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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.