Mali's Nomads Coaxed to Adopt Modern Life

After a five-year conflict, government aims to integrate wandering Tuaregs into society

As dawn cracks over the Saharan dunes, Ibrahim Ag Abdullah climbs out from his family's tent, dons an imposing swath of indigo robe and turban, and mounts his camel.

From all appearances he could be dashing to raid a village at sword point, or to lead a trans-Saharan caravan trading salt or gold, activities that earned his nomadic Tuareg ancestors their status as lords of the desert. But for the 1 million Tuaregs in West and North Africa today, drought and a five-year conflict have devastated even the least glamorous of Tuareg professions - goat herding.

''I used to have a lot of animals, but with the drought...'' Mr. Abdullah gives a high-pitched whistle and slits his throat with his finger, ''all gone.''

So each morning Abdullah commutes two miles to join small hordes of souvenir-hawking Tuaregs stationed outside Timbuktu's two main tourist hotels and cuts lucrative deals with visitors for camel rides into the desert. Like a suburbanite with a big-city job who dreams of chucking it all for the rural life, Abdullah insists he won't become trapped by his dependency on the urban economy. ''Each time I earn a little money I buy a goat or a sheep. I save up so I can have enough animals to return to the desert,'' he says.

After droughts in 1973 and 1985 killed as much as two-thirds of the Tuaregs' livestock, age-old racial hostilities flared between the light-skinned nomads of the north and the black populations from the south. In 1990 in Mali and Niger, along the geographical fault line where these cultures have clashed for centuries, Tuaregs began mounting hit-and-run attacks on towns. In the past, such aggression crippled the powerful empires of Mali and Songhai, and caused residents of Timbuktu to barricade themselves behind immense carved wooden doors, creating the legendary mysteriousness that still permeates the town's narrow streets of sand. This time the attacks provoked violent government reprisals, driving tens of thousands of Tuaregs into Mauritania, Algeria, and Burkina Faso. A 1992 peace accord finally achieved a fragile calm about a year ago, and Tuaregs are now returning, lured by the promise of humanitarian aid.

Abdullah, his wife, and five children live under a donated US Army-issue green tarp, draw water from a government-built well, and eat from a subsidized garden. Aid workers hope that by learning to tend vegetables Tuaregs will overcome a centuries-old wanderlust. But Abdullah's wife, Fatimata, resents the extra work. ''Before, when we had animals, all I had to worry about was getting milk and making cheese. That's what I know best.''

For their part, government officials say the solution is to provide Tuaregs with more of the benefits of modern society. ''The entire crisis was a problem of underdevelopment,'' says Timbuktu's regional governor, Lt. Col. Abdoulaye Fane. With a ceasefire holding, Colonel Fane plans a new irrigation project and an expansion of Timbuktu's airport to attract international flights and boost tourism. The government is also integrating thousands of Tuaregs into the nearly all-black civil service, military, and police forces. The world is progressing, Fane says, and so must Mali's Tuaregs. ''How can you educate children if you move all the time?'' he says. ''At some point it's necessary that nomads settle down, and the Tuaregs themselves know this.''

A younger generation not raised on the ancient rituals of moving north in the rainy season and south during dry months may never develop the taste for it. ''It's too hard,'' says Abdoul Malick, ''traveling all night, keeping constant watch over the animals.''

Through circumstance and the generosity of a schoolteacher uncle, Mr. Malick was sent to school from an early age and now is a public-relations bureaucrat for the government. He sports silver-rimmed reflector sunglasses and what must be one of the few pairs of lace-up dress shoes in Timbuktu. Yet he insists he's not completely out of touch with the life his nomadic father and brother still lead. ''I visit them on my vacations,'' he says. ''One can't just reject the culture because you've gone to school. It's the foundation of our existence.''

International human rights organizations and government officials are optimistic that the current stability in Mali will hold, but no one claims to fully understand the aim of the former Tuareg rebels, or to be certain that all will not again collapse into chaos.

''Twenty to 30 kilometers [12 to 19 miles] outside of Timbuktu, the Army doesn't control the land, nor does the government,'' says one Western expatriate in Timbuktu who wanted his identity protected. ''From here north, the Malian desert is the size of France, and the moment the Tuaregs go back out there they are living their own life.''

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