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ETHNONYMS: Kel Tagelmust, Kel Tamacheq, Tamacheq, Targui. There are also numerous names designating the different political confederations and descent groups. These latter are ofter preceded by "Kel," which denotes "people of."


Identification. The Tuareg, a seminomadic, Islamic people who speak a Berber language, Tamacheq, live in the contemporary nation-states of Niger, Mali, Algeria, and Libya. They are believed to be descendants of the North African Berbers and to have originated in the Fezzan region of Libya but later to have expanded into areas bordering the Sahara, assimilating into their traditionally stratified society the sedentary farming peoples from regions south of the Sahara. Tuareg traded with these populations and also raided them for slaves. Thus, Tuareg display diverse physical and cultural traits ranging from Arabic influences to influences stemming from south of the Sahara. "Tuareg," the term by which they are most commonly known today, is actually a term of outside, possibly Arabic origin. It was imposed as a gloss, or cover-term, to designate the ethnicity and culture of a people who, although unified by their common language and culture, belong to diverse social strata based on descent, have different geographic origins, and practice varied subsistence patterns of stock-breeding, oasis gardening, caravanning, professional Quranic scholarship, and smithing. There are also names for numerous subdivisions of Tuareg, based upon precolonial descent groups and confederations. Many Tuareg call themselves "Kel Tamacheq" (people of the Tamacheq language), "Kel Tagelmust" (people of the veil, a reference to the distinctive practice of men's face veiling), and other more specific terms. There are names referring to the precolonial social categories based on descent, still ideologically important in rural communities: imajeghen, denoting nobility, refers to those Tuareg of aristocratic origin; imghad refers to those of the tributary social stratum; inaden refers to smith/artisans; and iklan and ighawalen denote, respectively, peoples of various degrees of servile and client status. Currently, there is disagreement regarding which term to use to refer to these peoples as a group. "Tuareg" still predominates in most English-language historical and ethnographic literature. "Touareg" and "Targui" are often found in French-language sources. Many contemporary local intellectuals of Niger and Mali refer to themselves as "Tuareg," but some have expressed a preference for "Kel Tamacheq." For purposes of standardization, the term "Tuareg" is used in this article.

Location. The Saharan regions where Tuareg originatedsouthern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, and northern Nigerare still the regions where they predominate today. During the late twentieth century, many Tuareg have migrated to rural and urban areas farther southinto Sahelian and coastal regions of West Africabecause of drought, famine, and political tensions with the central governments of Mali and Niger. Since the early 1990s, some Tuareg have joined an armed insurrection against those governments (Bourgeot 1990, 129-162). A few Tuareg have emigrated to France. The Saharan and Sahelian regions of Mali and Niger, where most Tuareg still live are the principal biomes to which the culture is adapted (Baier and Lovejoy 1977; Bernus 1981). The topography includes volcanic mountains, flat desert plains, rugged savanna, and desert-edge borderlands where agriculture is possible only with daily irrigation. The major ranges are the Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria and the Aïr Mountains in Niger. Temperatures range from 4° C at night in the brief cold season, from December to March, upward to 54° C during the day in the hot season. There is a short and unreliable rainy season between June and September; annual precipitation often amounts to less than 25 centimeters. Pasturelands have been diminishing, and, consequently, livestock herds are shrinking. Many herds were decimated in the droughts of 1967-1973 and 1984-1985. During the brief cold season, there are high winds and sandstorms.

Demography. Tuareg constitute about 8 percent of the population of Niger (U.S. Department of State 1987). The total population of Tamacheq speakers who identify themselves culturally as Tuareg has been estimated at about 1 million (Childs and Chelala 1994, 16).

