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HOME | PROGRAM IN AZAWAk | the people of the azawak

the people of the azawak
Overview on the People

Photo: Tuareg family
Tuareg family resting underneath their tent.

The dominant ethnic groups of the Azawak are the Tuareg and Fulani people.  Smaller populations of Arabs and Hausas also live in these vast plains.  A large percent of Tuaregs and Arabs in the Azawak are pastoralist nomads that live in camps of approximately 50 to 150 members.

Photo: Boy at faucet
Sedentary Tuareg Village, Intatolen.

Due to economic pressure and dramatic livestock losses, some Tuaregs have abandoned their formally nomadic lifestyle and now live in villages ranging from 100 to 1000 individuals, and rely on seasonal small-scale agriculture and/or trade for survival. The pastoral Fulani generally live in camps of no more than one or two families, with extended family units interspersed every one or two miles.

Photo: Fulani camp
Fulani camp with tent and table covered with calabashes, and children playing.

Hausas are sedentary and live in small villages often ranging from 250 to 1000 members. Families range from approximately five to seven members.

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The Tuaregs

An aura of mystery and romance surrounds the desert nomads known as the Tuareg. Long known as warriors, traders, and capable guides through the arid and rugged Sahara Desert, the Tuareg find their independence severely threatened as repetitive droughts kill their herds and international borders greatly limit their wanderings. Many have been forced to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become sedentary, forming small villages or moving to the cities for work.

Photo: camel racing
Tuaregs camel racing at a festival.

The Tuareg people represent a Saharan offshoot of the Berbers, who have resided in North Africa for several millennia. While today’s Tuareg are nominally Muslim, their ancestors fled to the Sahara Desert to avoid submitting to Arab conquerors and converting to Islam. As a result of Arab conquests in the 7th century A.D., and then Bedouin immigrations into North Africa during the 11th century A.D., many Berber groups sought refuge in the oases of the Sahara. There they adopted a nomadic and predatory mode of life, modelled on that of their invaders.

Photo: Nomadic Tuareg camp
Nomadic Tuareg camp.

Even though they have retained the language and many of the customs of their Berber ancestors, the Tuareg have developed a unique culture of their own, a genuine synthesis of many traditions, including not only Berber and Arab, but also elements from indigenous peoples who reside in the Sahel. Tuareg political organizations extend across national boundaries, and these nomadic pastoralists inhabit an area in North Africa ranging from central Algeria and Libya in the north to northern Nigeria in the south, and from western Libya in the east to as far west as Timbuktu, Mali. Today it is estimated that there are 1.3 million Tuareg, most of them living in Mali and Niger.

Photo: Tende drum
Tuareg women making a traditional ‘Tende” drum from a mortar and goat hide.

Tuareg society is traditionally feudal, with five castes: nobles, vassals, holy men, artisans, and laborers (former slaves). The Tuareg are traditionally monogamous and have a matrilineal system of inheritance. In this they differ sharply from their Berber kinsmen, the Arabs, and most other sub-Saharan peoples.

Photo: Tuareg women sewing a tent
Tuareg women sewing a tent roof from goat skin hide.

Most Tuaregs of the Azawak have retained a fully nomadic existence and herd cattle, camels, goats, and sheep. They reside in camps ranging from 50 to 150 people and live in tents of wooden poles covered with a red dyed goat hide tarp.

Photo: Tuareg women building tent
Tuareg woman placing poles while constructing a traditional tent.

During the rainy season, they move camp every three to four days in search for the greenest pastures for their livestock. During the dry season, they move often to find water, but prefer to stay in the vicinity of their “home territory”, land passed down from one generation to the next.

Photo: Tuareg women sewing a tent
Sedentary Tuareg village.

Sedentary Tuareg villages grow more and more common as livestock herds shrink.  This phenomenon is greatly due to climate change that has caused shorter and shorter rainy seasons and longer periods of drought, and hence fewer pastures for the animals to graze. Without animals to provide milk and meat, or a means of bartering for trade goods, the nomads settle into small villages of 100 to 300 people and attempt to live off of sustenance agriculture, mostly growing the grains millet and sorghum. These sedentary populations abandon their villages during the harshest months of the dry season when they too must travel from one distant source of water to another.

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The Woodabe Fulani

Photo: Tuareg women sewing a tent
Fulani woman, Najet, watching men dance at a Guerwul festival.

Little is known about the Woodabe, a sub-ethnic group of the Fulani people, traditionally nomadic herders that range throughout West Africa from Mauritania in the North to Cameroon in the south and Sudan in the East. The Woodabe of the Azawak rely on herding cattle for their survival. They live in small camps of only one or two families and relocate to find better pastures every two or three days.

Photo: Fulani family moving their camp.
Fulani family moving their camp.

Their “homesteads” consist of one traditional wooden bed (which they cover with a plastic sheet when threatened by rain or scorching sun rays) and a wooden table covered with 20 to 30 calabashes.

Photo: Fulani woman pouring water into a calabash.
Fulani woman pouring water into a calabash.

