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Youth as actors and mediators in Tuareg theater and social life (Urban Niger and Mali)

Les jeunes Touaregs comme acteurs et intercesseurs sur la scène et dans la ville (Niger et Mali)
Susan Rasmussen


L’étude des conceptions locales de la jeunesse couplée à celle des changements dans les relations générationnelles offre une entrée prometteuse pour l’anthropologie de la jeunesse ; et il paraît plus intéressant de concevoir l’âge, non pas seulement comme une catégorie fixe et consensuelle mais comme une catégorie dynamique, relationnelle et soumise au débat. Dans le nord du Niger et du Mali, la sécheresse, l'installation de certains nomades dans les villes, le retour de travailleurs migrants, les emplois marginaux et les conflits armés récurrents ont incité différentes générations de Touareg (également appelés Kel Tamajaq, ou « peuple qui parle tamajaq ») — traditionnellement semi-nomades, à statuts hiérarchisés et majoritairement musulmans — à réfléchir aux dangers et aux opportunités qui ont émergé de ces contextes troublés. Cela s’est traduit par une attention plus grande portée à ce que beaucoup appelle l'expérience des jeunes. Cet essai analyse les interprétations et les reformulations des significations de la jeunesse et des relations générationnelles dans le théâtre populaire d'Agadez (Niger) et de Kidal (Mali). On y explore ce que signifie « être jeune(s) » pour les Touareg, dans ces pièces jugées « modernes » par les publics locaux, et jouées par des acteurs considérés eux-mêmes comme jeunes. La culture populaire apparaît ici comme un lieu privilégié de la définition de la jeunesse ainsi que des autres âges. Il illustre plus particulièrement le caractère construit de ces catégories, et se présente comme une contribution à l’anthropologie des jeunes.

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Data for this essay are based on field research projects conducted by this social/cultural anthropologist in rural and urban Tuareg communities of Niger and Mali between approximately 1983 and 2017 on topics of religion, gender, aging and the life course, verbal art performance and specialists, medico-ritual healing and specialists, smith/artisans, and youth cultures. In these projects, I am grateful for support from Fulbright-Hays, CIES, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Social Science Research Council, National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Indiana University, and University of Houston.

1In a play presented in a town in northern Niger, issues relating to urban youth were at the forefront. Actors locally considered youthful portrayed characters locally defined as youths who disobey elders’ advice and depart on dangerous journeys, some even tempted to commit armed banditry, and consequently bringing shame and hardship on parents and other relatives. In addressing the audience following the play’s conclusion, the animateur (host) commented, “Of course, we need (and would prefer to) work here to nourish our families, but if there were peace and jobs here (in the first place), there would be no need to go to Libya or become thieves!”

2Persons who in Tuareg society are widely defined as jeunes (youths, i.e., those who are past childhood but, because they remain single and are marginally employed, are not yet considered social or jural adults) are prominent actors in newly-formed Tuareg theatrical ensembles in Saharan towns. These ensembles often perform plays considered “new” and “modern.” Many popular play plots portray issues pertaining to youth, age, and relationships between the generations. In many of these plays, in keeping with longstanding age-related customs of distinctive verbal arts according to different generations (cohorts), young actors play characters of diverse, including elderly, ages, but the reverse does not occur: older performers, whose roles in the new plays are declining, do not play young characters. Hence these plots and their performers offer rich insights into the connections between youth cultures, acting, and popular cultures.

3Valuable anthropological studies consider local concepts of what it means to be a member of this age cohort contextually, situating youth in intergenerational social relationships as these respond to wider changes, for example, globalization (Cole and Durham, 2007; Durham, 2000; Haugerud et al., 2000; Schneiderman, 2016). Influential here has been Karl Mannheim’s ([1952] 1972) pioneering observation that each age cohort faces both problems and opportunities of “fresh contact,” a certain distance in the way each generation approaches and assimilates shared cultural material (Cole, 2007: 78). Other influences have been studies of the meanings of youth cultures in terms of aesthetics of performance style, for example, in music and popular culture (Amico, 2016; Coplan, 2008; Weiss, 2009). As observed concerning old age in a life course perspective (Rasmussen, 1997, 2012), fundamental to understanding youthful age cohorts and intergenerational relations across cultural settings is a recognition of age cohorts as constructed, fluid, and emergent in social practice rather than categorical or fixed classifications. Also useful is an analytical frame which detaches age from literal and linear attributes, as is the case among the Tuareg, whose cultural constructions of age tend to be based on ritual and social transitions.

