Author and National Geographic Traveler writer Donovan Webster reports from a recent visit to Niger, where he attended the annual Tuareg Festival. Read his first post here.
With a sartorial tradition that stretches back far before people began recording such things, the Tuaregs of North Africa (an arm of the berbers) still dress both for practicality and visual impact.
Using head wraps called cheches whose fabric can stretch to 18 feet in length (that protects from the sun and helps conserve body water by limiting sweat), plus flowing gowns called bubus that allow air flow while deflecting heat and blowing sand, dressing like a traditional Tuareg can at first seem a confining enterprise.
For the Tuaregs, however, the limitations of their traditional clothing provides them with a set of opportunities. Old or young, male or female, each Tuareg seems to cultivate a personal style expressed through a few simple items of fabric.
Spend a little time in Agadez, Niger or Djanet, Algeria or Timbuktu, Mali and you’ll begin to recognize certain individuals at hundreds of yards away simply by their otherwise generic clothing on display. Then toss in a little custom jewelry (the Tuaregs, as Berbers, wear only silver) and a pair of distinctive sunglasses, and clothes become a work of humility or personal advertising comparable to any “power suit” worn in New York or London.
Consider the involved, two-color (meaning two different cheche) head wrap displayed by my good friend Adoua Mohamed (pictured, above left) during the Tuareg Festival in Niger last month. Adoua, born in the sands of southern Libya, now lives in Agadez, but is just as often seen in Paris or Bamako.
Or, in a more subtle but equally intentional statement, note the impressions left on the desert sand (right) by my friend Hosseini, plus the soles of the sandals that created them.
Still, traditional Tuareg clothing isn’t purely a response to environment and fashion sense. When two Tuaregs meet in the desert for the first time, each uses the externally fearsome and anonymous impression of the clothing by covering his entire face with the free end of his cheche so only his sunglasses show.
Then comes a handshake (three tentative “fake out” touches followed by a firm grip). Only after a few minutes of traditional greetings concerning numbers of livestock owned and other metrics that establish which of the new acquaintances is the more eminent, the more powerful man will remove the tucked-in portion of his head wrap from his face, showing his mouth and chin. With this act of exposing the lower portions of a face, things are then allowed to settle into less traditionally defined conversation.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Both exceptionally formal and genuinely genial (and despite the arrival of electricity, cars, and radio and satellite TV to the region), Tuareg traditions continue to run deep.
Learn more about international fashions through this National Geographic photo gallery.
Photos: James Webster