Linguistic Affiliation. There are numerous dialects of Tamacheq, a language of the Berber Family. French sources (Fraternité Charles de Foucauld 1968, 1) list the three major dialects as "Tamaheq" (in the Ahaggar Mountains of Algeria and in the Tassili mountain range in the Ajjer region of Mali), "Tamacheq" (in the desert-edge region along the River Niger and in the Adrar des Iforas of Mali), and "Temajeq" (in the Aïr Mountains of Niger). In many other sources (Rodd 1926; Nicolaisen 1963; Bernus 1981), the major language is called "Tamacheq," without specifying dialectal distinctions, a usage also adopted in this article. Tuareg also use a written script known as Tifinagh. Many contemporary Tamacheq speakers also speak Songhay, Hausa, or French.

History and Cultural Relations

Early origins and migrations of the various confederations of Tuareg are related in oral traditions and have been documented by Rodd (1926), Nicolaisen (1963), and Bernus (1981). Early events are also recorded in Tifinagh inscriptions on Saharan rocks and in Arabic manuscripts such as the Agadez Chronicle. Many of these written records were lost when the central Sahara was plundered by French colonial patrols after the unsuccessful 1917 Tuareg revolt against France.

The Tuareg came to prominence as stockbreeders and caravanners in the Saharan and Sahelian regions at the beginning of the fourteenth century, when trade routes to the lucrative salt, gold, ivory, and slave markets in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East sprang up across Tuareg territory. Nicolaisen (1963, 411) suggests that the first Tuareg to come to the Air region were caravan traders who were attracted by the area's excellent grazing grounds. As early as the seventh century a.d., there were extensive migrations of pastoral Berbers, including the two important groups related to contemporary Tuareg: the Lemta and the Zarawa. Invasions of Beni Hilal and Beni Sulaym Arabs into Tuareg Tripolitania and Fezzan pushed Tuareg southward to Aïr (Nicolaisen 1963, 411). Among these was a group of seven clans, allegedly descended from daughters of the same mother, a matrilineal myth widespread among many Tuareg groups, with cultural vestiges today in the high social prestige and economic independence of women. These matrilineally based social institutions, manifested in inheritance and descent, mythology and ritual, counterbalance more recent Islamic elements in the culture. In the late nineteenth century European exploration and military expeditions in the Sahara and along the Niger River led to incorporation of the region into French West Africa. By the early twentieth century, the French had brought the Tuareg under their colonial domination. As a result, Tuareg forfeited their rights to tariff collection and protection services for trans-Saharan camel caravans. Ocean routes had diverted most of the trade to the coast of Africa. Laws against raiding and slavery were strictly enforced.

After independence and the establishment of nation-states in the region in the early 1960s, the Tuareg continued to lose economic strength and political power. They had resisted, first, French, and later, central-state schools and taxes, suspicious of them as strategies to forcibly sedentarize them and gain control over their destiny. As a result, Tuareg tend to be underrepresented today in jobs in the new infrastructure of the towns, as well as in central governments in the region. These governments imposed restrictions on trade with neighboring countries, in order to protect national economic interests. Droughts and decreasing value of livestock and saltthe last remaining export commodity of the Tuareghave weakened a once strong and diverse local economy (Childs and Chelala 1994, 17). Development programs involving the Tuareg from the 1940s to the 1970s failed miserably because they worked against the traditional pastoral production systems. During the 1984-1985 drought, some Tuareg men, calling themselves ishumar (a Tamacheq variant of the French verb chomer, denoting "to be unemployed"), left for Libya, where they received military training and weapons. In the early 1990s they returned to their homes and demanded autonomy. Since that time, there has been continuous guerrilla warfare in some regions of Mali and Niger. Some Tuareg have been forced into refugee camps in neighboring countries (e.g., Mauritania).


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.


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.

Trade. 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.

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.

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.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. 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.

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.

Inheritance. 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.

Socialization. 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 figureschiefs, Islamic scholars, and wealthy gardenersremain 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.

