, and the Quran. Also, smiths/artisans play important roles in many Tuareg rites of passage, alongside Islamic scholars.

Islam most likely came from the west and spread into the Air Mountain region in the 7th century ad. 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. Today most Tuareg women freely go about unveiled in public, and women may independently inherit property and initiate divorce. Islamic scholars, popularly called marabouts, are believed to possess a special power of blessing, called al baraka. They educate children in Quranic verses, officiate at rites of passage and Muslim holidays, and practice psychosocial counseling and, in rural areas, Quranic law.


Important holidays the Tuareg celebrate include Muslim holy days, as well as secular state holidays. Tabaski commemorates the story (from the Bible as well as the Quran) of Abraham's sacrifice of a ram in place of his son. Each household slaughters a goat or ram, feasts on its meat, and prays at the prayer ground. Tuareg celebrate Ganni (also called Mouloud in the Muslim world), the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, by special sacred and secular songs and camel races. The end of the month-long Ramadan fast, during which Tuareg neither eat nor drink from sunrise to sundown, is celebrated by animal sacrifice, feasting, prayer, and evening dancing festivals.


Principal rites of passage are namedays, weddings, and memorial/funeral feasts. In addition, there is a ritual marking men's first face-veiling. Namedays are held one week following a baby's birth. On the evening before the official nameday, elderly female relatives take the baby in a procession around the mother's tent and give him or her a secret Tamacheq name. The next day, while a smith woman shaves the baby's hair in order to sever the baby's ties to the spirit world, the marabout (Islamic scholar) and the father give the baby his or her official Arabic name from the Quran at the mosque. The marabout pronounces the baby's official Quranic name at the same moment as he cuts the throat of a ram. There follow feasts, camel-races, and evening dancing festivals.

Weddings are very elaborate. They last for seven days, during which the groom's side of the family arrive in the camp or village of the bride on gaily decorated camels and donkeys, and elderly female relatives of the bride construct her nuptial tent. At weddings, there are camel-races and evening festivals featuring songs and dances. These are accompanied by a drum called a tende, constructed from a mortar covered with a goat-skin and struck with the hands; and a calabash (gourd) floating in water, struck with a baton. These musical instruments are symbolically associated with romantic love, and their music is opposed to the sacred music and prayer identified with Islam. The wedding festivals provide an opportunity for youths of diverse social backgrounds to initiate romantic relationships outside of official marriage.

Mortuary rites are simpler than namedays and weddings. Burial takes place as soon as possible after death and is quickly concluded with a graveside prayer led by an Islamic scholar. Burial is followed by iwichken or condolences, when relatives and friends gather at the home of the deceased, and an Islamic scholar offers a prayer and blessing. Guests consume a memorial feast, consisting of foods similar to those at namedays and weddings. Sometimes, these memorial feasts are repeated at intervals following death, offered as alms in the name of the deceased. According to Tuareg belief, the soul (iman) is more personalized than 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 near graves. Tuareg make offerings of date-wine at tombs of important Islamic scholars, in order to obtain the special al baraka blessing.

Tuareg men begin to wear the face-veil at approximately 18 years of age. This marks their adult male status and signifies that they are ready to marry. The first veiling is performed in a special ritual by an Islamic scholar, who recites verses from the Quran as he wraps the veil around the young man's head.


As in many African societies, greetings among the Tuareg are extremely important and elaborate. Upon encountering someone, it is considered highly impolite not to greet her or him. In the Air regional dialect, “Oy ik?” signifies “How are you?” (directed to a man). This is followed by “Mani eghiwan?” signifying, “How is your family?” and additional greetings such as “Mani echeghel?” (“How is your work?”) and sometimes “Mani edaz?” (“How is your fatigue?”). The usual polite response to these questions is “Alkher ghas,” or “In health only.” In addition, there are many nonverbal greetings, for example, extending and withdrawing the right hand (associated with religious purity) several times. Other hand signals are used at festivals to indirectly express romantic interest. Visiting is frequent in both rural and urban communities. Gift exchange between women is important as a sign of friendship.


