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Tuareg people

Related subjects: Peoples

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Niger: 720,000 (1998)

Mali: 440,000 (1991)
Algeria: 25,000 (1987)
Burkina Faso: 60,000 (1991)
Libya: 17,000 (1993)


The Tuareg language(s) (Tamasheq, Tamajeq, Tamahaq)


Sunni Islam

Related ethnic groups

North Africa,West Africa

The Tuareg (sometimes Twareg, French: Touareg, Arabic: طوارق‎, Itargiyen in Berber languages besides their own) are a nomadic pastoralist people, and are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa. They call themselves variously Kel Tamasheq or Kel Tamajaq ("Speakers of Tamasheq"), Imuhagh, Imazaghan or Imashaghen ("the Free people"), or Kel Tagelmust, i.e., "People of the Veil". The name Tuareg was applied to them by early explorers and historians (since Leo Africanus).

The origin and meaning of the name Twareg has long been debated with various etymologies advanced, although it would appear that Twārəg is derived from the " broken plural" of Tārgi, a name whose former meaning was "inhabitant of Targa" (the Tuareg name of the Libyan region commonly known as Fezzan. Targa in Berber means "(drainage) channel", see Alojali et al. 2003: 656, s.v. "Targa"). A misinterpretation of Twārəg as a name connected with the Arabic root TRQ made up a false etymology "abandoned (by God)", which has no real linguistic support and is sometimes quoted by those who want to defame this ethnic group. Tariq derived from the root TRQ means road in Arabic.

The Tuareg today are found mostly in West Africa, but, like many in Northern Africa, were once nomads throughout the Sahara. They have a little-used but ancient script known as the tifinaɤ.


Tuareg in the 1907 Colonial Exhibition

Descended from Berbers in the region that is now Libya, the Tuareg are descendants of ancient Saharan peoples described by Herodotus, who mentions the ancient Libyan people, the Garamantes. Archaeological testimony is the ruins of Germa. Later, they expanded southward, into the Sahel.

For over two millennia, the Tuareg operated the trans-Saharan caravan trade connecting the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara via five desert trade routes to the northern (Mediterranean) coast of Africa. The Tuareg adopted camel nomadism along with its distinctive form of social organization from camel-herding Arabs about two thousand years ago, when the camel was introduced to the Sahara from Saudi Arabia. Like numerous African and other groups in pre-modern times, the Tuareg once took captives, either for trade or for domestic purposes; those who were not sold became assimilated into the Tuareg community. Captive servants and herdsmen formed a component of the division of labor in camel nomadism.

In the early nineteenth century, the Tuareg resisted the French invasion of their Central Saharan homelands for the purpose of colonization. Tuareg broadswords were no match for the more advanced weapons of French squadrons, and after numerous massacres on both sides, the Tuareg were subdued and required to sign treaties in Mali 1905 and Niger 1917. In southern Algeria, the French met some of the strongest resistance from the Ahaggar Tuareg. Their Amenokal, traditional chief Moussa ag Amastan, fought numerous battles in defense of the region. Finally, Tuareg territories were taken under French governance and their confederations were largely dismantled and reorganized.

Before French colonization, the Tuareg were organized into loose confederations, each consisting of a dozen or so tribes. Each of the main groups had a traditional leader called Amenokal along with an assembly of tribal chiefs (imɤaran, singular amɤar). The groups were the Kel Ahaggar, Kel Ajjer, Kel Ayr, Adrar n Fughas, Iwəlləmədan, and Kel Gres.

Following the independence of African countries in 1960s, Tuareg territory was artificially divided into modern nations: Niger,Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso.

Long-standing competition for resources in the Sahel has impacted Tuareg conflicts with neighboring African groups, especially after political disruption and economic constraints following French colonization and independence, tight restrictions placed on nomadization, high population growth, and desertification exacerbated by global warming and the increased firewood needs of growing cities. Today, some Tuareg are experimenting with farming; some have been forced to abandon herding, and seek jobs in towns and cities.

