Tamachek ways: ancient and modern

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TAMACHEK refers to a group of people in Mali and Niger who speak the Tamachek language. The group comprises interdependent peoples - the Tuareg, Indem, and Bella. The Tuareg, nomadic descendants of the Berbers of North Africa, are traditionally divided into noble and vassal castes. The nobles, stalwart and haughty, gained fame as lords of the desert for their major role in trans-Saharan caravan trade. They were guides, protectors, and tribute takers, and they owned herds of goats, cattle, and camels. The vassals tended the noble's animals and also had livestock of their own.

The Indem are blacksmiths, possibly of Hebrew origin, who long made up a lower caste in Tamachek society. And the Bella are a group of Sudanese blacks who for centuries were captured and enslaved by the Tuareg.

The devastation of the recent droughts, however, has toppled the traditional hierarchy of these people and reduced the earthly holdings of most Tamachek to the common denominator of zero.

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Traditionally, Tamachek women of all castes did leather, grass, or bead work, while some of the Indem men did wood and metal work and also made leather sandals. Today, one can find craft production among men and women in each Tamachek caste, except among male nobles who have resisted the demand to seek alternative means of livelihood.

SOME of the traditional items sold through the Tamachek crafts cooperative include:

Algomassah - geometric jewelry made from white shells found in the Niger River and worn on woven leather strands called ikazankas. This is the jewelry preferred by many Tamachek women, who begin to wear these necklaces when they are about 14 years old. Traditionally, a girl's mother arranges for the jewelry to be made, and its presentation is an important rite of passage. Hardships brought on by the droughts have placed the shell algomassah beyond the economic reach of many Tamachek. Some have begun to make them with aluminum instead.

Taugarwen - hand-woven mats made with long grass (afaso), red cotton yarn, and strips of tanned leather. These intricately designed mats are traditionally part of a woman's dowry. They come in a variety of sizes, each with a specific function in the nomad tent. The tassililt is a sleeping mat. Ornate tassililts are reserved for guests and used to decorate the walls of the tent. The assahar is a little square mat used to cover bowls of milk or food.

The chitik is a long mat that stretches around the tent. It is an ingenious removable wall: Unrolled, it keeps out sun and sand; rolled up, it lets in the breeze. Up to 20 feet long, a chitik can take as long as two years to weave and is often worked on collectively.

Sharoot - a silver medallion worn by women as a pendant and by men on a band tied around the turban. Again, because of the droughts, a mixture of metals, rather than silver, is often used in making sharoots for private use.

Designs on Tamachek crafts are inspired by images found in their environment or by concepts that have special significance in their culture. The agawadar, or straight line, for example, represents straight objects such as a herder's stick. It can also refer to someone who is honest or just. The ashul, a zigzag pattern, represents a long slender serpent that shines in the sun when it moves.

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