Sociopolitical Organization

Precolonial Tuareg society was characterized by servility in a multiethnic setting (Baier and Lovejoy 1977, 393). This pattern arose partly as an adaptation to cycles of drought in the Sahara. In the core area of Tuareg operations, the desert, outsiders were acquired as domestic servants, herders, and farmers. Formerly, persons could belong to individuals, tribal sections, or to offices. Those persons who were in areas beyond direct control, particularly the herders, were more like clients than slaves. Still further away, in the savanna, some were settled on agricultural estates administered by resident agents and occupied a position somewhat between that of tenant farmers and serfs. The former clients and slaves now simply owe hospitality to their former masters. Traditionally, Tuareg social stratification guaranteed that power to make economic decisions remained in the hands of a few. Yet political power in the pastoral nomadic society was fragmented. At the lowest level was the camp (eghiwan ) of five or six families of four or five members each, with dependents (including slaves). There were half as many dependents as free Tuareg. Two to twenty camps formed a descent-group section (tawsit ). The male noble heads of the noble clan of the descent-group section traditionally have chosen chiefs from members of their own clan, but election usually is confirmed by all components of the section. Officeholders keep their positions for life, but traditional powers have been curtailed by colonial and postcolonial governments. Tenure of office has depended on the willingness of all nobles of the section to pay a small tribute to the chief each year (Briggs 1960, 146; Jean 1909, 175-176; Baier and Lovejoy 1977, 397). These traditional chiefs, called chefs de tribus, now serve as government links in collecting taxes and registering children for school. A group of sections recognizing a common leader constitutes the next level, the drum group, or confederation. Together, the noble clans of the confederations elect the amenokal, or sultan. His precolonial function was to conduct peaceful relations with outsiders or to lead expeditions against enemies; today he acts as a liaison with the central government.

Social Control. In the traditional segmentary system, no leader had power over his followers solely by virtue of a position in a political hierarchy. Wealth was traditionally enough to guarantee influence. Nobles acted as managers of large firms and controlled most resources, although they constituted less than 10 percent of the population. Even traditionally, however, there were no cut-and-dry free or slave statuses. Below the aristocracy were various dependents whose status derived from their position in the larger system (e.g., whether attached to a specific noble or noble section); they had varying degrees of freedom. Tuareg assimilated outsiders, who formed the servile strata, on a model of fictive kinship: a noble owner was expected to be "like a father" to his slave. Vestiges of former tribute and client-patron systems persist today, but also encounter some resistance. On some oases, nobles still theoretically have rights to dates from date palms within gardens of former slaves, but nowadays the former slaves refuse to fetch them, obliging nobles to climb the trees and collect the dates themselves.

Conflict. In principle, members of the same confederation are not supposed to raid each other's livestock, but such raids do occur (Casajus 1987). In rural areas today, many local-level disputes are arbitrated by a council of elders and Islamic scholars who apply Quranic law, but individuals have the option of taking cases to secular courts in the towns.

Religion and Expressive Culture

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.

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.

Ceremonies. Important rituals among Tuareg are rites of passagenamedays, weddings, and memorial/funeral feastsas 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.

Arts. 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.

Medicine. 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.


Baier, Stephen, and Paul Lovejoy (1977). "The Desert-Side Economy of the Central Sudan." In The Politics of Natural Disaster: The Case of the Sahel Drought, edited by M. H. Glantz, 144-175. New York: Praeger.

Bernus, Edmond (1981). Touaregs nigeriens: Unité culturelle d'un peuple pasteur. Paris: Éditions de l'Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique d'Outre-Mer (ORSTOM).

Bourgeot, André (1990). "Identité touraegue: De l'aristocracie à la révolution." Études Rurales 120:129-162.

Briggs, Lloyd Cabot (1960). Tribes of the Sahara. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Casajus, Dominique (1987). La tente dans l'essuf. Paris and London: Cambridge University Press.

Childs, Larry, and Celina Chetala (1994). "Drought, Rebellion, and Social Change in Northern Mali: The Challenges Facing Tamacheq Herders." Cultural Survival Quarterly, Winter, 16-20.

Fraternité Charles de Foucauld ( 1968). Initiation a la langue des touaregs de l'Aïr. Niamey and Agadez, Niger: Petites Soeurs de Charles de Foucauld; Service Culturel de l'Ambassade de France.

Jean, C. (1909). Les touareg de sud-est: L'Aïr. Paris: Emile Larose LibrairieÉditeur.