Since independence and the establishment of nation-states in the region in the early 1960s, Tuareg have continued to lose economic strength and power. They resisted French and, later, central-state schools and taxes, believing them to be strategies to force them to settle down so that they could be more easily controlled. As a result, Tuareg tend to be underrepresented today in urban jobs in the new economies of their nations, as well as in central governments in the region. These governments have imposed restrictions on trade with neighboring countries to protect national economic interests. Droughts and decreasing value of livestock and salt—their last remaining export commodity—have weakened a once strong and diverse local economy. Geographic barriers, economic crises, and political tensions have had an impact upon health care. Health care among Tuareg today includes traditional herbal, Quranic, and other ritual therapies, as well as Western-style biomedical clinics. However, traditional medicine is more prevalent in rural areas because many rural Tuareg, especially women, tend to be suspicious or shy of medical personnel who are of outside origins. Thus, although many rural residents desire some biomedical remedies such as antibiotics, they rely more upon traditional specialists and remedies. These include Quranic scholars who cure with verses from the Quran and psychotherapy; female herbalists who cure with leaves, roots, barks, and holistic techniques of verbal incantations and laying on of hands; and curers called boka who work with perfumes and incense.


In rural communities, each tent or compound corresponds to the nuclear household. Each compound is named for the married woman, who owns the nomadic tent. This tent was built by elderly female relatives and provided as dowry upon the woman's marriage. She may eject her husband from the tent upon divorce. Compounds in less-nomadic communities contain diverse residential structures. These may include several tents, a few conical grass buildings, and sometimes, among the more well-to-do in settled oases, an adobe house, built and owned by men. Thus, there are significant changes in property-balance occurring between men and women upon the increasing settlement of nomads.

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 done by men. Women may, however, indirectly participate in caravan trade by sending their camel(s) with a male relative, who brings goods back to them. Men plant and irrigate gardens. Women harvest crops. Although women may own gardens and date-palms, they leave the gardening to male relatives.

Islam has had long-term effects upon the family, the role of women, and property. Unless the deceased indicates otherwise before death with a witness in writing, Quranic patrilineal inheritance prevails: two-thirds of the property goes to the sons; one-third, to the daughters. Alternative inheritance forms from pre-Islamic institutions include inheritance called “living milk herds,” animals reserved for sisters, daughters, and nieces; and various pre-inheritance gifts. Clan membership allegiance is through the mother and social class affiliation through the father. Political office in most groups goes from father to son. There are relaxed relationships featuring joking and horseplay with cousins and extremely reserved relationships featuring distance and respect with in-laws. Cultural ideals are marriage within one's own social category (noble, tributary, smith, and former slave) and close-cousin marriage. In the towns, both these patterns are breaking down. In rural areas, these rules remain strong, but many individuals marry close relatives only to please their mother, and later divorce, subsequently marrying nonrelatives. Some prosperous gardeners, chiefs, and Islamic scholars practice polygynous marriage to several women at the same time.


The Tuareg men's face-veil has several levels of meaning. It is, first of all, a symbol of male gender role identity and conveys important cultural values of respect and reserve. It also protects from evil spirits believed to enter through bodily openings. Furthermore, it has aesthetic importance; it is considered attractive and can be worn in diverse styles. In addition to personal preference, the style of the veil depends upon the social situation. The face-veil is worn highest (covering the nose and mouth) in order to express respect and reserve in the presence of important chiefs, older persons, and parents-in-law. Tuareg women do not wear a face-veil, but rather a head-scarf that covers the hair. A woman begins to wear this after her wedding to convey her new social status as a married woman. Other features of Tuareg dress include men's long Islamic robes in rural areas; women's wrapper-skirts and “bolero”-style embroidered blouses; and in the towns, more varied dress, including West African tie-dyed cottons and, among more cosmopolitan Tuareg, European styles.


On oases, crops include millet, barley, wheat, corn, onions, tomatoes, and dates. Millet, spices, and other foods are also obtained through caravan trade. Almost 95% of the daily rural diet consists of cereal, with the added protein from animal products (milk and cheese), as well as a few seasonal fruits such as dates, mangoes and melon. Dried and pounded vegetables are added to sauces. Meat is consumed primarily on holidays and at rites of passage. A very sweet, thick, and richly blended beverage called eghajira is also consumed on these special occasions, as well as when traveling. It consists of pounded millet, dates, and goat cheese, mixed with water and eaten with a ladle. In towns, the diet is slightly more varied but, nonetheless, still consists of mostly nonmeat protein. Along the River Niger, some fish (both dried and fresh) are consumed.


