Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Nomadic 'Blue Men' of the Desert Try to Go Roam Again after Years in Refugee Camps, Tuareg People Are Now Caught in a Cultural Identity Crisis

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Nomadic 'Blue Men' of the Desert Try to Go Roam Again after Years in Refugee Camps, Tuareg People Are Now Caught in a Cultural Identity Crisis

Article excerpt

Mali's "blue men" of the desert have a word for their ancient nomadic life - adima, or "very far from town." These wandering camel herders known as the Tuareg have various phrases for the sand and wind of the Sahel.

But the Tuareg language lacks the vocabulary to describe their current condition: "displaced" and "lost roots."

Thousands of Tuareg fled Mali in 1990 when some of their more radical brothers rose up in a rebellion backed by Libya. They fled as much as a month into the desert, traveling at night using the stars to navigate by. They settled in refugee camps in neighboring countries, waiting for peace to come. A 1992 peace accord finally achieved calm last year, and they have been straggling back since hoping to resume their old lives.

But with the loss of their animals thanks to upheaval and new sedentary habits learned in the camps, many members of this 1,000-year-old culture are going through what in the West would be described as an identity crisis - caught between economic necessity and a yearning for the old ways.

Instead of roaming with their herds deep into the desert, many Tuareg now hover around the outskirts of this ancient trading post, itself a synonym for nowhere. They live off United Nations handouts, staying close to wells and make a living selling camel rides and leather handicrafts to tourists.

Some foreign observers say this coming to terms with the 20th century will ensure the survival of one of Africa's genuine nomadic groups, known as the blue men, or kel tadalete, for their robes of indigo, sapphire, and cobalt, which stand out brilliantly in the yellow desert.

But for many Tuareg like Mohamed al Hassane ag El Moctar, who makes a living guiding tourists here, being stuck in an urban life and mixing with beer-drinking infidels is a wrench.

"They treat us like zoo animals or statues," he says as a group of Italian tourists dismount from their camels, take pictures of him, and sweep away without even a hello or thank you. "It offends me, but I need the money,"

The only time he is at peace is when he returns home by camel caravan, once every two months, to see his family150 miles away in the middle of the desert.

Finding peace in the desert

Life in the desert can be tough. There is a constant search for water, the 120 degree F. heat is searing, and sand storms lash the eyes. But there are also moments of peace in the immense wilderness, far from the noise and crowds of town life.

The desert is all around Tombouctou, formerly known as Timbuktu. Its sands sweep through the city center. The nearest encampment with camels and tents can be reached on foot 20 minutes away.

As of May, 102,429 Malian refugees had been repatriated, 40,960 of them from Mauritania. Still due to return were 15,000 from Mauritania, 24,000 from Burkina Faso, 4,000 from Algeria, and 20,000 from Niger, according to Fidda ag Mohamed Ousmane, an official at the United Nations refugee agency in Tombouctou. …

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