In Mali, a Tuareg uprising resurfaced in the Adrar N'Fughas mountains in the 1960s, following Mali's independence. In May 1990, in the aftermath of a clash between government soldiers and Tuareg outside a prison in Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger, Tuaregs in both Mali and Niger claimed autonomy for their traditional homeland: ( Tenere, capital Agadez, in Niger and the Azawad and Kidal regions of Mali). Deadly clashes between Tuareg fighters and the military of both countries followed, with deaths numbering well into the thousands. Negotiations initiated by France and Algeria led to peace agreements ( January 11, 1992 in Mali and 1995 in Niger). Both agreements called for decentralization of national power and guaranteed the integration of Tuareg resistance fighters into the countries' respective national armies.

Major fighting between the Tuareg resistance and government security forces ended after the 1995 and 1996 agreements, but in 2004, sporadic fighting continued in Niger between government forces and groups struggling to obtain Tuareg independence. In 2007, a new surge in violence occurred.

Traditional social stratification

Traditionally, Tuareg society is hierarchal, with nobility and vasals. Each Tuareg clan (taousit) is made up of several family groups, led by their collective chiefs, the amrar. A series of taousit may bond together under a Amenokal, forming a Tel clan confederation. Tuareg self identify only as being of their sepecific Tel, tuareg being an Arabic term applied to them at the time of the Arab conquest of North Africa.


The work of pastoralism was specialized according to social class. Tels are ruled by the imúšaɤ (Imajeren, The Proud and Free) nobility, warrior-aristocrats who organized group defense, livestock raids, and the long-distance caravan trade. Below them were a number of specialised metier castes. The ímɤad (Imrad, sing. Amrid), the second rank of Tuareg society, were free vassal-herdsmen and warriors, who pastured and tended most of the confederation's livestock. Formerly bonded vassals of specific Imajeren, they are said by tradition to be decended from nobility in the distant past, and thus maintain a degree of social distance from lower orders. Traditionally, some merchant castes had a higher status than all but the nobility among their more settled compatriots to the south. With time, the difference between the two castes has eroded in some places, following the economic fortunes of the two groups. Imajeren have traditionally disdained certain types of labor and prided themselves in their warrior skills. The existence of lower servile and semi servile classes has allowed for the development of highly ritualised poetic, sport, and courtship traditions. Following colonial subjection, independence, and the famines of the 1970s and 1980s, noble classes have more and more been forced to abandon their caste differences and have taken on labor and lifestyles they might traditionally have rejected.

Client castes

After the adoption of Islam, a separate class of religious clerics, the Ineslemen marabouts, also became integral to Tuareg social structure. Following the decimation of many clans' noble Imajeren caste in the colonial wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ineslemen gained leadership in some clans, despite their often servile origins. Tradionally Ineslemen clans had been unarmed, providing spiritual guidance for the nobility, and receiving protection and alms in return.

Inhædˤæn (Inadin), were a blacksmith-client caste who fabricated and repaired the saddles, tools, household equipment and other material needs of the community. In most communities the Inadin were freedmen drawn from the servile éklan caste and considered outside the Tel, and thus outside Tuareg society proper.

Bonded castes and slaves

As did many other ethnic groups in West Africa, the Tuareg once held slaves (éklan / Ikelan in Tamasheq, Bouzou in Hausa, Bella in Songhai). Tuareg skin colour in general is considerably darker than most Mediterranean Berbers, and lighter, in general, than sub-Saharan populations. The Tuareg refer to themselves as "red-skinned," like most other Saharan peoples including the Maures, Tubu, and Amhara. Slaves were taken as prisoners of war as the Tuareg moved south beginning in the 11th century CE, and many slaves may have originated among Songhay, Djerma and Hausa communities, groups that also held slaves. These éklan once formed a distinct social class in Tuareg society. Slaves lived near their owners as domestic servants and herders, and functioned as part of the family, with close social interactions. Some Tuareg noble and vassal men married slaves, and their children became freemen. In this sense, éklan formed distinct sub-communities: a class held in an inherited serfdom like condition, common in pre-colonial West Africa. French colonial governments passed legislation to abolish slavery but did not enforce it; this was more in the interest of dismantling the traditional Tuareg political economy, which depended on slave labor for herding, as well as "pacification" of the fiercely resistant Tuareg, than a blanket liberation of slaves.

While post independece states have sought to outlaw slavery, results have been mixed, and old caste relationships remain in many places. According to the Travel Channel show Bob Geldof in Africa, the descendants of those slaves (known as the Bella) are still slaves in all but name. In Niger, where the practice of slavery was outlawed in 2003, a study found that almost 8% of the population are still slaves.

