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Nomadic 'Blue Men' Of Sahara Receive New Attention With Mali Fighting


Ever since the Libyan rebellion that ousted Moammar Gadhafi, and more recently with the fighting in Mali, we've heard occasional mention of the Tuareg people, nomadic people of the Sahara, who are sometimes called the Blue Men of the Sahara. Last year, a Tuareg group seized a large section of Mali and declared it an independent Tuareg country they call Azawad.

Who are the Tuareg? And how do they fit into the tapestry of peoples and movements in that troubled part of Africa?

Well, joining us to address those questions is Bruce Whitehouse, assistant professor of anthropology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And first, in a nutshell, who are the Tuareg people?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, the Tuareg people are members of a group who speak a Berber dialect known as Tomashek. They're a semi-nomadic, desert dwelling people. And they inhabit a large band of territory which stretches from Mauritania in the west through Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya.

Some of them are of Berber origin and very light-skinned. Some of them have more African blood and are much darker skin. So there's a broad range. It's one of those ethno names like Arab or Latino that encompasses a broad range of physical types.

And this is a people with a long history of resistance to centralized rule, from the Roman Empire to Arab conquest and French colonization and then, since 1960, the independent state of Mali.

SIEGEL: And by religion?

WHITEHOUSE: They are Muslim and have been for several centuries. But they practice a brand of Islam that's rather unlike the hard-line version that's now emanating out of the Arabian Peninsula and has its adherents in the Islamist movements in the Sahel region.

SIEGEL: What was their relationship to the Gadhafi regime?

WHITEHOUSE: In the 1970s, there were terrible droughts in the Tuareg home region that decimated their livestock and really made it impossible for many of them to live in that region. So, thousands of Tuareg at that point left their homeland for Libya, which had oil and which needed workers. And in 1982, Gadhafi declared Libya to be the home country and place of origin of all Tuaregs, so his rhetoric was very sympathetic.

But even in Libya, the Tuareg were still subject to discrimination and not many of them chose to adopt Libyan citizenship. Many thousands of them were recruited into Gadhafi's armed forces. And so, in their home countries they sometimes bore the label of Gadhafi's mercenaries.

SIEGEL: We're talking about a number of countries that border one another, that have been independent now for about half a century or so. I mean, have these identities become at least as meaningful to Tuareg people as being Tuareg?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, that's a great question. And I think there are many Tuareg who would like to identify with a particular nation-state. But there are certainly many Tuareg who would love to have an independent homeland that they can call their own.

SIEGEL: In trying to understand how the Tuareg fit into the current crisis in Mali or, for that matter, perhaps in Algeria - I don't know - is it simply that in the instability, all of the potential for Tuareg instability comes to the fore? Or are they driving the situation? How would you describe their role?

WHITEHOUSE: I think it's a very unstable alliance that various groups of Tuareg people have entered into with Islamist groups, with criminal networks, with smugglers in the last several years. And, initially, the separatist group, the MNLA, last year was working hand-in-hand with the Islamist armed groups to take over this territory that they came to control from the Malian government.

But very quickly, that alliance fell apart because the MNLA wanted secular independent state. And the Islamists weren't interested in that, they didn't care about independence. They just wanted the establishment of Islamic rule.

There's a dynamic at work here where different factions within the Tuareg population have competing agendas. And the micro-politics of the situation is extremely important in determining where their loyalties lie. I think over the next several months, we're going to see a real conflict playing out within this community.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Whitehouse, thanks a lot for talking with us.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse of Lehigh University, talking to us about the Tuareg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.