Lhote, Henri (1953). Touareg du Hoggar. Paris: Payot.

Murphy, Robert (1964). "Social Distance and the Veil." American Anthropologist 66:1257-1274.

Murphy, Robert (1967). "Tuareg Kinship." American Anthropologist 69:163-170.

Nicolaisen, Johannes (1963). Ecology and Culture of the Pastoral Tuareg. Copenhagen: National Museum of Copenhagen.

Nords, H. T. (1975). The Tuareg: Their Islamic Legacy and Its Diffusion into the Sahel. Wilts, Eng.: Aris & Phillips.

Rasmussen, Susan J. (1994)"Female Sexuality, Sexual Reproduction, and the Politics of Medical Intervention in Niger: Kel Ewey Tuareg Perspectives." Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 18:433-464.

Rasmussen, Susan J. (1995). Spirit Possession and Personhood among the Kel Ewey Tuareg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rodd, Lord of Renell (1926). The People of the Veil. London: Anthropological Publications.

United States Department of State (1987). "Niger." Background Notes, 1-8. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Public Affairs.



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LOCATION: Saharan and Sahelian Africa (mostly Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso)

POPULATION: About 1 million

LANGUAGE: Tamacheq

RELIGION: Islam, combined with traditional beliefs and practices


The Tuareg are an Islamic African people. They are classified as seminomadic, meaning that they travel with their herds on a seasonal basis but also have a home area where they grow some food crops.

The Tuareg are best known for the men's practice of veiling their faces with a blue cloth dyed with indigo. Early travelers' accounts often referred to them as the "Blue Men" of the Sahara Desert, the region where many Tuareg live. It is believed that the Tuareg are descendants of the North African Berbers, and that they originated in the Fezzan region of Libya. They later expanded into regions bordering the Sahara, bringing local farming peoples into their own society.

By the fourteenth century, trade routes to the wealthy salt, gold, ivory, and slave markets in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East had sprung up across Tuareg territory. The Tuareg grew rich as livestock breeders and traders in the Saharan and Sahelian regions. (The Sahel is the region south of the Sahara Desert that is marked by times of drought but is not a real desert.

In the late nineteenth century, European exploration and military expeditions led to French rule of the Tuareg homeland. By the early twentieth century, the French had brought the Tuareg under their colonial control. They ended Tuareg trade activities, including the collection of tariffs and the protection services for camel caravans crossing the Sahara.


Most of the Tuareg live in the Saharan and Sahelian regionssouthern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, northern Niger, and northeastern Burkina Faso. The landscape includes flat desert plains, rugged savanna (grassland), and volcanic mountains. Due to drought and famine, many Tuareg have migrated to rural areas and cities farther south. Political tensions with the governments of Mali and Niger have also caused migration.

The total Tuareg population has been estimated at about 1 million.


The major language of the Tuareg is Tamacheq, which is in the Berber language group. A written script called Tifinagh is used in poetry and also appears in Saharan rock art. Many of the Tuareg also speak Songhay, Hausa, and French, and read Arabic.


There are many proverbs, riddles, myths, and folk tales among the Tuareg. Animal tales depicting human moral questions are popular with children. They feature the jackal, hyena, and rabbitanimal characters widespread in African folklore.

Many Tuareg groups have myths about female ancestors who were founders of traditions. One is Tagurmat, who fought a battle on Mount Bagzan in the Air region. Her twin daughters are said to have founded the herbal healing profession.

Another popular figure in myth and folk tales is Aligouran, a character in a series of adventures involving an uncle and his nephew.

Many stories are about spirits, called jinn, who are believed to play tricks on humans beings who are traveling alone in the desert.


Most Tuareg are Muslims. But their traditional belief system and rituals overlap with Islam. For example, there is a widespread belief in spirits. Most spirits are considered evil and are believed to cause illnesses. Some Tuareg perform fortune-telling with cowrie shells, lizards, mirrors, and the Koran (the sacred text of Islam).