4Inspired by these approaches, I ask, who, exactly, are “youths” in local cultural perspective? What do play performances in towns of northern Niger and Mali with plots focusing on relations between the generations tell us about what it means to be “youth” in changing Tuareg society? The Tuareg data show how actors in new, emergent plays locally considered “modern” in effect act as social mediators in contexts both within and beyond the theatrical play performances, thereby facilitating negotiations of relations between the generations in Tuareg society and between Tuareg society and urban and state infrastructures.

5The opening vignette in this essay, a brief excerpt from a play organized by town officials and performed in a very public venue in Agadez, Niger, exemplified official responses to challenges faced by many youths there and tensions between the generations in many families. Prominent in this performance “frame” (Bourgault, 2003; Coplan, 2008; Goffman, 1974; Handelman, 1990; Schechner, 1988) was intergenerational conflict, suggesting that the urban Tuareg experience of youth—still powerfully imbued with local cultural meanings, though also sharing some multi-ethnic experiences in this diverse urban setting—is fraught with contradictions, thereby expanding Karl Mannheim’s ([1952] 1972) idea of “fresh contact” experienced by each age cohort to include ambiguity and indeterminacy, not completely predictable or unitary experience. In other words, what is suggested here is a salient local concept of who youths are, but also some indeterminacy in their experiences that local play organizers, performers, and audiences feel are important to address.

The Tuareg (Kel Tamajaq): Ethnographic background and the cultural construction of age categories

6The Tuareg, sometimes known as Kel Tamajaq after their Berber language, are a predominantly Muslim, traditionally stratified society, until recently rural and nomadic, but now increasingly settled in oases and towns such as Agadez, Niger, and Kidal, Mali, multiethnic towns with a prominent Tuareg presence, and where many Tamajaq-speakers seek cultural revitalization and autonomy.

  • 1 Their regional diversity notwithstanding, Tuareg display some common cultural themes. Several diale (...)

7In Tamajaq, there are numerous terms conveying nuanced local concepts of youth and youth culture, based on dialect, region, and social and political situation within the nation-state. In the dialect of Tamajaq (Tayrt) spoken in and around the Air Massif and Agadez, Niger, urban intellectuals translate tamadraq as “the experience of youth.” One local intellectual and poet explained that ekabkab in the past denoted a young man/adolescent before he took up the faceveil, and tekabkab still denotes a young woman/adolescent. But for men, the faceveil is no longer a marker of youth/adult transition because it traditionally signifies that a man is ready to marry, and most youths now are not yet ready to marry until later than previously, since they are marginally employed, and have lost sources of traditional wealth and property in droughts, thefts, and wars. In the dialect of Tamajaq (Tadart) spoken in and around the Adragh-n-Ifoghas Massif and Kidal in Mali, urban performers translate tichumera as “the experience of youth,” a term many in northern Niger consider to be a more political label. These terms reflect both differences and commonalities in Tuareg groups’ respective relationships with the central state governments of Mali and Niger.1

8A man from the Air region in Niger put it this way: “The difference between tichumera and tamadraq is that the former term is related to ichumeren, denoting male Tuareg rebels, a specific, narrower, and more political category, whereas tamadraq denotes youths in general, an age cohort.” Tichumera is related etymologically to the term ichumer (pl. ichumeren), a key category reported among Tamajaq-speakers spanning different regions and dialects (Belalimat, 1996; Claudot-Hawad, 2002; Kohl, 2009; Kohl and Fischer, 2010), referring to the first rebel fighters and their guitar music (Amico, 2016; Belalimet, 1996; Rasmussen, 2013). According to various interpretations I collected, ichumar derives from the Tamajaq term chemmer denoting resistance or from the French term le chômeur, denoting an unemployed person.

9Belalimat (1996) distinguishes several phases of ichumar formation. During the 1970s, the term ichumar connoted youths in search of work, a first generation to be dislocated from other Tamajaq-speaking communities following major droughts and conflicts with the then-newly independent central state governments, but who also faced similar predicaments in their places of migration and practiced similar strategies for survival (ibid.: 156). Later, ichumar became applied more broadly to all young Tuaregs in exile, often still unemployed, but it took on a more political connotation (ibid.: 157). In the third phase, in the 1990s, the term came to denote a combatant in the Tuareg rebellion.

10In some social and historical contexts, moreover, there is overlap between Tuareg concepts of a youthful age cohort, “warrior” (amagar or, recently, “rebel fighter”), unemployed person, and unmarried person. This is a key concept illuminating the connections between youth and performance, for, importantly, the youthful actors define themselves as “courageous,” and some claim descent from tributaries and warriors who protected nobles in the stratified social system in the past.