Tuareg territory

Areas where significant numbers of Tuaregs live

The Tuareg people inhabit a large area covering almost all the middle and western Sahara and the north-central Sahel. In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is not one desert but many, so they call it Tinariwen ("the Deserts"). Among the many deserts in Africa there is the true desert Tenere. Then we can cite numerous deserts more and less arid, flat and mountainous: Adrar, Tagant, Tawat ( Touat) Tanezruft, Adghagh n Fughas, Tamasna, Azawagh, Adar, Damargu, Tagama, Manga, Ayr, Tarramit (Termit), Kawar, Djado, Tadmait, Admer, Igharghar, Ahaggar, Tassili N'Ajjer, Tadrart, Idhan, Tanghart, Fezzan, Tibesti, Kalansho, Libyan Desert, etc.

Tuareg confederations, political centers, and leaders

At the turn of the 19th century the Tuareg country was organized into confederations, each ruled by a supreme Chief (Amenokal), along with a counsel of senior tribesmen elected to assist the chief.

  • Kel Ajjer or Azjar, centre Aghat (Ghat).
  • Kel Ahaggar, in Ahaggar mountains
  • Kel Adagh, or Kel Assuk, Kidal, and Tin Buktu
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Ataram, Manaka, and Azawagh region
  • Iwillimmidan Kel Denneg, In Tibaraden, Abalagh, Teliya Azawagh.
  • Kel Gres, Zinder and Tanut (Tanout).
  • Kel Ayr, Asode, Agadez, In Gal, Timia and Ifrwan.

The most famous Tuareg leader was a woman, Tin Hinan, heroine and spiritual leader, who founded a legendary kingdom in the Ahaggar mountains. Other confederation leaders followed under the title of Amenokal (Chief), of whom the most famous include:

  • Karidanna, of the Iwillimmidan
  • Waisimudan, of Iwillimidan
  • Aljilani Ag Ibrahim, of Iwillimidan
  • Busari Ag Akhmad, of Iwillimidan
  • Musa Ag Amastan, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Ibrahim Ag Abakkada, of Kel Azjar
  • Amud, of Kel Azjar
  • Makhammad Ag Katami, of Iwillimmidan
  • Balkhu, of Kel Ayr
  • Wan Agoda, of Kel Faday (Kel Ayr)
  • Ahitaghal, of Kel Ahaggar
  • Akhanokhan, of Kel Azjar
  • Khadakhada, of Iwillimidan
  • Alkhurer, of Iwillimidan
  • Bazu, Iwillimidan
  • Makhammad Wan Ag Alkhurer Iwillimidan
  • Abdurrakhman Tagama, of Kel Ayr
  • Hammed Almomin Iwillimidan
  • Fihrun Ag Amansar, of Iwillimidan
  • Atisi Ag Amellal of Kel Ahaggar
  • Akhamok Ag Ihemma of Kel Ahaggar
  • Bay Ag Akhamok of Kel Ahaggar
  • Khamzata Ag Makhammad, of Iwillimidan
  • Edaber Ag Makhammad the new Amenokal of Kel Ahaggar


The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. Unlike many Muslim societies, women do not traditionally wear the veil, whereas men do. The most famous Tuareg symbol is the Tagelmust(also called a Cheche, pronounced: Shesh), an often blue indigo coloured veil. The men's facial covering originates from the belief that such action wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well; in any event, it is a firmly established tradition (as is the wearing of amulets containing verses from the Qur'an). Men begin wearing a veil when they reach maturity which usually conceals their entire face excluding their eyes and the top of the nose.

Many Tuareg today are either settled agriculturalists or nomadic cattle breeders; though there are also blacksmiths and caravan leaders.

The Tuareg are sometimes called the "Blue People" because the indigo pigment in the cloth of their traditional robes and turbams stained the wearer's skin dark blue. Today, the traditional indigo turban is still preferred for celebrations, and generally Tuaregs wear clothing and turbans in a variety of colors.


The Tuareg speak Tamajaq/Tamasheq/Tamahaq, a southern Berber language having several dialects among the different regions. Berber is an Afro-Asiatic language closely related to Pharaonic Egyptian and the Semitic languages (such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic). The language is called Tamasheq by western Tuareg in Mali, Tamahaq among Algerian and Libyan Tuareg, and Tamajaq in the Azawagh and Aïr regions, Niger. The Tamajaq writing system, Tifinagh (also called Shifinagh and Tifinar), descends directly from the original Berber script used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times.