Until recently, many Tuareg, particularly nobles, resisted secular schools established by French and, later, central-state governments, because the schools are associated with forced settling of nomads and taxation. Nowadays, however, more Tuareg recognize the importance of education. Many rural residents achieve at least a primary school education, and some continue on to junior high school and high school levels in towns. Very few Tuareg are represented at universities. Quranic schools are important and respected. Much traditional education also consists of apprenticeship in adult tasks with older relatives.


In Tuareg culture, there is great appreciation of the visual and oral arts. The large body of music, poetry, and song are of central importance during courtship, rites of passage, and festivals. Men and women of diverse social origins who dance and perform vocal and instrumental music are admired for their musical creativity. But distinctive musical styles, dances, and instruments are associated with the various social categories. Marabouts (Islamic scholars), men, and older women perform sacred liturgical music on Muslim holidays. Youths perform more secular music on such instruments as the anzad and the tende. The anzad, a bowed, one-stringed lute, was traditionally played by noble women, and the tende drum was historically played by smiths and former slaves.


Traditionally, occupations corresponded to social origins. Nobles controlled the caravan trade, owned most of the camels, and remained more nomadic, coming into oases to collect a proportion of the harvest from their client and servile peoples. Tributary groups raided and traded for nobles and had rights to the products and offspring of nobles' animals in their care. 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 at noble patron families' weddings. They also served as important oral historians and political go-betweens and assisted in noble marriage negotiations.

Because of natural disasters and political tensions, it is now increasingly difficult to make a living solely off nomadic herding. Thus, there is now less correspondence between social origins, occupation, and wealth. For example, many nobles have become impoverished from loss of herds. Most rural Tuareg today combine different occupations, practicing herding, oasis gardening, caravan trading, and migrant labor. Other contemporary careers include tourist art, in which many smiths are active, and house-guarding in the towns. In towns, there are a few business entrepreneurs and teachers.


Soccer is extremely popular among young people. Traditional wrestling has been actively promoted by the governments of Niger and Mali, and wrestling arenas exist in most major towns. Tournaments are generally held at least once a year. Finally, camel races occur at major festivals and celebrations and are considered an important expression of Tuareg cultural heritage.


In the towns, television, films, parades, and culture centers offer diversion. Movies from Nigeria, India, and China are popular. In the countryside, most residents make their own entertainment. Children make their own dolls and other toys; and adults dance, sing, and play musical instruments at festivals. In addition, people of all ages play board games with stones and date pits, which approximately resemble Western board games such as chess.


Visual arts consist primarily of metalworking (silver jewelry), woodworking (delicately decorated spoons and ladles and carved camel-saddles), and dyed and embroidered leather, 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 products, but in urban areas many smiths now sell jewelry and leatherwork to non-Tuareg such as African civil servants and European tourists, as nobles experience greater economic difficulty in supporting smiths.


Development programs involving the Tuareg from the 1940s into the 1970s failed miserably because they worked against the traditional pastoral herding production systems. During the 1984–85 drought, some Tuareg men, who called themselves ishumer (a Tamacheq variant of the French verb chomer, which means “to be unemployed”) left for Libya, where they received military training and arms support. In the early 1990s, they returned to their homes and demanded regional autonomy in a separatist rebellion from 1990–1995. Since that time, there has been continued sporadic fighting in some regions of Mali and Niger. Some Tuareg have been forced into political exile and refugee camps.


Tuareg women are known for their independence and ability to freely circulate in public spaces before marriage. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of Tuaregs are Muslims, Tuareg women do not veil. Women also exert significant influence over political and economic matters. Men are normally chiefs, but chieftaincy passes through maternal bloodlines. Inheritance of property is also matrilineal, and it is not uncommon to find women engaged in large-scale trade.

Within the household, women are generally responsible for collecting water, preparing meals, and caring for children. Many Tuareg women also have herds of goats and donkeys. They are also permitted to own camels, though camel herding is generally left to men. Women usually do not participate in long-distance caravan trades with men, and thus are left responsible for their households when men are traveling.


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—revised by C. Breedlove