Unlike women in many other Islamic societies, most Tuareg women do not wear veils in public. They may also independently inherit property and begin the process leading to a divorce.

Islamic holy men, called marabouts, are believed to possess a special power of blessing, called al baraka. They educate children in verses from the Koran and they officiate at ceremonies marking rites of passage and Muslim holidays.


The Tuareg celebrate Muslim holy days, as well as secular (nonreligious) state holidays. Tabaski commemorates the story of Abraham's willingess to sacrifice his son. Each household slaughters a goat or ram, feasts on its meat, and prays at the prayer ground. The Tuareg celebrate Ganni (also called Mouloud ), the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, with special sacred and secular songs and camel races. The end of the month-long Ramadan fast is celebrated by animal sacrifice, feasting, prayer, and evening dancing festivals. Secular holidays that the Tuareg celebrate include Niger Independence Day (August 3) and Niger Republic Day (December 18). On these days, there are camel races and feasting in the countryside, and parades and speeches in the towns.


Name day is held one week following a baby's birth. On the evening before the name day, the older female relatives carry the baby around the mother's tent. They give him or her a secret name in the Tamacheq language. The next day, the baby's hair is shaved in order to cut off the baby's ties to the spirit world. At the mosque, the marabout (Islamic holy man) and the father give the baby an Arabic name from the Koran. As the marabout pronounces the baby's official Koranic name, he cuts the throat of a ram. Then there are feasts, camel races, and evening dancing festivals.

Tuareg men begin to wear a veil over the face at approximately eighteen years of age. This signifies that they are adults and are ready to marry. The first veiling is performed in a special ritual by a marabout. He recites verses from the Koran as he wraps the veil around the young man's head.

Weddings are very elaborate, lasting for seven days. There are camel races and evening festivals featuring songs and dances. The groom's family arrives in the bride's village on gaily decorated camels and donkeys. Older female relatives of the bride build her a special tent.

Burial takes place as soon as possible after a person has died. It is quickly concluded with a graveside prayer led by a marabout. Burial is followed by iwichken, or condolences. Relatives and friends gather at the home of the dead person, and the marabout offers a prayer and blessing. The guests eat a memorial feast.


Like many other African societies, the Tuareg have very elaborate greetings. In the Air regional dialect, Oy ik? signifies "How are you?" This is followed by Mani eghiwan, meaning "How is your family?", and additional greetings such as Mani echeghel? (How is your work?). The usual polite response to these questions is Alkher ghas, or "In health only." Exchanging gifts is an important sign of friendship between women.

The Tuareg in rural areas still recognize social categories from the time before colonization. These are based on family descent and inherited occupation. For example, imajeghen (nobles) refers to Tuareg of noble birth, while inaden refers to the smiths and artisans. In principle, people are supposed to marry within their own social category. However, this practice has been breaking down for some time, especially in the towns.


Compounds in the less nomadic rural communities may include several tents and a few cone-shaped grass buildings. Some of the wealthier Tuareg who have settled in oasis areas have adobe houses.

Since the early 1960s, when independent states were established in their regions, the Tuareg have lost economic power. They tend to be underrepresented in city and town jobs, including government positions. In rural areas, their once-strong local economy has been weakened by drought and by the decreasing value of livestock and salt.


In rural communities, a nuclear family (parents and their children) live in each tent or compound (living area). Each compound is named for the married woman who owns the tent. She may make her husband leave the tent if she divorces him.

Fathers are the disciplinarians of the family. But other men, especially maternal uncles (uncles on the mother's side), often play and joke with small children. Grandmothers also have a close, affectionate relationship with the children. Cousins have a relaxed relationship marked by teasing and joking. Relationships with in-laws are reserved, distant, and respectful.

Traditionally, the Tuareg have married within their own social category, preferably to a close cousin. In the towns, both of these traditions are breaking down. In rural areas, they remain strong. However, many individuals marry close relatives only to please their mothers. Later they divorce and marry nonrelatives. Some wealthy Tuareg men practice polygamy (having more than one wife at the same time).

