http://www.geographical.co.uk/ The Touareg roamed the Sahara for a millennium, fiercely protecting their way of life until 20th-century colonisation. An annual festival in northern Niger is helping to rejuvenate their ancient customs. Henrietta Butler reports
Thwack! Arahli Watterene gives an authoritative slap to his camel's behind and moves off to where a group of nomadic camel-riders are circling a huddle of women chanting and playing tinde drums. They are performing a traditional Touareg ritual, known as an ilugan, in which the women relate stories of the riders' bravery and heroism, and their beauty and elegance. But Watterene's huge white beast dwarfs its peers and is soon going at twice their speed, spraying all in his wake with a generous cloud of sand. True to Touareg traditions, he's showing off, giving all who care to look a demonstration of his camel-riding skills.
I'm in Iferouane, a village in the province of Aïr, northern Niger, for the Festival de l'Aïr, a celebration of the Touareg's flamboyant and poetic culture. And Watterene, who is the local chief of police, appears bored with the elegant ilugan parade and is intent on stealing the show. And it's working. Because the audience of several hundred men, women and children begins to cheer him on.
Suddenly, Watterene turns and begins charging towards us. Dumbfounded, no-one moves. At the last moment, he steers his mount away and begins to circle once more. When he starts a second charge, however, it's clear he won't stop this time, and as the beast's long white legs pound the parched, dusty earth, the onlookers scramble and tumble over one another to get out of his way.
In a flash, Watterene charges past and races away from the cheering crowd. After a thundering gallop, he turns once more and returns with an equally ostentatious show. It's a momentous and terrifying display, a flashback to the Touareg nomad of yore who, in his prime, was a feared warrior raider and haughty aristocrat.
Feuding Touareg tribes have met at the Festival de l'Aïr every year since 2001. The first event was held to mark peace after a decade of rebellion against Niger's government. But five years on, its organisers are hoping the festival will encourage their youth to hold on to their ancient traditions in the face of adversity and modernity.
The Festival de l'Aïr is a joyful celebration of the Touareg's existence, with camel parades and races, vigorous dancing and singing, and the ubiquitous large clouds of dust. The excitement calms in the evenings, when hushed crowds gather to hear recitations of traditional poetry accompanied by the imzad, and the guitar-led songs of the ichoumars recalling the dark rebellion years.
Behind the merriment, however, the festival has another purpose. As the new generation is drawn towards Western trappings, the festival is trying to preserve traditional Touareg culture. ‘[The Festival] is a calling to the youth to remind them who they are,' says the president of the Iferouane cultural community. ‘One is no-one without cultural identity. It is life's cement.'
And it seems to be working. Few of the young attending the festival dare come to the event unveiled. Here, at least, they experience the historic customs that were part of daily life until their parents' generation.
But it isn't just a reminder of bygone traditions. Thanks to the organisers' efforts, the festival is helping to revitalise Touareg culture. Groups of nomads from all over the north now flock to the festival to take part in competitive events - including displays of singing and dancing and presentations of new jewellery, textiles and saddles - each with generous cash prizes. It's particularly encouraging to note that the number of women chanting poetry accompanied by the imzad - both greatly revered skills - has doubled in recent years.
All dancers at the festival are required to be dressed in traditional clothes. And it's a good thing, too, because the show - performed to a group of singing women - is nothing without the dazzling, colourful robes, flashing swords and lances, and decorated leather pouches.
There is hope that the young Touareg's attachment to Western trends and clothes is an adolescent tendency that will wane with age, and that the urbanites might reclaim their cultural inheritance with the help of the festival. However, it would be a misconception to think that modernity is the enemy of the Touareg. The lives of many have been made easier by the use of four-wheeled transport. And a number of NGOs are trying to address the hardship and comparative isolation of the nomadic way of life by providing diesel-generated pumps for wells and other materials to help dig new wells. There are also efforts to establish more schools for nomads.
Finding a balance between modernity and preserving the wealth of the past may be the key to their future survival. This is the kind of future Watterene hopes for his children. ‘Life in the bush is so hard nowadays,' he says. ‘I was born a nomad in the desert and grew up an ichoumar, but I don't want my children to become nomads. They have a good education and I hope they can find jobs.' Nevertheless, he wants them to keep in touch with their roots, and during the school holidays, he makes a point of taking them to visit his parents, who are nomads south of Agadez. ‘It's important that they experience the kind of life I had as a boy, learning how to ride and milk camels and taking herds to the wells.'
The hope now is that if technology can make desert life easier, the urban refugees might be able to re-establish dependable nomadic bases. In the meantime, the festival is helping to rekindle the resilient Touareg soul.