11Across Tuareg communities, there is much preoccupation with the changing experience of youth. These age-related concepts and the labels conveying them are not fixed or immutable, but indexical of dynamic experiences in history, culture, and politics. Social, economic, and political changes have posed challenges to achieving social adult status.

12Ideally, in longstanding Tuareg cultural mores, regardless of chronological age, even if already physically mature, one remains a “youth” as long as one is not yet independent economically and hence not yet marriageable or married (Rasmussen, 1997, 2000a, 2000b). In the ranked, nomadic society, for aristocratic men (imajeghen), achieving social and jural adult status meant owning livestock, managing the caravan trade, raising and completing bridewealth payment, and pleasing parents-in-law. For tributaries (imghad) who raided and traded for nobles, this meant receiving a portion of war booty. For others, for example, smiths/artisans (inaden), fully adult status meant successfully completing apprenticeships in more specialized artisan work and, for Islamic scholars (ineslemen), completing Qur’anic study. Persons of varying degrees of client and servile statuses (ighawalen and iklan) tended to be regarded as “childlike” lifelong, though, interestingly, this could confer certain advantages in some situations, such as “social security-like” care and protection by those former owners who followed these ideal obligations (Rasmussen, 1997). Following the manumission of slaves in the early 20th century, in some regions men of diverse social backgrounds took up gardening in oases and, increasingly, many have departed on itinerant trading, trucking, and labor migration to accumulate cash for the recently-monetarized bridewealth required to marry.

  • 2 Since Tuareg conversion to Islam between the eighth and eleventh centuries, when local pre-Islamic (...)

13According to many Tuareg women Rasmussen interviewed (2000c), becoming a married woman, rather than the physiological onset of menstruation, is the primary mark of female social adulthood, just as, similarly, the marriage of children, rather than the physiological onset of menopause, is the mark of becoming an old woman ritually and socially, as mother-in-law. As with men, access to property is also very important for adult women, and ideally this comes with marriage. In many more nomadic groups, women’s inheriting, owning, and managing livestock was important, with both Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic inheritance arrangements.2 Women’s social and jural adult status was symbolized by the married woman’s ownership of the tent, constructed by her elderly female relatives and brought to her marriage as dowry. Full independence, however, was achieved only upon detachment of the married daughter’s animals from her mother’s herds and establishment of an independent household kitchen space, actions which required her mother’s acceptance of the new bridegroom, in turn contingent upon his generous gifts to the bride and his parents-in-law, and, as noted, his completing bridewealth payments.

14Many youths, in particular males, now face ambiguity and insecurity in their path to cultural adult status, since, for many, marriage is postponed indefinitely because of widespread property dispossession, dispersion of kin who help raise bridewealth, and unemployment. Droughts and wars in the Sahara have diminished livestock, and colonial and post-colonial governments have pressured nomads to sedentarize. Some men have responded to this by becoming fighters in sporadic Tuareg rebellions against the central states of Mali and Niger. Others migrate out or, as adults say, “just circulate around” their communities in a kind of limbo, allegedly making mischief. Some women are being married off by parents at younger ages than previously to older, more prosperous men, sometimes of outside ethnic backgrounds, in order to prevent girls, who no longer herd livestock in towns, from becoming perceived as “too loose,” and also to order to inject higher bridewealth into their impoverished families. Adult social and jural status is therefore illusive for many, and there is widespread concern that these “youths” may lose their self-esteem and also cause trouble.

15In response to these concerns, some civic, state, and NGO agencies have initiated programs with the explicit goal, in the words of one agency director, of “keeping youths busy… otherwise, they cause trouble.” Officials in these agencies organize training in new jobs, adult literacy classes, cultural festivals, and theatrical (music and play) performances—the latter are often performed by, for, and about youths, and many (though not all) play plots present intergenerational themes. Plays may be composed by youths or adults of either sex, and occasionally by experienced older actors, other verbal art specialists or media specialists, or founders of acting ensembles, but most plays tend to be informally improvised orally and their plot details negotiated dialogically during rehearsals between the composer and the actors (Rasmussen, 2019). Plots, characters, dialogues, and actors vividly convey reflections and debates over what it means to be a Tuareg “youth” in these changing and heterogeneous communities. Although these plays convey official messages, they also present actors’ and audiences’ critical responses to them, thereby revealing contested constructions of youth and age.

Performing youth: The “play” of voices from above and voices from below (selected plays)

16Consider, for example, the following brief plot promoting peace and work in a play entitled “Peace,” performed live at a youth center in Agadez, Niger. In its plot, a husband threatens to leave his wife and children and become a bandit because his children are going hungry, even though his wife threatens divorce.

