Nomadic 'Blue Men' of the Desert Try to Go Roam Again

After years in refugee camps, Tuareg people are now caught in a cultural identity crisis

Mali's "blue men" of the desert have a word for their ancient nomadic life - adima, or "very far from town." These wandering camel herders known as the Tuareg have various phrases for the sand and wind of the Sahel.

But the Tuareg language lacks the vocabulary to describe their current condition: "displaced" and "lost roots."

Thousands of Tuareg fled Mali in 1990 when some of their more radical brothers rose up in a rebellion backed by Libya. They fled as much as a month into the desert, traveling at night using the stars to navigate by. They settled in refugee camps in neighboring countries, waiting for peace to come. A 1992 peace accord finally achieved calm last year, and they have been straggling back since hoping to resume their old lives.

But with the loss of their animals thanks to upheaval and new sedentary habits learned in the camps, many members of this 1,000-year-old culture are going through what in the West would be described as an identity crisis - caught between economic necessity and a yearning for the old ways.

Instead of roaming with their herds deep into the desert, many Tuareg now hover around the outskirts of this ancient trading post, itself a synonym for nowhere. They live off United Nations handouts, staying close to wells and make a living selling camel rides and leather handicrafts to tourists.

Some foreign observers say this coming to terms with the 20th century will ensure the survival of one of Africa's genuine nomadic groups, known as the blue men, or kel tadalete, for their robes of indigo, sapphire, and cobalt, which stand out brilliantly in the yellow desert.

But for many Tuareg like Mohamed al Hassane ag El Moctar, who makes a living guiding tourists here, being stuck in an urban life and mixing with beer-drinking infidels is a wrench.

"They treat us like zoo animals or statues," he says as a group of Italian tourists dismount from their camels, take pictures of him, and sweep away without even a hello or thank you. "It offends me, but I need the money,"

The only time he is at peace is when he returns home by camel caravan, once every two months, to see his family150 miles away in the middle of the desert.

Finding peace in the desert

Life in the desert can be tough. There is a constant search for water, the 120 degree F. heat is searing, and sand storms lash the eyes. But there are also moments of peace in the immense wilderness, far from the noise and crowds of town life.

The desert is all around Tombouctou, formerly known as Timbuktu. Its sands sweep through the city center. The nearest encampment with camels and tents can be reached on foot 20 minutes away.

As of May, 102,429 Malian refugees had been repatriated, 40,960 of them from Mauritania. Still due to return were 15,000 from Mauritania, 24,000 from Burkina Faso, 4,000 from Algeria, and 20,000 from Niger, according to Fidda ag Mohamed Ousmane, an official at the United Nations refugee agency in Tombouctou.

A large number of the refugees were light-skinned Tuaregs and Bella, darker-skinned indentured servants of their former slave caste.

In the 15th century, the Tuaregs attacked Tombouctou and have ruled it several times since then. Long after 19th-century colonial powers drew lines in the sand dividing Mali, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, the Tuaregs continued to roam freely through the Sahara.

Since the Tuaregs began returning, there have been some incidents of banditry and prejudice from the days when Tuaregs stormed in on camels to raid the town. But by all accounts, their reentry into society has been fairly easy, with other Malians accepting their return with little hostility.

"Old differences have been resolved, and reintegration has gone remarkably well," says Harber Sabane, a former mayor of Tombouctou.

But the erosion of old ways has divided many Tuareg families.

"A split-family situation has emerged. They would like to go back to the nomadic life but agree it is important for kids to be educated in schools. Many believe after living the sedentary life in the camps that only agriculture will save them," Mr. Ousmane says."But note that they will never get rid of their livestock. It is a sense of identity," he says.

A community in limbo

One man in this uncomfortable limbo is Aly Moubaye, who presides over a desert settlement of 200 people who returned from Mauritania seven months ago.

Just 20 miles outside Tombouctou, his community is dispersed - in typical nomad fashion - over several miles. Their encampments are accessible only by four-wheel drive or camel. They live traditionally, living in tents and laying out carpets and cushions for visitors who are offered mint tea in an elaborate pouring ceremony. Both sexes wear flowing blue robes and elaborate silver jewelry, and the women decorate the soles of their feet with henna and their eyes with kohl.

But unlike their forefathers, they depend on UN donations and complain there is no school for the children. Most of the men make the five-hour trek once a week to town to exchange daggers and leather bags for salt and other goods.

Chief Moubaye says he lost 50 assorted camels, sheep, and goats after fleeing a battle in 1991. He gathered his family to make the hurried month-long trek to Mauritania. Most of his animals died along the way, and he now has only a handful, which is not enough to survive on.

"I am happy to be back. But we are worse off now without our animals," he says. He prays he will be able to build up his flock again.

"The UN gives us food," he says. "God gives us hope to bring back the old days."

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