The Sahel. The Elegance of Nomads

For desert shepherds, elegance and grace are antidotes to the desolation and hostility of the environment. Their cult of beauty has an identity value that hides profound social implications, as demonstrated by the significance of the turbans and Saharan makeup.

Although they live in the desert, or arid lands, the Tuareg and the Peul, nomads devoted to pastoralism, do not give up caring for their physical appearance: self-care, however, is never an end in itself, but always oriented towards socially defined purposes.

The two peoples, scattered over a large part of the Sahara and the Sahel, live in contiguous territories and this has stimulated fierce friction or deep collaboration, depending on the circumstances.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, the tensions that see them as protagonists are lacerating, but in Niger, at the end of the rainy season, anyone wandering around the golden savannahs around Abalak would find dozens of Tuareg and Peul families moving to reach the same pastures rich in salt and good for their animals.

The closeness between the two groups in Niger is such that the Peul have taken on some of the typical elements of the Tuareg parure in their clothing, such as the turban, the traditional sword, called takuba, and the red leather cases to be worn around the neck and displayed towards the front, useful for holding tobacco or money.

The sharing of the same spaces, however extensive, has favoured the migration of aesthetic details from one group to another, as proof of the porosity of each ethnic group and of the openness to adopt features of other contiguous ones.

Generally, there is no family or village celebration, or even a simple visit to relatives or acquaintances, which is not an excuse to dress in a certain way and decorate oneself and the dromedaries with an abundance of carefully painted leather harnesses, to use the best saddle and to wrap meters of fabric around the head for the turban, the element that more than any other identifies the men of this group.

The tagelmust is a long cotton band, usually between 3 and 5 meters long, but which can also reach 10, dyed indigo and wrapped around the head and face of the Tuareg so as to form both a turban and a veil which covers the face, leaving only a slit open for the eyes.

The tagelmust is part of the clothing of every Tuareg but above all, it is an integral part of the way of behaving, it is an emanation of the code of values in which discretion and pride are intertwined. The band on the forehead of the turban is called asshak and represents all the things that make a man worthy of being called as much.

The part that covers the mouth and nose, called tenna, represents the ability to keep faith with what is said, with one’s word. In the context of a pastoral culture centred on transhumance and the daily care of animals, in a society where everyone, except blacksmiths, is also a shepherd, the attention paid to the word implies the same sense of caring for animals. Therefore, the man through the veil is the shepherd of his own word and gives as much thought, attention and reflection to his words as to the heads of his cattle.

A word that must be raised, fed and trained; the word as something to take care of like the body or clothing. Tradition has it that the eyes, ears, and nose are covered as much as possible by the veil both to protect against the wind, sun and cold and to prevent bad spirits from infiltrating the orifices.

Therefore, the use of the turban, such an eye-catching and distinctive element of the aesthetic aspect of the Tuaregs, arises from practical needs related to the environment as well as from spiritual beliefs and, as a consequence, confers mystery and majesty on men, removing what is human, of truth, which is in every face.

It is representative of the identity of a group and at the same time of each one’s personality, as each man wraps it in his own way by superimposing the band of fabric in multiple concentric turns: some make it into a large pot-bellied doughnut, some compose it vertically creating a sort of cylinder, fitting the end that closes the bands in a charming and showy way creating a sort of bow. During daily activities, the turbans worn are those of ‘work’, worn and soiled but never wrapped carelessly or badly.

The classic festival veil, called alesho, made of at least fifty narrow bands of cotton fabric sewn together and dyed with indigo, is used only in ceremonial circumstances.

The colour with which the fabric is soaked is not indelibly fixed since there is no mordant for indigo, which releases bluish shades with metallic reflections on the skin, and it is foreseen that these are left both to protect the skin and because the face, tanned in this way, is aesthetically very appreciated.

The young nomads spend hours putting on make-up and dancing, showing off their physical beauty and graceful posture as well as their ability to move to reproduce the movements of the long-legged white heron resting on oxen.

Self-care and attention to beauty are part of the process of building a relationship with the environment: in a world of thorns, prickly herbs, muddy water, only summer rains if all goes well, scorpions in the dark and merciless suns, the pulaaku, in imposing, among other things, grace, a certain posture and the care of one’s body, feeds a constant yearning for the absolute value of beauty.

Taking care of one’s body and adorning it even in carrying out daily practices has to do with the rules that regulate the daily relationship with the other, marked by reserve and elegance in manner and tone, but even more: the more the environment is hostile, the gentler one must read on it. The Sahelian undergrowth is insidious, and only postural and gestural elegance allows one to relate to it with a straight back.  (Photo: Francesca Mascotto) – (Elena Dak/Africa)

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