17On the surface, this is a morality tale. The father, rather than his children, is described by audience and actors as a “brat” (the French term used here by actors, un voyou)—a derogatory term seldom applied to grown men in social life. Even his marriage and parenthood—as noted, usually markers of adulthood—do not protect his status because of his actions. The plot depicts anti-social behavior on the part of a biologically-grown young man, even a husband and father—a status normally supposed to be the culmination of economic and social success—who, although married and a parent, is threatened by his now-precarious economic situation, thus raising the possibility of a reversal of status: his demotion to a child-like status similar to that of his literally (physically) still-small children.

18Yet there is also some sympathy expressed for him, for it is his economic danger and his children’s hunger that pressure him to break the law. At this play’s conclusion, a performer remarks to the audience: “You see the problem that one faces (here). OK, now, you must tell me that if there were peace, who would die of hunger?” This “sub-text” expresses a critique: if authorities maintained peace and protected the population’s welfare and safety, banditry would be less tempting to young men in the first place.

19In effect, the performer “talks back” to the bureaucracies’ moralistic message conveyed in the official plot narrative. This play, organized by a youth association and performed at the Maison de la Culture et de la Jeunesse (Culture and Youth House), had an audience of diverse ages; perhaps the performer’s concluding remarks sought a balance between official moralizing voices and political commentary from voices “below,” critiquing authorities.

20Another, briefer play performed in Agadez, entitled “The Migrants” (French Les Exodants, Tamajaq Inegumayen, the latter literally “the armed ones,” referring to Tuareg migrants returning from Libya who allegedly brought weapons back into their home regions) features a returned migrant looking for work and addresses issues surrounding re-integration of migrants back into their home community. Characters are several migrants and a journalist interviewing them. Although the journalist is sympathetic in his role of disseminating news of the returning migrants’ problems and needs, the migrants present their own point of view as well, as shown in the following dialogue selections:

A migrant (one of several portrayed, addressing audience): Today, here we are in our country, but we have encountered some problems en route. You see, one eats manioc flour! The journalists have asked us when we were in Libya (allusion to the 2011 fall of Ghadaffi and the suspicion in the media that some Tuareg labor migrants were also his mercenaries). What I want to tell you is that you must listen to us, and I address also those who are watching us.
Journalist: Now that you have arrived (back) in your country (Niger), what will you call on the young people to do?
Migrants: I call on all who are in their country, one has only to work and be patient, that is better…
(The journalist asks the same question to a second migrant.)
Second Migrant (responding): Even if one earns nothing, it is better at home (in one’s own country)… This is what I am going to tell you. Me, I spent thirty years in Libya, but I left without my baggage (i.e., fled the 2011 violence quickly). Now what I want, if it pleases God, is to find work to nourish (support) my family.
Journalist: You work?
Migrant: Of course, one wants our government to assist us. But if one does not find work to support our families, we are obliged to return to Libya. When I departed for Libya, I took the symbol of my country with me so I would not forget my country. [Shows flag.] What I want to tell you, may God raise our Niger flag high.

There are ambivalent feelings here. This play was presented during a festival in a large stadium near a technical school celebrating the conclusion of a USAID-sponsored job-training program and honoring its trainees, all Tuareg labor migrants returned from Libya who had completed the program and received certificates in various skills, such as tailoring and welding. The audience included many high-ranking officials of the town bureaucracy, soldiers, a few civil servants from the capital, Niamey, some diplomatic (US Foreign Service) staff, local musicians, griots, Islamic scholars who blessed the festival at its beginning and conclusion, and families of the honored participants.

21Again, there is an official message here and also an unofficial critical rebuttal “sub-text” here reproaching the official message. Although the migrants and journalist directly address the audience and encourage respect for their home country, they also indirectly chastise authorities and bureaucrats who stereotype all migrants (many, but not all “youthful” in the local viewpoint, since they are only marginally employed) as bandits and/or mercenaries, ignoring their problems.

22Additional voices also emerged in audience reactions. Following the foregoing festival, some audience members indicated that they enjoyed the plays presented but, in hushed conversations among themselves, asserted that the mayor’s office needed to make sure job-training and resources go to the “real” former rebels, migrants, and refugees returned from Libya, not to “imposters.” Later in the afternoon following this festival, one actor asserted, “In these (youth-themed) modern urban plays, the plots and actors not only convey the organizer-bureaucracies’ message to youths, but also the reverse: youths’ messages to the bureaucracies.”

