Drought victims beg for alms in a city landscape


The nomadic Tuaregs have exchanged the hardship of the desert for poverty under a tin roof, Mark Huband reports from Abidjan

The Guardian, 29 May 1991

IN a small courtyard hidden among the wooden shacks of the Attoban district, Mariam and her friends draw aeroplanes on a blackboard nailed to the wall of a hut in which sleeping men in blue robes lie sprawled on mats.

When the Tuaregs first arrived in Abidjan as refugees from the 1994-85 drought in Niger and Mali, the children chalked memories of the desert they had left behind – camels, oases, tents lying low under the palm trees of the Sahara. But now they draw planes and cars and helicopters.

Mariam draws a long airliner, with hundreds of seats. Then she draws a helicopter, first with wheels, rubbed out to be replaced with floats so it could land on water.

Pinned on to the wall of the hut is a copy of an airline magazine with photographs of the desert.

The men remain sleeping, wrapping their turbans around their faces as the rainy season batters the hut’s tin roof. Memories of the desert are fading, and everybody says that soon the children will be drawing only the cars and tower blocks of the city.

The Tuaregs’ nomadic life ended when drought devastated their herds of cattle and goats. They dispersed throughout west and north Africa, as far as Nigeria, Mauritania and Algeria. Nobody knows how many were uprooted. Estimates of their total population vary from thousands to one million people spread across the region, traditionally concentrated in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

The new government in Mali is considering the creation of a federal state in which the Tuaregs, who fought a long armed conflict with the previous regime, will become self-governing.

“It was in 1984 that people decided that they should think about moving to other countries and not returning to their own countries,” said Mohamed Daoud, a Tuareg from northern Niger who has been living in Abidjan for five months.

“That year the drought came and about 80 per cent of our animals died. There was nothing more to live on.

“We want to move always. We are nomads. With our animals it is necessary to move to where there are pastures. We always like to move. But the animals died in the drought, and now we are here. Most of us live from begging.”

Darting among the traffic of Abidjan’s city centre, the Tuareg children of five or six years old wait for the lights to turn red and knock softly on the smoked glass windows of the Mercedes Benz. The girls have long plaits and the dark complexion of Romany people, mixed with fine Arab features. They wear long dresses, but to beg they take off the yellow, red and blue make-up painted in lines down their cheeks. That is for when they are among their own people.

A boy stands on tiptoe at a junction outside the Bank of Credit and Commerce but he is too short to make a driver sitting high up in a Toyota Land Cruiser notice him before the traffic lights change.

Achaten Yusufu drove cattle across Niger before his animals died in the drought. “We went ot Nigeria, but we had nothing to sell so we moved to Benin. But Benin was already too poor so there was no work. We went on to Togo, but there they treated us like poor whites because we are not black. They do not like poor whites, so they pushed us out.”


“I went to Ghana and made sandals in Accra, but after a while I had no money to buy the raw materials. Everybody said Abidjan is a big city, a rich city, so I came here. But there is no work.”

They had gathered in the courtyard for a baptism. The men lay elegantly on rough mats under a sheet which had been slung up as a canopy. A small teapot was filled with leaves, charcoal in a small brazier was fanned and hot bitter tea served in glasses. A small bowl of cooked meat was passed round.

People talked, or slept, or came and went. There was no beginning or end to the celebration. It was not even clear who was being baptised.

But hidden from the street outside, where black people from Niger and Burkina Faso live separate lives from the desert nomads who have become their neighbours, the courtyard resembled the desert towns they had left behind.

Keltoum sits at the end of her dining room table and explains the history of the Tuareg alphabet and language, called Tifinagh.

She left the desert, married a European and now lives in one of Abidjan’s residential suburbs.

“There are things that we cannot ever forget, like the way of life in the desert. There is the cold season. There is the season of rain when you have the birds singing all the time and the grass grows. Then the winter comes and everything becomes dry and you are constantly asking the question of how to live.”

She leaves the room and reappears in a magnificent Tuareg dress, explaining that blue is the most commonly worn colour “because it is like the sky and we are always in contact with the sky.”

Her paintings of Tuaregs in the desert cover the walls of her house. The paintings have the hazy texture of dreams she is trying to recall but which are receding fast.

She has published a book of poems about the Tuaregs and it is the first time the Tifinagh language has been published. It is called Nostalgia.



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