The Tuareg have been predominantly Muslim since the 16th century. They combine Sunni Islam (specifically the Maliki madhhab, popular in North and West Africa) with certain pre-Islamic animistic beliefs, including spirits of nature ( Kel Asuf) and such syncretic beliefs as divination through means of the Qur'an.


Much Tuareg art is in the form of jewelry, leather and metal saddle decorations called 'Trik', and finely crafted swords. The Inadan community makes traditional handicrafts. Among their products are: Tanaghilt or Zakkat (the 'Agadez Cross' or 'Croix d'Agadez'); the Tuareg Takoba, a nearly one meter long sword, with red leather cover; many beautiful gold and silver-made necklaces called 'Takaza'; and earrings called 'Tizabaten'.

In 2007, Stanford's Cantor Arts Center opened an exhibition, "Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World," curated by Tom Seligman, Director of the centre, who first spent time with the Tuareg in 1971 when he traveled through the Sahara after serving in the Peace Corps. The exhibition includes beautifully crafted and adorned functional objects such as camel saddles, tents, bags, swords, amulets, cushions, dresses, earrings, spoons and drums. The exhibition is also being shown at UCLA Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC.

Traditional music

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components: the moncord violin Anzad played often during night parties and a small tambour covered with goatskin called Tende, performed during camel races and horse races. and other festivities. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is Takamba, characteristic for its Afro-Berber percussions.

Tinariwen, a Tuareg band that fuses electric guitars and indigenous musical styles, was founded in the 1980s by rebel fighters. They released their first CD in 2000, and toured in Europe and the United States in 2004. The Niger-based band Etran Finatawa combines Tuareg and Wodaabe members, playing a combination of traditional instruments and electric guitars.

Many music groups emerged after the 1980s cultural revival. Among them Tartit, Imaran and known artists are: Abdallah Oumbadougou from Ayr, Baly Othmany of Djanet.

The Desert Festival in Mali's Timbuktu is the best place to see Tuareg culture and dance and hear their music. The event has the easiest access for tourists and is not yet very commercialised (though the process is happening).


The Tuareg are a pastoral people, having an economy based on livestock breeding, trading, and agriculture. A contemporary variant is occurring in northern Niger, in a traditionally Tuareg territory that comprises most of the uranium-rich land of the country. The central government in Niamey has shown itself unwilling to cede control of the highly profitable mining to indigenous clans; the Tuareg are determined not to relinquish the prospect of substantial economic benefit; the French government has independently entered the fray to defend a French firm, Areva, established in Niger for fifty years and now mining the massive Imouraren deposit. Tuareg are distinguished in their native language as the Imouhar, meaning the free people; the overlap of meaning has increased local cultural nationalism. Additional complaints against Areva are that it is: "...plundering...the natural resources and [draining] the fossil deposits. It is undoubtedly an ecological catastrophe."

These mines yield uranium ores, which are then processed to produce yellowcake, crucial to the western nuclear power industry (as well as aspirational nuclear powers). Controversy in the United States erupted out of a report asserting that Saddam Hussein had not tried to buy yellowcake from Niger, partly on grounds that Nigerien uranium mines had closed. In fact, many are disused and lightly sealed, allowing individuals to enter and mine at will.

In 2007, some Tuareg people in Niger have allied themselves with the MNJ, the Niger Movement for Justice, a rebel group operating in the north of the country. During 2004-2007, U.S. Special Forces teams trained Tuareg units of the Nigerien Army in the Sahel region as part of the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership; some of these trainees are reputed to have gone on to fight in the 2007 rebellion within the MNJ. The goal of these Tuareg appears to be economic and political control of ancestral lands rather than being a confluence of religious and political ideologies.

Ethnic classification

The Tuareg are classified as a Berber group, and are closely related to both Northwest African Berbers and West Africans, in terms of culture and ethnicity. At least some sources argue that the Tuareg are defined by language and culture, not by ethnicity, and that predominantly Tamasheq speakers qualify as "Tuareg" (and, presumably, by implication, individuals of Tuareg descent but who have assimilated into various countries and do not speak Tamasheq languages). This is probably part of the reason for the widely varying estimates of the number of Tuareg on the earth

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