23Another play performed in Agadez, entitled “The Young Man, his Wife, the Village Chief, his Father, and Malika, a Neighbor,” like the play presented earlier, also addressed the discrepancy and contradiction between physiological maturity and social/jural immaturity. Its plot concerned an immature though physically-grown son. Characters include this “bratty son,” who acquires a weapon and becomes a bandit, a chief, his wife, his father, and his children. The father and the chief try to deter the son from becoming a bandit by appealing to his Islamic religion, which, they remind him, “forbids theft.” They also try to convince him to attend a meeting about peace, insisting, “Peace equals moral strength, a good life!” However, the children are hungry, so the son leaves, hoping to make 60,000 CFA that a friend has promised him if he joins bandits in order to feed his family better. Later, the neighbor telephones the bandit’s wife and tells her that soldiers have killed him. The play ends with the women crying, conveying that the action of one young man shamed his entire family.

24In this play, the subtext of critical social commentary does not surface as obviously as in the preceding play but, striking here, again, is the role of the children, who complain they are hungry. Hunger continues, even if one attends meetings for peace and resists descent into banditry. There is some veiled sympathy for the errant son despite his transgression, reflecting widespread sympathy for anyone hungry in Niger.

25Yet portrayals of youth and intergenerational relationships are not unitary. There is variation in portrayals of elders according to performance organizer, audience, and venue of a play. In some cases, this variation is regional, reflecting the recent war ravaging Tuareg and other communities in northern Mali in the wake of some dissidents’ declaration of an independent state called Azawad there and the influx of armed Islamist reformist militants into the region. In other cases, portrayals in plots are more related to the physical location in town where the play is presented, and its time and its audience. Ages and kin relationships of organizers are also significant in shaping portrayals of the generational dynamics.

26Consider, for example, a play performed in Kidal, Mali, with a theme promoting literacy. Its plot features a father who cannot decipher an important document concerning money. His children explain to their parents that “one needs to learn to read in order to decipher important papers.”

27This play was commissioned by school officials and performed around the end of the rainy season before school opened in order to encourage Tuareg parents to enroll their children in school. The plot and dialogues portray older parents as dependent on youths who already know how to read, i.e., have been to secular “modern” school. Their educated children characters tend to speak authoritatively to “ignorant” parents, an action until recently taboo for Tuareg youths to do. Now, increasingly, some youths have become literate in the Roman alphabet and European languages and educated in specialized technical Western fields—for example, becoming nurses and agricultural extension agents—whereas esoteric local cultural knowledge was previously monopolized by elders, many of whom, though non-literate in French, are literate in Tifinagh, the Tamajaq alphabet, and/or in Arabic. Also, traditional healing and its specialists—often elderly—tend to collide with biomedical health education and its specialists—often younger persons (Rasmussen, 2006).

28Also, many travelling youths have missed traditional socialization and rites of passage. However, cosmopolitanism and formal education are not always antidotes to marginality or poverty, for many Western-educated youths remain under-employed. Thus, this plot reveals additional contradictions and indeterminacies in youths’ social experiences. In some respects, this play very closely resembled Handelman’s concept of a state spectacle (1990). It was organized “from the top down” by middle-school officials; in effect, its sub-text asked the actors to do what normally Tuareg youths should not do: instruct their elders, even contradict them, in order to promote the “official” bureaucratic agenda of literacy.

29In this plot, there was contempt expressed for the older generation of Tuareg, many of whom initially resisted secular schools established for nomads as a perceived danger to their culture and a way of keeping track of nomads for taxation purposes (Rasmussen, 1997, 2019). Later, attitudes changed, and many families began to send their children to secular schools. Most recently, however, there is some disillusionment with Western secular education since it does not always guarantee jobs in the new infrastructure. Moreover, some educated youths who have abandoned traditional apprenticeships lack the cultural knowledge necessary in longstanding Tuareg occupations such as artisanry and herbal medicine. Such youths are “betwixt and between,” liminal. But their liminality is not necessarily that of transitioning steadily towards a new social status, but rather that of being socially anomalous, of not fitting neatly into socioeconomic or cultural categories in their own society or the state.

30Yet, as noted, not all portrayals of intergenerational relations are unitary, and not all plays involve youthful transgressions. A very different view emerges in another play, entitled “Advice from a Dying Elder,” also performed in northern Mali but, in contrast to the foregoing play sponsored at a school, this play was performed very late one evening and in a more secluded location: inside a room in a Tamajaq radio station in Kidal and before a very small audience of mostly friends, kinspersons, and this researcher. This play’s plot was based on a longstanding Tamajaq folktale told by elders. Not surprisingly, there was much greater respect shown toward an elder, a father who lies dying and gives advice to his sons. Here, an old dying father illustrates his advice—for his children to remain united—with a visual symbolic/technique. He demonstrates his idea—of family unity—iconically by taking a cluster of small sticks and showing his sons how difficult it is to break them if they are tied together, whereas, by contrast, if individual sticks are untied, each breaks easily. The moral here is for children in a family to stick together, expressing widespread concerns over their dispersion in refugee flight from droughts and wars.

