Of course the series of kingdoms has left its mark on the population as well as the town. Intermarriage for centuries has altered the race. Family names that are elsewhere traditionally for one ethnic group adorn descendants of another. An entire book could be written on the subject. Here we will just give an overview of the principal populations.
Who these people are today is easy enough to pinpoint but their origins are harder. History books rarely agree, each researcher offering his own opinion, and those that do agree are based on a same single source instead of complementary sources. Most often the history was researched by an outsider who had a limited grasp of the culture being studied, or an insider with a personal or political agenda for giving the information in a less than accurate manner. I will try to give some theories on the origins of the different groups based on explanations form the local people.
The population can be split into two main categories: the sedentary and the nomadic. The sedentary being those people who have traditionally lived sedentary lives tending towards villages, towns and cities, subsisting on agriculture, fishing or other stationary activities. In the north that means Songaï and Bozo. The nomads are predominately herders, in this area either a variety of peul or a variety of Tuareg.
With the exception of the Bozo, each group listed has had its slave caste. Today it is impossible for an outsider to distinguish between a slave (descendant of a slave and of the slave caste) and someone of the noble, artisan, of labourer casts. But in the Tuareg groups, because the slaves were all purchased from southern vendors there is a clearly visible distinction of colour between the former slaves and former masters. The descendants of the slaves speak the same language, have the same style of dress and same way of life as the masters in every case. So, today we speak sometimes of “black Tamacheq” or “black Berarbish” or “black Moor” They are also identified as the Bella in the case of the Tamacheq and the Haratins in the case of the Berabish and Moors. This visible distinction makes it sound like they are a race apart and are often treated as such but in fact that is a class distinction, as is machudo, the slave caste of the peuls who also came from diverse backgrounds and adopted the language culture etc. of their masters.
The Bozo live in the Niger River delta area and are fishers. They are a group very distinct from any other in Mali. Apparently they were part of the nobles of the Ghana Empire and fled upon its collapse. When they arrived at the river and were unable to go farther they chose to settle and became fishermen. They are considered masters of the water and use all the methods of fishing: nets, lines and diving. Their camps are scattered along the Niger River delta, often in areas that become islands during the rainy season. This isolation has aided them to remain separate from the other Malian groups and maintain their traditions, much less touched even by Islam.
The Songaï (Songhai, often pronounced Sor eye) live in small villages and are the majority in the Town of Timbuktu. They began in the area around Gao living in round mud huts with thatched roofs near the river. Their small kingdom grew to an empire by the 15th century and in the 16th century dominated all of “Soudan” meaning the region south of the Sahara (from the French term for southern). Traditionally the Songaï were agriculturists, cultivating a sort of wild rice and millet, and did not dare venture into the desert for fear of the fierce Tuaregs there, while the Tuaregs rarely came too near the river for fear of it.
The Songaï are very patriarchal, and in traditional families, especially among the nobles, the young men are strongly encouraged to marry their paternal uncle’s daughters, in order to maintain the purity of the bloodlines and reinforce family ties. The woman are responsible for all work in and around the house. They may also cultivate fruits or vegetables in plots near the river. Field cultivation is the province of the men and is considered a very noble occupation.
While ostensibly Muslim they have kept some of their traditional animist beliefs, particularly those dealing with genies of the water. They have marabouts who combine magic and traditional medicine with Islam, making grisgris (charms), casting cowrie shells to tell fortunes, exorcising possessed people, etc. In the areas of Gao and Tombouctou the men often wear blue clothes and indigo turbans making it hard for an outsider to know who is actually Tuareg. The women dress in the boubou and pangne typical of black west Africa.
The sogani of Timbuktu are broken into two subgroups but Arma as the noble cast and the gabibi as the lower caste. Arma is the term given to the marrocan invaders (comming form armed or army) when they reached timbuktu all the actuall noble Sognai had already fled the area abandoning their slaves and labourers. The arma who settled in the area to manage it in the decades that followed took wives amongts the remaining population, the mixed decendents of these unions became the elite of the city and remained so after the final departure of the marocains and that contry's loss of control of Timbuktu. The Gabibi (not a very polite term so better not to use it directly to anyone) were the servent class of the arma.
The nomads who have had control of Timbuktu at several periods throughout the town's history have preferred to govern from afar coming only for commerce and to collect taxes, returning to their camps in the desert. Recently, however, drought and other problems have created many “economic refugees” among the nomads who have come to the town in hopes of earning a living. The principal nomads in the area are the two branches of Tuareg and their respective slaves. There are also a few Maures, and Fulani or Toucouleur.
