Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Tuareg in Large Urban Centers

This is not a new subject. Edmond Bernus, in addition to contributing to human geographical studies of the pastoral Tuareg of central Niger also looked at the phenomenon of Tuareg men migrating to large urban centers. These men sought work and/or opportunities in major cities like Abidjan, Lagos and Paris. Though I am not well versed on what findings Edmond Bernus and others have of Tuareg migration to cities, I have some observations of changes both intentional and unintentional of Tuareg customs due to these sometimes seasonal, sometimes permanent migrations.

The most obvious and perhaps dramatic change is polygamy. Many anthropological studies of the past and in recent times examine how Taureg men who marry more than one wife with or without consent are both ridiculed and disciplined by their first wife, often resulting in the man losing his place in the household. Men who have more than one wife is an extremely rare situation in their rural society as Tuareg women have the trait of jealousy and exercise what social powers they have to discourage polygamy.

In the large urban areas, it is not uncommon these days to find Tuareg men who have 2, 3 or 4 wives (depending on their means as well as personal choice). This is no doubt an influence that comes from the communities of Songhaï, Haoussa, and coastal societies that the Tuareg work and reside in. From informal discussions that I have had with polygamous Tuareg men, their wives often come from the cities they live in and not the countryside. In the countryside, the practice of marrying one wife is still practiced and socially encouraged.

Among the men who migrate to the large urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, the most obvious groups are the artisans. They too have undergone changes as the necklaces they sell are no longer used for promises of marriage in Tuareg society but for tourists who find the designs unusual and representative of the nomadic Saharan community. Their art has even diversified as silversmiths no longer dominate the ranks. It is easy to find men selling leather products (sometimes made by Tuareg women from the countryside but also produced and sold by the urban merchants) as well as miniatures carved out of mica or soapstone. A few of these artisans have also tapped into the market of making simple toys from tin cans, scraps of metal and wire like the children did in the past and still do. Once a means for African children to have toys that resemble the race cars, dump trucks and fire engines that European, North American and Japanese children played with, these metal creations are now sold to foreigners and sometimes Africans who have interest in supporting local craftsmen.

Clothing has changed dramatically, not only in the urban centers but also in the countryside. Tuareg who rely on tourists with their occupations often will wear the traditional white, blue or black turbans and robes, but the vivid greens, purples, oranges, reds, pinks, and blues of Sub-Saharan communities have definitely penetrated into the countryside. It is not uncommon to find the wax-patterned cloths with images of exotic birds and animals sown into the design of a Tuareg kaftan or boubou as well. Furthermore, the men who occupy manual labor positions like masonry, water delivery to homes, or motorcycle repair often wear occidental clothing (blue jeans and t-shirts) but often still wear their turbans around town.

Their change in diet is interesting as there are trade-offs from coming from the countryside and living in the big city. In the countryside, they were eating some of the best dairy products in the world. There are also foods that are gathered and used both in good seasons and times of food scarcity that at their worst act as ‘filler’ foods, but some are very nutritious and add variety to their diets. But they cannot subsist on these foods from nature and the products of their animals alone. Markets are limited in remote areas. Vegetables and fruits are uncommon and not available throughout the year and transporting grains to the countryside is costly and difficult in terms of preserving. In the city, they have greater access to fruits, vegetables and grains but those who have the means have also fallen into the trap of convenience buying instant drinks, powdered milk and processed foods which are not as rich or nutritious as raw or fresh foods. Another complexity of living in the city is the cost of foods. While villages around Abidjan, Cotonou and Lomé may charge a pittance for agricultural products, prices in the urban centers are often high due to transportation and storage costs.
One thing that has not changed because of urban living or influence from the interaction of different cultures is the pride that Tuaregs take in their culture. Their resistance to foreign domination in the past and their resilience in maintaining a distinct Tuareg identity, separate from their neighbors and appealing to foreign tourists is evident in their manners and conversations. The urban Tuareg may not wear the indigo turban, have married their childhood sweetheart from the contryside or even possess one camel to their name. In all likelihood, they are probably married to two women (living in different cities), wear Hawaiian t-shirts, drink instant coffee in the morning and speak French better than Kel Tamasheq. But in their minds, they do have an image of themselves mounted on a camel, wearing the robe and turban of noble rank, and their wife and children with the family tent and possessions riding not far behind. The legend of what a Tuareg is and represents is rooted firmly in place.