Camels, Sand, and Celebration: The Tuareg Festival
Donovan Webster, a writer for both National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler and author of the upcoming book, Meeting the Family: One Man’s Journey Through His Human Ancestry, is just back from a trip to the Saharan desert in Niger, where he attended the annual Tuareg Festival. You can see Webster speak live at National Geographic Headquarters on April 21st, at 7:30 p.m. Full details here.
Each spring for the last three years, in the Sahara two hours north of Agadez, Niger–literally in the middle of the Sahara–the national government of Niger and the local Tuareg tribe put on the Festival Tuareg.
A three-day event, with handmade local crafts for sale (including Berber silver jewelry), singing competitions, beauty contests, and events involving all-things-camel (from races to awards for physical beauty), the festival draws Tuaregs from as far away as Mali, Algeria, and Libya. For a short time, that patch of sandy earth in the middle of the world’s largest desert is the center of Tuareg world.
Men in head-covering cheches, plus traditional blue bubu robes that trail to the ground, drop in by Land Cruiser and camel to meet, greet, and trade, as the tribe’s women socialize and reunite with friends and family around the edges. The semi-nomadic Tuaregs, known as “the blue men” for the way the ground lapis they use to color their robes rubs off onto their skin and gives them a blue tinge, are initially standoffish with strangers, though once acquainted with you they become the most genial of hosts. And they take their competitions for beauty and artistic prowess seriously: loudly and enthusiastically cheering when their chosen singers or representatives are presented before a crowd of thousands.
Then, at night, with the day’s scheduled program out of the way, the festival’s central stage is cleared, and a uniquely North African rock and roll show breaks out, lasting each night until dawn.
There is grilled mutton kebab and fresh bread to eat, traditionally sugary and minty Tuareg tea (served screaming hot) to drink, and fun to be had with each new acquaintance.
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Much like the countenance of the Sahara itself–with its long chains of sand dunes that seem to shift with each movement of sun and shade–the character of the festival also changes by the hour.
Next year’s Festival Tuareg has yet to be officially scheduled, though it usually occurs in mid-February. Charter flights can be arranged between Paris and the international airport at Agadez, or more intrepid travelers can fly to the national capital in Niamey and travel northeast over a few days of hard road.
Learn more about international celebrations through this National Geographic Festivals Quiz.
Photo: James Webster