Niger

Something Blue

Writer

Natasha Pradhan

Photographer

Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

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The married woman owns the tent. In fact she can kick the man out of it

A large square amulet called a tcherot, known to protect one from harmful spirits, hangs low around her neck. It is silver with four concave edges that rise like a pyramid towards a round peak. The tcherot is uniquely radiant, reflecting the light in the tent.

Her hands and feet are covered in dark henna painted with similar motifs of dots, lines and circles as on her jewellery. The shapes, when put together, reveal intricate triangular forms of striking symmetry along the natural contours of her joints.

She is seated on a mattress on the earth. Her portion of the wedding’s feast, comprising of beef and millet, is brought inside. The bride’s lips, stained in deep blue indigo, do not change colour as she eats. Instead, the beef is left with more and more blue stains each time she places it back on her plate. Although the tent is lively as her close friends come and go, often tending to her and adjusting her headcloth, she eats alone.

‘Fashion is a big deal. As is jewellery,’ says Tom Seligman, a longtime researcher and close friend of the inadan – the class of Tuareg society responsible for handcrafting jewellery. The Tuareg inhabit the portion of the Sahara that falls within the borders of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and more recently Burkina Faso. They were once given the name ‘Blue People’ for their reverent use of indigo.

‘The indigo dye is fascinating,’ says Susan Rasmussen, an anthropologist who has worked in rural and urban Tuareg communities since the 1980s. ‘Traditionally, dyers would pound and dye cotton fabric in special pits in Kano in northern Nigeria. Then the Tuareg men would bring it back on caravans. It is considered beautiful when it rubs off on the skin. It also prevents sunburn and I think the Tuareg knew this long before western science.’

In Tuareg societies, girls begin to wear jewellery from an early age, often a simple set of beads strung around the neck or tiny hoop earrings. Upon reaching adolescence, however, it is considered the ‘duty’ of parents to bestow their daughter with jewellery.

At the time of her wedding, a woman’s collection of jewels can grow many fold in the form of gifts from both her mother and her fiancé. Kristyne Loughran, a scholar specialising in Tuareg aesthetics, notes, ‘Tuareg women would not consider themselves properly dressed if they were not wearing a bracelet, rings and other pieces of jewellery, which they believe enhance their beauty while symbolising their age and social position.’

Most Tuareg pieces are made from carved silver adorned with colourful beads or stones. Some women wear two or more necklaces at a time. A fine set of silver around a woman’s neck and ears is not only a symbol of one’s wealth and beauty, but often also of one’s readiness to marry. The attractiveness of jewellery is an age-old concept. In a traditional poem, Algerian writer and feminist Wassyla Tamzali, tells of a man on camelback –

The moment he saw her,
He re-arranged his veil,
He stopped, forgetting the road,
Until his friends became surprised.
They understood, of course.
And told him he must be patient…
Before seeing her face,
He saw her rings, her tizabatines,
Her necklace of amulets.
He was sick with love…

Tizabaten are thick silver hoops featuring an enlarged base carved with a geometric design that sits near the earlobe. Married women sometimes wear an additional earring on their upper right ear made from small glass beads known as tsagur.

The men are covered by the tagalmust, both a veil and a turban. Tradition has it that Tuareg men must cover their face and head as a sign of honour and modesty. A man begins to wear the tagalmust once he is grown and of a marriageable age. For women, veiling is more relaxed. Some may don a tikest or adalil – a cotton shawl that is draped over the head and shoulders.

‘Many Tuareg find voluminous clothing to be more beautiful. Women and men positively value billowing, flowing sleeves and robes that freely sway or fall over the shoulder, since these motions are considered aesthetically appealing, resembling “a tree branch swaying in the wind,”’ writes Rasmussen.

Much of Tuareg popular poetry reflects a metaphoric understanding of beauty found across human life and other elements of nature. The patterns in Tuareg aesthetic forms, too, reiterate mathematical principles of the natural environment. ‘The Tuaregs, as distinct from the Moors, have a geometric artistic preference – whether it is silver, leather, anything,’ says Seligman.

Seligman has been a frequent visitor to Agadez and the Aïr mountains since 1971. ‘The most impressive wedding I’ve attended was Mohamed ag Boula’s wedding out in a wadi near Gougouram. We were all in tents, the bride’s side opposite the groom’s. The music and singing lasted for three days. I didn’t see the bride at all. I saw the bride’s mother once,’ he says.

The ritual song and dance that takes place at the wedding is known as the tende. A group consisting of a few inadan men but primarily tinaden women forms at the centre of the crowd of wedding guests. They are beating handcrafted leather drums while improvising a song. Their chants are humorous and often regale stories of those present at the wedding. Some build on popular poems, changing the lyrics only partially to include the names of the bride and groom and their families.

Not far from the mass of women, a few men dance, revealing their stamina as they leap high into the air while throwing their legs forward. Later, a line of camels herd a bull around the clearing between the two campsites. The bull is run around the large open ground until reaching the point of exhaustion, and then slaughtered for meat.

The Tamasheq word ehen, meaning tent, also refers to marriage. ‘To get married means to make a tent,’ explains Rasmussen. ‘Traditionally, and in many cases this is still done in semi-nomadic communities, the bride’s female relatives build her a tent and make it larger each night of the wedding celebration.’

Following the wedding ceremonies, the bride leaves her mother’s tent for her own, where she is joined by the groom. Still, the dwelling remains unquestionably under her rule. ‘The married woman owns the tent. In fact she can kick the man out of it.’

Tuareg wedding customs are not immune to changes. Seligman shares that it is not uncommon nowadays to see 4×4 vehicles join the camels as they form circles during the tende. ‘It’s the camel dance, but also the 4×4 dance.’

‘[The weddings] used to go on for longer, but because too many people are working these days they are being shortened to accommodate modern reality,’ says Seligman. Women sometimes appear at weddings decked out in gold, a material once nonexistent in the Sahara.

Often tahardant groups featuring electric guitars and amplified vocals perform at night during the celebrations. To Seligman, these changes do not represent a cultural dissolution in the least. They reflect an only natural progression of tradition with time. ‘The Tuareg, like everyone, like the new. In a way fashion – being à la mode – implies novelty.’