Only a few of these calabashes are used for conserving grain or milk whereas the rest are displayed for decoration as a sign of the woman’s wealth.

Photo: Fulani couple with their cattle.
Fulani couple with their cattle.

The most important possession in Fulani society is cattle, about which these herders have many traditions and taboos. The number of cows a person owns is a sign of his wealth. The Woodabe is so knowledgeable about his cattle that he is said to cast spells with magic potions that will lure his cattle to follow him wherever he wants to go.

Photo: Fulani woman embroidering traditional Fulani clothes.
Fulani woman embroidering traditional Fulani clothes.

The Woodabe are also notorious for their veneration of “beauty.” They hold celebrations (called Guerwul) to celebrate the rainy season. Guerwul season is the time for Woodabe beauty competitions.

Photo: Fulani couple with their cattle.
Fulani man preparing for a Guerwul dance.

During these rituals the most beautiful woman chooses her future husband as the men, garnished in traditional clothing and face paintings, dance in place, proudly showing off the whiteness of their eyes and teeth.

Men also use these ceremonies to practice teegal, where they “steal” the woman of their choice — married or not — by luring them away with spells and magic potions until the next Guerwul, when yet another man’s potions and charms may attract her elsewhere.

Photo: Fulani men dancing and singing at a Guerwul festival.
Fulani men dancing and singing at a Guerwul festival.
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Stories from the Azawak,
by Ariane Kirtley

Sadouan and Alhassan
Arr Issudarr : Milk is Hope

Photo: Alhassan and Sadouan with daughter, Madian.
Alhassan and Sadouan with daughter, Madian.

I met Sadouan in early September 2005 when I first travelled to the Azawak.  She was the first person to greet me as we arrived at our host camp.  Without hesitation, she invited me to live with her in her tent and quickly went about setting up a traditional bed made of large wooden poles laid upon spool-shaped legs, the whole covered with two woven mats made of plant stalks. She then presented me with a mosquito net and elaborately designed leather pillows to use as armrests.

Photo: Sadouan and Alhassan.
Sadouan and Alhassan.

Late into the night we received visits from Sadouan’s neighboring family members, who brought me cups of camel milk that they set by my side.  While sipping the frothy liquid and sitting cross-legged on a pillow, I chitchatted with Sadouan’s husband, Alhassan. The camp recently returned from the North where they had taken their animals to the salt licks of Ingal.

Photo: Fulani couple with their cattle.
Sadouan and Alahassan’s daughter, Mouheini.

Alhassan lamented having lost eighty percent of his herd due to the past year’s drought: “Around a hundred of my camels died because they didn’t have enough food and water. When we ourselves had no more food, we also had to eat some of them.  I sold others to buy millet for Sadouan and the kids.”

Photo: Alhassan and son, Mohammed.
Alhassan and son, Mohammed.

 “Our animals are a source of great pride and our only capital,” he recounted, “as they are inherited from father to son. Ten years ago, only the poorest families in our camp owned fewer than 300 animals.  With only 20 animals left, what can I count on to survive?  Maybe if I can grow enough millet this year, we’ll have enough to eat.  It is not sure that I can.”

Photo: Alhassan milking a camel.
Alhassan milking a camel.

Everyone in Sadouan’s camp suffered from comparable dramatic livestock losses this year. For the first time in her population’s history, her people are becoming sedentary for a portion of the year in order to grow crops for sustenance. The nomads are ill prepared for this complete lifestyle adjustment from centuries of nomadism, where they relied on pastures and livestock to survive, to depending on seasonal agriculture and small-scale commerce to be able to feed their families. 

Photo: Sadouan getting braided for the Muslim Tabaski festival.
Sadouan getting braided for the Muslim Tabaski festival.

After putting her children to bed, Sadouan sat near me and gently ran her fingers through my hair, “why haven’t you braided your hair?” she asked, implying that she would never leave her hair uncovered and unbraided, “if you want, I can wash it with ochre for you, and then we can give you the festivity braids. Afterwards, we will decorate your hands and feet with henna.”  I had been warned that Tuareg women are coquettish, hence the name of the capital city of the district, Tchintabaraden, which translates into, “the place of the beautiful women”.  I smiled at her attempts to beautify me, and admired her ability to set aside her daily worries to make me feel welcome and at ease with her family.

Tackawel and Issibit
A Wild Harvest to Fill Empty Bellies

Photo: Issibit’s and Tackawel’s home
Issibit’s and Tackawel’s home.

I arrived as the sun was setting in the sedentary Tuareg village of Intatolen, once the men and women had returned from planting millet in the fields. Wanting to meet my hosts, I walked around the tiny 5 household village greeting the women.  Two women sitting beside their thatched hut eating waved me over, “bismillah” – welcome – to join them.  They handed me a wooden decorated spoon, as I sat down to enthusiastically eat a very well prepared meal of a grain I didn’t recognize with wild squash.  After several minutes of silence, I introduced myself, and asked them their names.  They giggled.  I had committed “senti” – speaking while eating.  While speaking during a meal is overtly shunned in Tuareg tradition, it is covertly appreciated as a sign that the food was so good to have made your mind wander towards better things.