31Thus, there are multiple voices mediating the experience of youth and age. Some more private performance contexts (for example, in family compound/courtyards or inside rooms, and with smaller audiences consisting of kin, neighbors, and friends) encourage plots with youths respecting elders, thereby conveying an alternative viewpoint. Tellingly, this play about the dying elder, based on a traditional tale and accompanied by gestures (a feature of longstanding tale-telling by elders), was not organized by NGO aid organizations or state/civil servants and bureaucracies, but rather by Tuareg elders themselves, parents of some of the actors in that ensemble performing that play. Their purpose, actors indicated, was “in order to instruct youths”—in effect, the diametric opposite of the official message in the preceding play about literacy in which the purpose was to instruct elders and parents. More subtly, additional purposes here were to emphasize Tuareg unity, to offer youthful actors a way of expressing respect for parents and, by extension, to promote cultural revival and autonomy.

32Thus, this more private performance emerged from a voice from “below” from, not youths, but elders, and appealed to longstanding cultural ideals of learning from parents and respecting elders in general. The organizers of this play passed down to its youthful composer, also a founder of an urban acting ensemble and a poet, a tale from older oral traditions which is the basis of its plot, thereby empowering elders (his relatives) with an alternate representation by youths: as authoritative and respected, pre-ancestral figures, even while physically frail and dying.

33There are also hints here of efforts to preserve broader Tuareg cultural knowledge not only in the dying elder’s advice but also in his method of transmitting this cultural knowledge through speech by allusion and metaphor (tangalt) and with iconicity: specifically, gestures (sikbar) in manipulating the bunch of sticks. Significantly, all actors in this play were culturally defined as “youthful,” including the actor who portrayed the dying elder. By contrast, elders do not portray youthful characters, and older actors tend to shun acting in the “modern” plays; rather, their roles are more closely aligned with longstanding Tuareg verbal art traditions of telling tales, miming with gestures, and reciting poetry.

Youths, elders, and acting in performing arts and in life

34Here the question arises of what exactly is youths’ special connection to theatrical acting in play performances and critical social commentaries, given some lingering (at least ideally) respect for elders? Also, how do actors act beyond the plays in mediating social conflicts and other problems?

  • 3 The French colonial administration tended to neglect the northern regions of what are today Niger a (...)

35As shown, the “top-down” official agenda of many performances organized in towns and settled centers concerns making Tuareg, as former nomads marginalized in the independent nation-states with distant capital cities and artificially-imposed borders, citizens of the state (Kohl, 2009; Kohl and Fischer, 2010).3 Nonetheless, also as shown, critical agency “from below” (i.e., from actors and some audience members) also occurs. This practice—of active agency, both critical and protective—also continues in actors’ commentaries and actions beyond the immediate play performances.

36Many Tuareg urban plays/sketches, locally considered “modern” (pl. iyeneyen, sg. yeney, denoting “new,” and also sometimes referred to by the French term des sketches) and youthful acting ensembles have emerged recently and predominate in the towns, as a phenomenon of increasingly settled life and closer encounters with the nation-state, civic organizations, aid agencies, and global NGOs. Whereas plays locally considered “traditional” were based more on local poetry, songs, and folktales and, until recently, performed by older specialists who also composed them and/or passed them down from their elders, the newer plays now tend to be performed by actors locally-defined as “youthful.” These play performances initially emerged from policies encouraging sedentarization and repatriation of nomads, migrants, and refugees fleeing from drought and political violence.

37For example, many contemporary urban plays/sketches have a goal described in Tamajaq as asemeter (French la sensibilisation, English “consciousness-raising”). In particular, plots with age-related themes offer suggestions for coping with broader historic and current predicaments which impact intergenerational relationships: loss of herds, unemployment, urbanization, and debates over “proper” and “improper” behavior of youths. Some, though not all, feature transgressive conduct.

38In the foregoing performances, the connections among youth and age are complex and defy neat oppositions and alignments. In some respects, somewhat predictably, this experience is oppositional, standing in tension with older cultural mores and in conflict with older persons. But this conflict should not be reduced to a binary opposition between youths and elders, nor should the meanings of age-themed plots be reduced to youthful rebellion against parents. For many actors and audiences indicated to me that some plays with intergenerational themes can actually help promote psycho-social healing between the generations and also protect Tuareg culture and the Tamajaq language, thereby hopefully promoting solidarity and harmony.

