December 31, 2007

How the Media Reconstructs Tuareg Culture

On the Internet, there is a great deal of mis-information about Tuareg culture, written by people who do not consult primary sources. Reporters are especially guilty, and students looking for term paper data on the Internet can easily fall prey to information that is false. Students could easily think that well-known news sources are authoritative, but the fact is, many do not do careful research, and students could wind up using such faulty information in their assignments. A primary source, for the purpose of writing about Tuareg culture, would be an authoritative, comprehensive ethnography of the Tuaregs, written by an anthropologist who has lived among the Tuaregs and learned Tuareg culture first-hand, through participant observation. In terms of country facts, students should consult government documents such as the World Factbook.

Tuareg Culture and News has a list of Books in English about the Tuareg people, under the Posts section. The most authoritative, comprehensive ethnography on Tuareg culture in English is:

Johannes Nicolaisen (1963, 1997)
The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture and Society (Carlsberg Nomad Series, So2)

For those who are able to read French, the most authoritative, comprehensive ethnography on Tuareg culture in French is:

Edmond Bernus (1983)
Touaregs nigeriens: Unite culturelle et diversite regionale d'un peuple pasteur (Memoires ORSTOM)

Note that both of these ethnographies were written several decades ago.
There still are many Tuareg who continue to make a living herding livestock, and who continue to nomadize with their herds. For many of these Tuareg, their fundamental beliefs and customs haven't changed so much from the ethnographies of the twentieth century. However, there are increasing numbers of Tuareg who have migrated to cities in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and America to pursue higher education, find jobs, or simply escape the poverty, instability and political repression of the countries where they grew up. Historical events, climate change, modernization, and globalization have changed things quite a bit for all Tuaregs over the past 25 years. Check some of the more recent sources on TCN to learn about recent culture change.

Below, TCN has analyzed one recent news article on the Internet, to give readers an idea of the types of mis-information about the Tuaregs that is perpetuated on the Internet.

National Public Radio, a well-known media source, published a July 2, 2007 article on drought in Tuareg regions: "Drought Forces Desert Nomads to Settle Down" (
Jane Greenhalgh).

The article concerns ways in which climate change has affected Tuareg culture.

-- Location: "For centuries, the Tuareg people have lived as nomads, herding their animals from field to field just south of the Sahara Desert in Mali, near Timbuktu."
-- Facts: Timbuktu is in the Sahara, not "just south" of the Sahara. Timbuktu is a Saharan city, located in the southern-central regions of the Sahara. Recommended reading:

Miner, Horace (1965) The Primitive City of Timbuctoo.
This is an authoritative anthropological account of Timbuktu.

-- Subsistence: "Over the past 40 years, persistent drought has forced the Tuareg to give up their wandering way of life."
-- Facts: Drought has forced some Tuareg to give up herding, but not all Tuaregs. Moreover, the term "wandering" makes the Tuareg seem aimless. Tuareg nomadize -- and this involves considerable planning. Each Tuareg family is associated with a particular well, and they nomadize around their "home well" during the dry months of the year. During the shorter rainy season, Tuareg families move their herds to transient summer pastures. Their movements are fairly predictable, and based on a considerable body of ecological knowledge. They do not "wander."

-- Cooking Customs: "They build a fire in a sand pit, and when the sand gets scorching hot, they bury a sheep carcass in it."
-- Facts: Tuareg do not bury a sheep "carcass" in a fire pit. The term "carcass" makes it sound as though the Tuaregs eat like barbarians. In fact, Tuareg ritually slaughter a sheep, and carefully butcher it before cooking it.

-- Eating Habits: "As the women look on, the men of the village sit around the main dish along with Korus and the others from CARE. After the men are through eating, the bones are cleared away for the children and women to pick over..."
-- Facts: This makes it sound as though Tuareg women are like slaves who just cook, clean up, and eat crumbs. It's part of Tuareg women's role to provide gracious hospitality for guests. This isn't a burden, it's a source of pride, both for the women, and for their husbands. They do not "look on" as the men eat, or watch the men eat, because Tuaregs consider it rude to look at each other eating. The point is, Tuareg women are not sequestered, and do not remain in closed tents or kitchen areas like Arab nomad women do. Tuareg women remain public persons, and for this reason, they remain seated in a public space that includes the men and guests, even if they are in a separate group. They are likely to meet and greet visitors, and sit and talk with them for awhile. Although Tuareg men and women socialize together publicly (unlike Arabs), when they eat, the men and women usually eat separately, and for that reason, the women in this case would not join their men in the meal. The leftover food is always conserved and used up; it is never thrown away. Just as an American woman would remove all the meat from the bones after Thanksgiving dinner, a Tuareg woman makes use of all of the meat from a sheep. If there is an excess of food from a meal, a Tuareg woman will store it, to be reheated for breakfast. Certain parts of the sheep are sometimes reserved for women. For example, the liver, which is high in iron, may be saved for a woman who is pregnant or nursing.

-- Diet: "The Tuareg diet has changed from one of meat and cheese to one with more grains and vegetables."
-- Facts: The most essential food in the Tuareg herder's diet is milk -- not meat. The main food that they eat twice a day is porridge (similar to oatmeal) made from millet or other grain, along with copious quantities of fresh milk. They also eat bread, and cheese made from goat milk, as well as wild fruits and vegetables collected seasonally. Tuaregs who are herders rarely eat meat, except for festive occasions, holidays, and when they have guests. The reason they eat little meat is because if they kill female livestock, they won't have the resource base to reproduce the herds, and they will lose their source of milk from lactating animals. They also need to maintain a certain number of livestock to sell at the market so that they can purchase the things they don't produce themselves, such as grain, salt, cooking oil, clothing, and so forth. For Tuaregs, their herds are "food on the hoof." If they butcher too many of them for the meat, they put their resource base at risk. Tuareg herders are excellent resource managers, and know the risks involved with depleting their herds for meat.