The Fulani also called Fula, Fulah, Fulbe, Fulata, Fulfulbe, Peul, Poul or Pulaar are often paler skinned than other African groups and have very delicate bone structure, thin lips and narrow noses and very long eye lashes. The women wear gold earrings wrapped with bright red thread. They often tatoo thier lips and gums with black ink. In some cases filling in an area around the mouth covering much of the chin. They are said to be a mix of light and dark skinned people. According to certain histories they came from the orient pushed farther and farther west and south with the growing decertification of the Sahara and it is their designs that can be seen today along the roads in the Ahaggar. One thing that supports this claim is the resemblance of their cows to those in India: mostly white with a hump and broadly curved horns.
They are traditionally herders of cows, sheep and goats. The enormous quantities of fodder and water required by cattle confines the Fulani to the areas closer to the river in the south where there is also more rain and more grass. They may be only semi-nomadic, the women and children living in round mud huts with thatched roofs and the men going off with the cattle. They may construct seasonal huts from tall grass or thatching.
The society is patriarchal. They have a tendency to marry first cousins and in marriage women keep their family name and their own property. The language is extremely complex with over twenty genders and a nuanced vocabulary that permits a herder to describe each cow, sheep or goat according to its hair, and colouring.
The Toucouleur are a related group probably resulting from the mixing of the Fulani and the Berber or Arabs. Their name comes from the Arabic name Tekrour, for the region west of Timbuktu reaching all the way to the coast, where they had an empire. This became important in the 18th century when El Hadj Oumar Tall began a rigourous military campaign to convert the entire area to Islam. He contributed greatly to the expansion of Islam among the black peoples of west Africa. Consequently the Toucouleur culture is a mix of tradition and Islam.
Like the Fulani their society is highly stratified, with different grades of nobles, artisans, labourers and slaves. They are also patriarchal, and those along the river practice agriculture and fishing as well as herding, as principle ways of life.
Otherwise called Maures, these people live predominantly in Mauritania, though some are scattered across northern Mali. They are commonly confused with the Berabish, and like them assumed to be of Arabic decent. So who are they really and where did they come from? Like the origins of many of the peoples in west Africa today their exact origins are lost in the annals of history, made more complicated by west Africa’s oral tradition, and each ethnic group’s desire to recast history to suit themselves, either making them more important in some way or strengthening some heritage claims by being the first at something...
They are considered Muslims of Berber origin, or any Muslims of Jewish, Turkish or Spanish decent living in North Africa, or Arabic speaking Muslims of north Africa. They speak an Arabo-Berber dialect called Hassaniya that is very similar to Berabish, furthering the mistaken notion that they are the same people. The European history of the time was no better at distinguishing one group from another, leading to confusion and conflicting definitions.
According to local historian Shindouk, the Maures, who give Mauritania its name today, don’t really have a claim on that land. It was the territory of the Toucouleur Empire. The Maures according to him are of Phoenician origin and, more recently, Spain. The were Islamized in the first wave of Arabs on crusade in the seventh century. They spread out over an area of southern Europe and northwest Africa, mixing with the local populations of both continents. They formed what is called the Almoravid Empire
In fact, a good part of the army that the Moors led in conquering and Islamizing southern Europe was of Berber decent. The Moors had succeeded in converting part of the Berber family who joined in their crusade. They were fierce warriors and helped significantly in expanding the empire up to southern France where they were stopped at Poitiers by Charles Martel in 732
The Moors dominated southern Europe through the 12th century down-sliding in the 13th century until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered their last stronghold at Grenada in the 16th century. A certain number of the Berber also stayed in Europe, intermarrying with Moors, Spanish, or Jews. Since Judaism is traced by maternal lines there are some Tuareg in Timbuktu today who can claim Jewish decent.
Tuaregs are the mysterious veiled blue men of the desert. Many books have been written and much research has been done about them. One thing that continually crops up in the various works on nomads is the definition of a Tuareg. Each time it is said that a Tuareg is someone who speaks Tamacheq. There are many dissections of the language to determine the root of the word and its possible relations to different Arabic roots and so forth. But in the end they tend to state that the tamacheq are tuareg and thus the tuareg are tamacheq. However, I have learned, according to a very proud Tuareg chief, that this is not always the case. In fact when speaking of the great caravans and salt trade activities intimately linked to Tuaregs, as it is they who have always done them, none of these Tuareg are Tamacheq. How and why is this? Let us turn to the history as one Tuareg chief relates it.
The Tuaregs have been in the desert for millennia. Long before Mohamed or even Jeasus Christ they came west and populated areas of what is now Morocco spreading out to accommodate population growth until they were scattered across Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, and Libya. At this time they were all one family with the same language, customs and traditions. They were Berber and spoke Berber (though this name was apparently given them by the first Arabs who encountered them perhaps in reference to the fact that they spoke something unintelligible to the Arabs).