Photo: Issibit
Issibit.

After dinner, the women introduced themselves as co-wives, Issibit and Tackawel. Issibit, the elder of the two, apologized profusely: “we would have liked to serve you meat, but all our animals have died.

Photo: Tackawel pounding wild grain.
Tackawel pounding wild grain.

We ran out of rice a few weeks ago, and so now we are eating wild grains until they too run out.  And the lacada – we are VERY embarrassed to have served you the wild zucchini, but we have nothing else to eat”. I reassured Issibit that the meal was delicious, while explaining that the zucchini is “good for the body” and that it is one of my preferred vegetables to eat it in my home country.  I even suggested that they might consider eating it whenever it is available, even outside of times of famine, to “make them strong”.  She smiled, although I could tell she only felt slightly less embarrassed.

Photo: Tackawel and her sister, Aminata, separating grain from stalk.
Tackawel and her sister, Aminata, separating grain from stalk.
Photo: Tackawel pounding wild grain.
Tackawel’s sister, Aminata.

I was later told that eating wild grains and vegetables is one of the most telling signs of famine because they are only eaten when every other food source has run out. Several months later when I analyzed my Fulbright research data, I discovered that 71% of the households that I interviewed went from eating one to two meals a day supplemented with milk, to one or no meals a day only sometimes supplemented with a greatly reduced quantity of milk.

Photo: Issibit’s mother, Hazitou.
Issibit’s mother, Hazitou.

Furthermore, during this period 91% reported resorting to eating wild grains, squash, and bitter berries.  Thinking back to my encounter with Tackawel and Issibit, I was once again reminded of the generosity of these people that share everything, until there is nothing left.


Fada
From School to Guerwuls

Fada came bouncing towards me one day -- adorned with his round feather topped hat, a Tuareg saber, little charm talismans, and a walking stick -- as I was battling my way through prickly burrs walking from Fulani camp to camp.

Photo: Fada
Fada

“Hey, follow me, I’ll show you where it’s best to step”.  I was clearly a novice choosing the best route, as my pants were completely covered in the unpleasant prickly stuff.  I explained to him that I was hoping to speak with some Fulani men and women for my research.  “Come to my camp”, he urged, “it’s just over that dune.”

Photo: Fada's home
Fada’s home, a tent and a table covered with calabashes.

This was my first lesson never to trust a Fulani when time and distance is concerned: two hours and about two thousand prickly burrs later, with a large herd of long-horned cows following us, we arrived at his family home: one short wood bed and a tall table covered with calabashes.

On our two hour walk to his camp, I questioned Fada about his life as a herder.  He was young, probably around 14 or so.  Had he ever been to school?  At first he laughed and then gravely answered that the Fulani have traditionally rejected formal education because they believe that schools “steal” their children from their pastoral lifestyle. In fact, to the most traditional Fulani, a child that attends school is considered “dead” because he or she no longer understands the art of herding and magic.  This is how Fada’s uncle, Ali, came to go to school 35 years ago.

Photo: Fada’at the Guerwul ceremony.
Fada’at the Guerwul ceremony.

Ali was the grandson of a greatly respected Fulani chief.  One day, a group of French colonists came to his camp and demanded that the chief force all children under his command to attend school in Tchintabaradène, the capital of the Azawak.  Ali’s grandfather, a very wise and kindhearted man, refused to send any children but his own to their “death”.  He therefore sent his own grandchildren – among them, Ali.  But Ali, wanting to escape “death”, ran away into the deep bush of the Azawak and spent three weeks hiding, traveling by foot through unknown prairies, where he knew the white man would not find him.

Photo: Fada's home
Fada putting makeup on a friend for the Guerwul ceremony.

To his dismay, when he reached his camp, the white men were there waiting for him and he was immediately sent back to school, this time to the more distant city of Tahoua.  He ran away from school five more times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, before giving in and accepting his fate at the hands of the white educators.  Ali never returned to his life as a herder in the Azawak.   Instead, he traveled to Morocco and France to obtain a degree in sustainable agriculture.

Before I could question Fada more on the subject, we arrived at his camp.  It was deserted.  “Oh, I forgot, everyone has left to prepare for the Guerwul taking place tomorrow”. I had heard of Guerwuls, or beauty competitions held by the Woodabe people, a sub-group of the Fulani, notorious for their veneration of “beauty”.  “Can you come?”  Fada asked me enthusiastically.

Photo: Fada’at the Guerwul ceremony.
Fada's older sister at the Guerwul ceremony.

While I was preparing to leave, after having refreshed myself with a large bowl of curdled cow milk and a promise to see him at the Guerwul, Fada admitted, “I’d like to go to school someday and become like my uncle Ali.  Maybe when I have children, there will be schools in the Azawak for them to attend”.

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