-- Property: (Hadijatou, a Tuareg woman in her 30s): "Before, everything was given to us by the men. When you are given what you need by other people, you are dependent on them," says Hadijatou. "But when you are producing what you need you depend on nobody. The life now is far better."
-- Facts: This statement needs some ethnographic background. A Tuareg husband is expected to provide for his family, including his wife. For this reason, a wife and children are "dependents" of the husband. However, in the Tuareg tradition, both men and women receive gifts of livestock while they are growing up, and each can own and control livestock, achieving a measure of economic independence. Also, Tuareg women can earn some income by making cheese and selling it at the market. After the devastating droughts of the 70s and 80s, when many people lost most of their livestock, many Tuareg women had to sell their remaining livestock and their jewelry in order to help the family buy food. Also, the majority of aid agencies have given relief food, blankets, equipment and livestock to "male heads of household" to distribute them, which altered the traditional system. A Tuareg household is organized around a married woman. A tent belongs to the wife, and it is the wife who keeps stock of the food supplies and distributes cooked food. In the case of Tuareg families who have settled and live in banco-brick houses, men may own the houses, following the tradition of settled farmers. For those Tuaregs who make a transition to farming, women's position in society may gradually change over time, and take on some of the gender inequalities of farming peoples. Gardening projects, such as the one featured in the NPR story, were organized largely through the men.

-- Respect for women; views on public education: "Traditionally, the men don't care what the women think. Children don't count for much, either. Mohamed Ag Mustafa, the herder still living the traditional Tuareg lifestyle, says he sees no reason to send his children to school: "Maybe school is useful for people in the cities, but not for us. As far as we are concerned, children are only useful for getting water or keeping an eye on the cattle."
-- Facts: This makes it look as though men have no respect for women, and are ignorant about the benefits of public education, which isn't the case at all. Tuareg women enjoy a degree of social respect that isn't seen in very many Muslim cultures. Tuareg husbands normally talk with their wives and get their advice before moving forward with plans. Children are cherished in Tuareg society, and given important responsibilities when they are little. They learn everything they need to know in order to be successful at herding, through their parents and other relatives, in the context of the home. There is a vast body of knowledge involved in herding, and it takes years to learn it. It can't be learned in the public school, and Tuareg children who leave home to attend a public school will never be able to catch up: they will lose this important knowledge base. At a public school, they will learn how to read and write, usually in a foreign language such as French, and for most of them, this knowledge will be worthless, since there are high rates of unemployment in the countries where they live. The Tuareg father in the NPR story is made to seem ignorant about the benefits of schooling, but in fact he is very wise: the only real chance his children have of maintaining themselves when they grow up is to learn how to produce food through herding or gardening -- which they have to learn at home, by participating in food production and learning the techniques first-hand. Not all Tuaregs will be able to continue as nomadic herders. Some Tuaregs who go to public school, will go on to earn advanced degrees in colleges and universities as they have been. And these will be a great resource to the Tuareg people, too. In a non-industrial society, higher education has its place, but is not necessary or even desirable to those who pursue traditional subsistence. This seems ironic to Westerners, who are accustomed to K-12 schooling, and going to college or getting a job afterward. But for people living in the poorest countries in the world, with no job prospects in sight for most of them, it makes sense.

-- Fatalism: "Ultimately the Tuareg may have no choice; this may be the end of a culture."
-- Facts: It's true that, with increasing desertification brought on by climate change and global warming, it may not be possible for all Tuareg to continue as they did in the past. The rainfall in the Sahara is erratic; drought is the result of lack of rain. There will be good years and bad years. There will be fewer good years with increasing desertification. However, there will still be some opportunities for some Tuareg to continue as they have, while other Tuareg may have to become farmers or migrate to other lands to seek alternate livelihoods. The fact is, in the vast regions of the Sahara where the Tuareg live, they have developed the technical knowledge and skills to survive there, whether there are droughts or not. Their culture is not static; over hundreds and thousands of years, they have continually adapted and changed to meet changing situations. The Tuareg who continue this way of life are likely to continue to develop new technologies and new strategies. In the Sahara, farming is not possible without the enormously expensive technologies we have in America -- sprinkler systems, tractors, and so forth, which are most successful with agro-business and major capital. The pastoral Tuareg have pursued a way of life that doesn't require major capital, and that allows them to maintain more autonomy. They are the only people who know how to produce food in the desert without expensive technology. Water and pasture shortages may force some Tuareg to leave herding and seek some other alternative. But others will continue as they have for centuries, and make improvements as it becomes possible for them, whether aid agencies help them or not. They are practical, resourceful, and highly intelligent people.

What is more threatening to the Tuareg way of life,
and to Tuareg culture,
are not so much the recurrent droughts,
but the marginalization and ethnic hatred
to which the Tuareg people are subjected in the countries where they live.
Government hate campaigns, massacres,
and exclusion from basic national resources
-- development funds, jobs, health care --
are the most significant threats to Tuareg culture.