The Tuareg, Blue Men of the Sahara

I don’t think I will ever forget the warmth with which, as foreigners, myself and our little band of travellers were received by the Tuareg at the Festival au Désert. Even though this traditional gathering for Tuareg has been open to tourism since 2001, the welcome received is, in my experience, unique. Chatting to people about how accepted foreigners were, a theme emerged: this is the desert, and these are desert people.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

As one Tuareg put it, “Never refuse to allow someone’s camel to drink from your well; you never know when your camel may need to drink from their well.” That seems like a good philosophy for life, but one that is uniquely the product of living in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Cooperation seems to be more than just desirable in the desert, it may be necessary for survival.

The literal translation of the word, Tuareg, means abandoned by god – a title possibly given to them by Arabs who struggled to convert them. They are better known as the Blue Men of the Sahara, because they traditionally wear the indigo tagelmust, or turban, which stains the skin blue. Although the Tuareg practice varying degrees of Islam, they retain many pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs. Strikingly, Tuareg women don’t wear veils and have a great degree of freedom and authority in family and community decision making.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

I feel a bit ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ recalling the Tuareg I met, but it would be wrong to over-romanticise. Historically they have a fearsome reputation, attacking the great Saharan caravans that carried gold, salt, grain and slaves across the desert. With France embroiled in the First World War, the Tuareg rose up against colonial rule in 1915-16. More recently, there has been an armed uprising in this region since Malian independence in 1960. The Tuareg continue to struggle for independence from Mali (albeit an uneven struggle against a Malian military supplied by France and the United States).

Despite a new peace accord, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (the name for the Tuareg homeland) remains armed and active, and separatist sentiment continues to run through the region. This situation is complicated by the Tuareg diaspora; there are up to one million Tuareg living in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many Tuareg don’t identify with their own governments and are seeking varying degrees of autonomy – all of which has been met with resistance.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

That said, it is impossible not to be affected by the dignity and warmth of the Tuareg, and that is even before you’ve heard their music. If there is something sublimely beautiful about the vast Sahara Desert, it is doubly so for those who inhabit it. The image of brightly dressed Tuareg, riding their camels against a backdrop of golden sand, is seared into my memory.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

One day there were some dramatic camels races, an event taken very seriously by the many camel enthusiasts amongst the crowd. I’d never seen a camel in full flight before – no wonder they inspired fear in people when Tuareg attacked travellers in the Sahara. Sitting on a sand dune watching this semi-martial display, memories of reading about the fearsome Tuareg, fighting the French Foreign Legion in the novel Beau Geste, inevitably popped into my head.

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

11 thoughts on “The Tuareg, Blue Men of the Sahara

  1. Pingback: Kimpa Vita Press & Publishers » Stop Giving the West a Bad Name! By Johan Galtung

  2. I can imagine it’s quite hard not to over-romanticise. Tuareg men on camels always will look straight out of a movie for me. I wish I could see a spectacle like this in real life one day, too, and take beautiful pictures just as you did.

    • It is easy to take beautiful pictures when you’re surrounded by beautiful people! It was a wonderful experience…I’m sure you’d really enjoy it as well. The desert is almost as cold at night as the Bolivian highlands!

  3. Timbuktu, and this festival; lucky you, it must have been a dream!! The tuareg photos are brilliant, and the music too. I actually heard Tinariwen once, far north in Norway, I big occation, but I would have prefered to hear them in the right environment, in the desert. Let the whole world fight and defeat the islamists. They are terrorists, making the world a terrible place, and especially I hope for Mali and all others who are inflicted with this terror that they will be free to live their life as they want, and with the beautiful music and traditions they have.

    • It must have been an amazing experience seeing Tinariwen in the north of Norway, and a remarkable experience for the band – it couldn’t be any more different from their desert home. I hope its possible to bring peace and stability to the region, but things are not so good at the moment, lots of Tuareg are in displacement camps in Mauritania.

      • That is too bad. Let’s hope the world will get rid of the militant extremists, and get peace and stability in all the region. It is too bad in too many countries at the moment. Too many crazy people who wants a totalitarian world.

        • I’ve heard from a friend who is in Mali at the moment that the Festival au Desert will be back in 2014, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel! It will be in Jan/Feb at a site close to Timbuktu. Lets hope nothing will happen to prevent it from going ahead.

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