39Several processes therefore occur in acting. Youthful actors mediate between the generations in Tuareg society as well as between official bureaucracies and Tuareg society, but official bureaucracies also mediate between Tuareg youths and elders.

40These processes are illustrated not solely in play plots but also in social “performances” beyond them. In contrast to some surface meanings of the textual play plots, creative processes surrounding them and actors’ and audiences’ perspectives in informal social interactions generally reveal greater respect for elders and parents and close collaboration and cooperation, if not always agreement, between the generations. Over continued visits, for example, I noticed that play composition and rehearsal practices were more collaborative in private home settings. Regardless of some age-based status and opinion differences, the different age groups have near-equal say in plots and performances and there is usually respect shown for older persons’ creative authority.

41Attitudes regarding creativity “behind the scenes” revealed much intergenerational collaboration, give-and-take, and mutual respect, as did accounts of how some actors still learn their skills from older relatives. Many actors, for example, related how much they were inspired by older famous verbal art performers of tales, poems, and songs. Many preferred to wait until puberty to act “because ancestors and elders know the real techniques,” thereby continuing the pattern in longstanding Tuareg apprenticeships, such as artisanry and herbal healing, in which youths should refrain from independent practice until authorized by their teachers to do so. Some actors and audiences considered the older, traditional verbal arts as “prettier” than the new plays but recognized that “today, the (new) plays are important for development.”

42Performing arts specialists explain that ibaraden (sg. abarad) originally denoted warriors against the French colonial powers. In the Tadart dialect in the Adragh-n-Ifoghas and Kidal in Mali, this term has become transposed onto current events and now refers to courageous, heroic persons and, more specifically, to actors in the modern theatrical plays. Abarad is a metaphorically apt term. As simultaneously metonymy and synecdoche, this designation attaches dignity—an all-important Tuareg aristocratic cultural value—to all contemporary actors who, unlike some other verbal art performers in Tuareg society, do not all occupy a single inherited, endogamous social stratum. An intellectual and poet who worked for an aid organization in Kidal felt that “there is no exact translation between abarad and ‘actor’, since (the new urban) plays are not traditional.” This man defined an abarad as “a warrior, an old knight or chevalier, a man esteemed by women, courageous.” Tabarad, its feminine form, in the Tadart dialect originally denoted a woman who confirms the rules of conduct; for example, “she is hospitable, defends her own rights and those of others.”

Figure 1. Actors in Kidal

Figure 1. Actors in Kidal

© Susan Rasmussen, Mali

Figure 2. Audience in Kidal

Figure 2. Audience in Kidal

© Susan Rasmussen, Mali

43Some actors in fact are, or have been, literally fighters, involved in recent armed conflicts. In effect, there is a collapsing of past and present in memory here, a kind of “dreamtime” projected onto verbal art performance in which performers are inspired by, if not always literally descended from, earlier heroism. The father of an actor in northern Mali, for example, who was also an actor, had participated in battles during the 1990s Tuareg rebellion. In his son’s opinion, “an abarad is someone who frightens, has strength or force. Why do (we) actors take that name? In order to imitate our (courageous) ancestors.” Another actor explained, “(We) actors seek to be like the brave ones of the past, in spirit, in battles in the past.” Thus, in the context of acting, on one level—of local exegesis in the etymology of performers’ terminology—predominantly youthful actors in the modern urban plays tend to often identify with protecting the past: with memories of heroic ancestors, immediate and remote merged together,

44A popular actor, comedian, musician, and animateur or “master of ceremonies/host” at youth center performances in northern Mali described an actor’s role as “seeking a solution to problems. In the past, he was a warrior; now, he is someone who follows his spirit or mind, and reflects well before doing something.” He transformed the actor’s warrior imagery into a solver of modern problems such as drug use, an issue he sometimes spoke about on the local radio. In less formalized social contexts, such as visits, he and some other actors often gave advice, warnings, and moral commentaries. For example, after a young man arrived who appeared disoriented (whether or not he was actually on drugs, I do not know), this actor related a brief moral tale about the problems of drug use during our conversation over tea. He did not report the youth’s suspected drug use to any authorities, however. Rather, this comedian/musician/host, himself culturally defined as “young,” sought to inspire other young men to resist drugs through this joke in his presence during a visit among friends. He, like many other actors, acted “off stage” as well, as a mediator and social critic protecting the community.

45Thus, although warriorhood in the past Tuareg hierarchical social system was central to the origins of acting, for many this role has also evolved into respecting the ancestors, elders, other youths, and women and protecting them from dangerous intrusions.