Two-thirds of a family's property goes to the sons as an inheritance; one-third, to the daughters. A political office usually passes from father to son.

Women who lack daughters of their own often adopt nieces to help with the housework.


The veil that Tuareg men wear on their faces has several meanings. It is, first of all, a symbol of male identity. It is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits. In addition, it is considered an attractive adornment and can be worn in various styles. The face veil is worn differently in different social situations. It is worn highest (covering the nose and mouth) to express respect in the presence of chiefs, older persons, and in-laws.

Once they marry, Tuareg women wear a head scarf that covers their hair. In rural areas, Tuareg men wear long Islamic robes. Women wear wraparound skirts and embroidered blouses. In the towns, clothing is more varied. It includes West African tie-dyed cottons, and also fashionable European styles for some wealthier people.


Almost 95 percent of the daily diet in rural areas consists of grains. Protein is added by dairy products (milk and cheese). Fruits such as dates and melon are eaten in season. Dried and pounded vegetables are added to sauces. Meat is eaten primarily on holidays and at rites of passage.

A very sweet, thick beverage called eghajira is also consumed on special occasions. It consists of pounded millet, dates, and goat cheese mixed with water, and it is eaten with a ladle.

In the towns, the diet is slightly more varied. However, it still consists mostly of nonmeat protein. Along the Niger River, some fish are caught and added to the diet.


Until recently, many Tuareg resisted sending their children to secular (nonreligious) schools because they did not like or trust the government. Nowadays, however, more Tuareg recognize the importance of formal education. Most rural residents finish at least primary school. Some continue on to junior and senior high schools in the towns. Very few Tuareg attend universities.

Koranic (Islamic) schools are important and respected among the Tuareg.


Music and poetry are of great importance during courtship, rites of passage, and festivals. Distinctive styles of music and dance are associated with various social classes. Sacred music is performed on Muslim holidays. Secular music is performed on instruments including the anzad (a bowed, one-stringed lute) and the tende drum.


Most camel herding and all caravan trade are still done by men. Men plant and irrigate gardens, and women harvest the crops.

Because of natural disasters and political tensions, it is difficult to make a living only from nomadic herding. Most rural Tuareg today combine different occupations, including herding, oasis gardening, caravan trading, and migrant labor. Others produce arts and crafts for the tourist trade or work as security guards in the towns. In the towns, a few Tuareg have become businessmen or teachers.


In the countryside, most everyday occupations involve hard physical labor. The Western concept of "exercise" as a separate category does not exist.

In the towns, there are organized athletics at schools, including soccer and racing. There is also traditional wrestling.


In the towns, television, films, parades, and culture centers offer entertainment. Films from India and China are popular.

In the countryside, most residents provide their own entertainment. Children make their own dolls and other toys. Adults dance, sing, and play musical instruments at festivals. In addition, people of all ages play board games with stones and date pits.

Some newspapers and magazines are available.


Tuareg crafts consist mainly of metalworking (silver jewelry), leather working (boxes and saddles for camels), and woodworking (delicately decorated spoons and ladles).


Development programs from the 1940s into the 1970s failed to help the Tuareg because the programs worked against their traditional herding patterns. Between 1991 and 1995, Tuareg who had received military training and arms in Libya carried out a separatist rebellion. They demanded the right to rule their own region. Since that time, there has been continued off-and-on fighting in some regions of Mali and Niger. Some of the Tuareg have been forced into refugee camps.


Clarke, Thurston. The Last Caravan. New York: Putnam, 1977

Nicolaisen, Johannes, and Ida Nicolaisen. The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture and Society. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Rochegude, Anne. Tarlift, Tuareg Boy: My Village in the Sahara. Translated and adapted by Bridget Daly. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett, 1985.


World Travel Guide. Niger. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ne/gen.html, 1998.


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Tuareg Fiercely independent Berbers of Islamic faith, who inhabit the desert regions of n Africa. Their matrilineal, feudal society is based on nomadic pastoralism; it traditionally maintained a class of black, non-Tuareg servants. Tuareg males wear blue veils, while the women are unveiled.