The first Tuaregs I saw were shadowy figures in long robes, sometimes wearing turbans, trying to sell cheap, blunt swords and knives sheathed in leather, cassette cases and other boxes, also leather covered, and jewelry made in imitation of what I would later find to be desert finery. Most of the bars I frequented in Ouagadougou were separated from the street only by low walls (if that), and the Tuaregs would glide up to the table, never making eye contact, laying out their wares until the bar owners shooed them away.
They were lighter skinned than most of the Burkinabe, with hair a lot straighter. Later, I would imagine them somehow related to the Roma of Europe, for they aren’t much darker and are also nomadic. The Tuaregs I saw in Ouaga, or so I was told, could not really go home again—except to purchase more tourist geegaws—for they had abandoned the traditional life.
They had done so, usually, of necessity.
It was a time of drought, or just the end of it. Worldwide attention had been focused on the area just a year earlier, with the first Live Aid concert of 1984. Things were better, but not much more so.
The next March, a friend named Brent and I decided to go up to Tombouctou overland. The Niger river was now too low for the boats, and the first truck of the season—a Land Rover—was going to take up the mail instead, defining the road over what had been, until the week before, submerged land.
The only foreigners in the Land Rover were the two of us and a Japanese man who was planning on buying a camel and joining a caravan across the desert. Everyone else was Malian.
For some reason, I ended up sitting right next to the 55-gallon drum holding spare gasoline. It had not been sealed well; at any good bump, gas sprayed up and over me. Add to that the dust that flew in from the open back, and I was soon quite a sight.
When we got to Niafunké (the home, though I did not know it then, of Ali Farka Touré), two of the Tuaregs motioned for me to follow them. I did, and they took me to a market stall and quickly made a deal for a long swath of loosely woven, synthetic cloth—which I still have.
One of them tied it into a turban around my head, undid it, and ordered me to do it myself. It took a couple of times, but I soon could do myself up “like a Tamachek,” as he said. Back in the truck, I imitated them and covered my face with the loose end of the turban that had hung in front of my left shoulder, draping the rest over my right shoulder and down my back. The two men who had helped me nodded when I had it correctly in place and ignored me for the rest of the journey.
Though the gas still splashed and the dust continued to swirl, my lips and nose were now protected—and the turban proved surprisingly cool.
Over the next week in the desert, I learned to love that turban. I took it back with me to Ouaga, and it returned to Africa with me some years later when I joined Peace Corps. It folds quite small, though it’s over two meters long, is light, and takes little space.
While we were in Tombouctou, Brent and I hired a couple of camels and Tuareg guides to visit one of the nomad encampments outside of town. The guide (it was his encampment we went to) said they weren’t really nomads any longer, for they had no goats. No more was there vegetation enough to support them away from the wells of the few towns–and they weren’t welcome in the towns. He showed us his garden with disgust and resignation, telling us this was no way for a Tuareg to live.
Below is a picture I took at that Tuareg encampment, colored a bit with pencil a couple of years later:
Tuareg resilience is legendary for a reason. People of the desert—the whole desert—they had been parceled into a number of countries, including Mali, Algeria, Niger, and even Burkina Faso, though feeling allegiance to none. Hit hard by the drought of the eighties and stung by governments reluctant to recognize their nomadic ways, it looked like the Tuaregs were a vanishing people. It seemed as though they would drift to the cities, abandoning their traditional lifestyle, selling trinkets and even begging. Yet that is not what happened. Not completely, at least.
For a while, it seemed as though the Tuareg had decided instead to go out in a blaze of gunfire, fighting the governments of Mali and Niger. While that may still happen, the Tuareg are getting smart. They are taking a lesson from those who have been selling pale imitations of their art (the cross of Agadez, as a silver pendant, can now be seen almost anywhere in the world) and are using their culture to reach the rest of the world as something other than supplicants. The desert may no longer be able to support them, but the skilled artisans and musicians among them just might.
And, the Sahara being the Sahara, not many are going to want to move in on them, as they disappear back into the sands, having stocked up on necessities through trade.