July 18, 2008

Who are the Tuareg people?

Photo of a lovely Tuareg girl in Niger, by professional photographer Jason Hall, extremeboh, on Flickr.

Who are the Tuareg people?

The Tuareg people are Berber-speakers who trace their ancestry to the indigenous peoples of North Africa in ancient times. They share the same language family as the Berber-speakers of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Tuaregs live primarily in Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya, with diasporas in many surrounding countries.

Like most of the people in the northern third of the African continent, the Tuareg people adopted Islam over the past few centuries. Because they are Muslim and herd camels, many Americans and Europeans have confused them with Arabs. But the Tuaregs are not Arabs, and they do not descend from Arabs. Although they adopted some Arab customs in connection with herding practices, Tuareg social traditions are very different from those of Arabs, and they do not claim any affinity with Arabs. They identify themselves as Berber-speakers - Amazighan (pronounced slightly different in each region).

Tuaregs, like other Saharien peoples, including the indigenous African peoples who formed the basis of ancient Egyptian society, describe themselves as "the red people," in contrast to other Africans who are "white" or "black." The ancient ancestors of the Tuaregs lived west of the Nile Delta; they traded with the Egyptians, and several of their leaders ruled pharaonic Egypt for over 200 years.

The Tuareg homeland today is in the Central Sahara, where they have lived for several thousand years since their ancestors began migrating from the northern Sahara following colonization of coastal North Africa by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs.

About 100 years ago, the Tuareg people were divided up into separate countries, under separate administrative governments and artificial national boundaries established by French colonizers. Massacres of Tuareg people began over 100 years ago when they repeatedly resisted French colonial rule. Ever since the independence of these former French colonies, Tuaregs have been minority groups within modern nations ruled predominately by members of sub-Saharan ethnic groups, and Tuareg marginalization and exclusion has continued to the present.

Many Tuaregs were routinely denied food aid and medical care during the major droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of Tuaregs and their livestock died from deliberate neglect, and their territories have been excluded from economic development.

They are among the world's most impoverished and disrespected people, and yet they are widely admired for their historic position as sovereigns of the trans-Saharan trade routes in pre-colonial times, and for their bravery in warfare. They are known as the "Blue Men," for their indigo-dyed garments which leave dark blue pigment on their skins, and as the "Knights of the Sahara" for their generosity, desert hospitality and respect for women.