Where All the Women Are Strong

Article excerpt

"Tomorrow you shall see a real fight!" Daguna rocked with laughter as she spoke, while the other women in the tent reflected her satisfaction. Six nights before, Daguna's younger sister Elbatul had given birth to her first child, and her female kin, members of the Kel Fadey tribe of pastoral Tuareg, were preparing for two major rituals that celebrate the new mother's coming of age and welcome the newborn: the blessing of the mother's tent and the child's naming ceremony. For the new mother the final honor would be a lively display of wrestling by the wealthiest and most prestigious women. "That is our custom! We will wrestle like you have never seen before!" chortled Kazu, slapping Daguna's shoulder. "If I had some trousers, I could take her down in an instant!"

Daguna, chief Mohammed ag-Sidi's eldest daughter, and her cousin Kazu, the wife of the chief's youngest brother, were waiting out the hottest afternoon hours, when the average temperature in the shade is 112 deg. They were relaxing in the tent that belonged to Ayshatu, the chief's wife and mother of Daguna and Elbatul. Ayshatu prepared a hefty brew of Chinese gunpowder tea, heavily sweetened and served in shot glasses from a tiny teapot.

Their camp was at a sandy river bed that is dry except for a few days during the rainy season from July to September, when it may flow briefly with the runoff from the Air Mountain range in northwestern Niger. Here, in the desert regions of the south-central Sahara, an environment too arid for farming, the nomadic Tuareg raise camels and goats. They move their livestock from one pasture to the next in an annual cycle, transporting their tents on camels and donkeys.

The Tuareg have never been completely out of contact with the West nor have they been isolated from urban society, yet they take pride in remaining apart and distinct. The desert is clean and wholesome, they say, while the city is filthy and full of evil. Their basic diet consists of milk from their animals (they eat meat only on ritual occasions) and whole grain porridge. Grain, clothing, and other necessities are purchased by the occasional sale of male yearling livestock. Tuareg women conserve surplus milk by converting it to buttermilk and cheese, and during the rainy season they gather wild plants to supplement their diet.

From ancient times to the early twentieth century, the Tuareg dominated the caravan trade across North Africa and the Sahara. They traded and fought with the Pharaonic Egyptians, and they dealt in turn with Phoenician, Greek, and Roman invaders. They adopted camel pastoralism from the Arabs, inventing a lightweight camel saddle that enabled Tuareg men to move swiftly and fight with swords and lances from atop the lithe Tibesti camel. They supplemented their incomes with protection payments from the trans-Saharan trade and by raiding caravans.

The Tuareg became a familiar menace to Europeans who attempted to penetrate and conquer Saharan territories in the late nineteenth century. Because their indigo-dyed garments left a blue cast on their skin, they came to be known as the Blue Men. To those who admired their gallantry and respect for women they were the "knights-errant of the Sahara." To those who were tricked, ambushed, poisoned, or terrorized by Tuareg warriors they were the "brigands of the desert waste." As the French gained the upper hand in the central Sahara, they were able to subdue the centuries-old power of the Tuareg, using machine-gun fire against the broad swords and addax-hide shields of the Blue Men.

The Muslim Tuareg do not drink alcohol or use drugs, and their men fear the loss of honor that would ensue from beating or raping a woman. Their women are respected and own property in livestock. In many other Muslim societies, women follow the Koranic directive to "cover" themselves, through veiling and keeping to private quarters. In Tuareg society, however, the men wear the veils--not a Muslim custom but one peculiar to the Tuareg and other Berber peoples of the central Sahara. …