By 640 Islam had caught hold amongst the Arabs who set out to conquer and convert all the neighbouring populations. Certain of the Tuareg were converted and in fact joined the army, being fierce warriors. They were a major force and the reason the Muslims made it all the way to Spain before being stopped at Poutier by Charles Martel in 732.
Thus these Tuaregs reinforced their ties with the Arabs. They traded across the zone they inhabited and at the eastern extremities of their area met and traded with caravans from Arabia and the far east, exchanging dromedaries, spices, slaves, precious metals and gems, carpets, cloth, sugar and tea. Their commerce put the Tuaregs in closer contact with the Arabs and their common religion formed a bond. These Tuaregs were obliged to learn Arabic at least enough to permit them to say their prayers and communicate for trade. Their language became diluted, a mix of Berber and Arabic called Berabish or Hassaniya. They also continued their caravans to the salt mines. A very lucrative trade at a time when salt was worth twice its weight in gold.
However not all Tuaregs were converted. Some resisted abandoning the open spaces and fleeing to take refuge in mountainous areas or near lakes or rivers on the margins of the desert. This population remained relatively isolated and become somewhat more sedentary due to the need to stay in hiding or close to water sources for their animals. Sheep and goats and some agriculture became their source of wealth rather than trading. However they continued to speak their language and maintained their traditional values.
Thus was the Tuareg family divided into two: the Tamacheq and the Berabish. The former have maintained their original language, the latter their original way of life. But both still have the same morals, values and traditions. All are Tuareg all are fiercely proud, and honourable. None accept shame. None would beg. None would refuse hospitality to whomsoever arrived in their camp. All would help any one of their fellows out of difficulty. None would hesitate to expel any member of the tribe should he or she bring shame to their family--the worst possible punishment for the worst possible crime.
The Tamacheq (Tamasheck) of today have almost completely converted to Islam, though the divide is too deep to reconcile these cousins as brothers again. The Tamacheq Tuareg, are pale skinned called “red people” and look similar to what we consider Arab features. They tend to be long limbed and thin. Traditionally they live in the areas near the river or the lakes and mountains. They herd goats and sheep and some do a small amount of agriculture. Formerly it was wild wheat or millet around the lakes or in places well wetted by rains. Now drought and less rain has virtually eradicated this sort of non-irrigated cultivation and led some to take up rice farming along the irrigated perimeters of the Niger. They live in tents or more often huts of mats woven from the shredded leaves of a local palm tree.
To this day the Tamacheq Tuaregs are found in the mountainous areas and near lakes of rivers. They are in Kidal and Goundam areas, around lake Fagabine and along the edges of the Niger river. After the Tamacheq refused Islam when if first came in the 7th century they were often known as bandits as they tended to hijack trade caravans led by the Berabish and Moors. They spread out into the different mountainous zones in the Sahara from the Hoggar in Algeria to the Adrar des Ifogas and the Aïr. As caravan trade diminished they also installed themselves along the river, conquering and assimilating the local populations.
The tribes are led by a noble chief from which is elected an over chief to direct several tribes grouped together into a fraction. The tribes are subdivided into nobles, vassals and slaves or serfs. The noble class is composed of warriors and religious leaders. The vassals serve the nobles and oversee the slaves which are of other southern races long forgotten. The Tamacheq speak a dialect of Berber which they call Tamacheq and have a written alphabet called tifinagh.
While tribal leadership is in the hands of men the tribes themselves have matrilineal tendencies. It is thought to be due to the fact that the men are often away and killed in combat while the women maintain the camp.
In the wide open spaces of the desert are scattered the Berabish. The Berabish Tuareg are very similar in appearance to their Tamacheq cousins but live in the open spaces of the northern desert. They raise primarily camels for milk. On the southern margins they also raise some goats and sheep. Only 50.000 in the entire world, they are often confused the Arabs or Maures. They make their living by commerce of salt and still practice tans-Saharan trade but often with 4x4 instead of camels. Those who live on the margins of the desert may live in mat huts, but farther out they live in tents of animal hide or strips of woven cotton sewn together.
Their culture has deviated from the original Berber culture becoming patrilinaial.
One has a tendency to think Tamacheq = Tuareg, Tuareg = tans-Saharan commerce and salt trade, therefore the Tamacheq must do these activities. The Tamacheq in tourism encourage this notion, profiting from the mystique of the salt trade of people who rarely come into town and have nothing to do with tourists. In fact there is only one Berabish in tourism in Timbuktu. The rest are Tamacheq who have have plenty of tradition history and myth or their own.
It should be noted that a few other separations have happened among the Berbers: a tiny minority of the original Berber had converted to Christianity and can still be in Morocco today as can some peoples still called Berber.