The Tuareg: "Blue People" of the Sahara

by Rae Burnett

The cloud of purple and white came closer and closer, emerging out of the monotonous Saharan terrain of Niger Republic. For many hundreds of miles I had seen nothing but sand, rocks, and an occasional camel foraging about for something to eat in the scarce scrub brush.

This was not yet another mirage, but the very unusual sight of a majestic Tuareg warrior-groom, his new bride sitting behind on camelback (hastily taken photo below).

A mixture of white Berbers and black sub-Saharans, whom they previously held as slaves, Tuaregs have been wandering the harsh Sahara Desert since the eighth century--before the arrival of the Arabs. The 1.5 million Tuaregs speak various, but mutually comprehensible, dialects of Tamasheq and live mostly in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria and Libya.

The Tuareg are nearly all Sunni Muslims, and though their reputation is that they are lukewarm, that is not my experience. In fact, because of their natural fierceness, they are known to be fertile ground for Al Qaeda recruitment. Their practice of Islam is also permeated with witchcraft, local superstitions, and other animist beliefs. Large groups of Islamic witchdoctors, called Marabouts, travel with the Tuareg.

Once leaders and rulers of empires, today's Tuaregs have largely been marginalized and impoverished by desertification.

In past decades, Tuaregs have been heavily armed and led rebellions, demanding government services and benefits from the mineral wealth in Tuareg territories. Mali has branded the rebels as terrorist-followers of Osama Bin Laden, whose camps are throughout remote regions of Africa.

Tuareg social society operates on a hierarchical system, ranging from free men and aristocratic warriors down to slaves, with several castes in between. Though they are nomadic, they periodically settle, in temporary camps.

Reaching Tuaregs in the Marketplace

Once they reach maturity, Tuareg men begin wearing a turban and veil, traditionally indigo colored; hence, the "blue people," though now turbans are usually black.

Tuaregs are highly resistant to the gospel, though most have never even heard that Jesus died for them, and there are very few believers among them. In a desert market place like the one shown above, nomads meet to replenish supplies and buy or trade animals.

With help from Christian Aid supporters, Mohammed, a missionary in Mali with Christ Among the Tuaregs, placed himself in this strategic stopping place, intentionally targeting them with the gospel. Following a friendly relationship of three years, he was able to lead three of them to Christ.

After praying to accept the Lord, one declared, "My heart was heavy and filthy with sin, but now the blood of Jesus has made me clean." They clearly understood the gospel, and returning home to their nomadic camp, they shared their newly-found salvation with others from their tribe. Seven more Tuaregs confessed their sins and gave their lives to Christ.

They are now asking Mohammed for a place to meet for discipleship training, and for help on how to evangelize others from their tribes.