46There are additional complexities here. For the past few decades, Tuareg youths are still widely called ichumaren, even though not all are fighters in the rebellions. Some have protested against not only the central state governments of Mali and Niger but also their own society’s hierarchical pre-colonial system of the past. Yet many youths—whether literally fighters or not—feel ambivalent concerning their own simultaneously critical and protective roles, since they are aware of a contradiction. On the one hand, youths may disagree with parents and elders on some issues (for example, the latters’ attempts at arranging youths’ marriages, resisting secular education, and using older Tamajaq terms for the social categories formerly based on descent). But on the other hand, many youths seek to protect Tuareg culture and the Tamajaq language they view as endangered, particularly in the towns.

47Toward these ends, actors as protectors of the community can also sometimes direct their art to more assertive resistance against authorities, thereby protecting members of their community—for example, women—against abuses from officials. In another, somewhat risky incident, an actor protectively mediated between his community and the feared state army through another type of role-play. He deceived an army commander who sought local women for sex by disguising himself as a woman and taking money from him over several visits, avoiding actual sexual relations by claiming to have “her” menstrual period. In effect, by this ruse, the actor stood between the commander and local women, thereby protecting the latter from his possible coercive advances. Soldiers—whether in the national armies, dissident rebel factions, or Islamist militant fighters—are the focus of much fear in northern regions of Niger and Mali. The point is that there is a close relationship between the youthful age cohort and performance in several “frames”—theatrical and social—and their roles as social commentators and mediators.

48Since the first decade of the 21st century, additional dangers have emerged besides the long-feared nation-state armies, namely: labor migrants returning from Libya, most in precarious economic predicaments and some with weapons; additional migrants from south of the Sahara in transit toward the opposite direction, Europe, via the Mediterranean (many are now in Agadez); and others fleeing political violence by AQIM, MUJAOU, Boko Haram, and other militant Islamist-reformist factions in the Sahara and Sahel. Although many Tuareg still perceive themselves as marginalized within their nation-states, most remain cool toward militant Islamist-reformists, viewing their draconian policies as intrusions on Tuareg (Sufi-influenced) cultural interpretations of the holy books and syncretic blending of pre-Islamic and Qur’anic beliefs and practices.

49Hence the dilemma for youths: self-criticism or protest within Tuareg society can only go so far, and performances by predominantly young artists should also, ultimately, promote local cultural pride and revitalization, placing certain “brakes” on insulting parents and elders. This tension reverberates throughout Tamajaq-speaking communities. Many play performances, and actors’ agency beyond them, express these tensions over contradictory ideals of Tuareg integration into nationhood and modernity, on the one hand, and of protecting local cultural and regional autonomy, on the other.


* *

50The play performances and their wider social contexts therefore reveal how youth-related concepts within Tuareg society vary contextually and change over time in their meanings. Thus, although some play plots today portray youths as disrespectful if they transgressively disobey parents, some other play plots, as well as social interactions beyond the immediate play performances, do not always follow exactly this image. Art and life do not exactly mirror each other but selectively reflect on challenges and enable negotiations of difficult issues. Hence the ambivalence, contradiction, and ambiguity of performances corresponds to the social ambiguity of what it means to be a youth of indefinite, perhaps non-transitional, liminal status. Youthful actors mediate between older ideals and emerging challenges to them.

51In studies of performance and popular culture, it is widely argued that youth cultures arise in times of social upheaval—national and global economic and politics, or the collapse of community, whether associated with relative affluence or unemployment—and are thought to reflect negotiated responses to these circumstances (Hebdige, 1979; Haugerud et al., 2000; Schneidermann, 2016; Weiss, 2009; White, 2008). In this process, the products of mass culture are not simply accepted but richly interpreted, so as to express alternative cultural concerns.

52Theatrical performances and acting among urban Tuareg, while not material cultural artifacts or commodities, are part of more general efforts, in the local popular culture of youths, to question but also protect Tuareg culture and the Tamajaq language, which many view as endangered from state and non-state intrusions in towns. This is especially true in Kidal, Mali, where Tuareg plays tend to be performed in Tamajaq only, where historically relationships with the central state have been particularly tense, and which, along with the surrounding region by the same name, was declared an independent republic of Azawad by Tuareg nationalists/separatists in 2012. In Agadez, Niger, the plays are somewhat less “militant” linguistically: sometimes, their dialogues are bilingual (in both Tamajaq and Hausa, a widely-understood language in Niger, or alternating between those two languages), reflecting the somewhat greater integration of Tuareg into settled communities in Niger, despite some tensions and sporadic armed rebellions there as well.

53In both towns, plays with intergenerational-themed plots portray youthful critiques of diverse institutions: internal local institutions (for example, parents) and external authorities (civic, state, armies, and NGO bureaucracies). The agency asserted by the actors during the plays and beyond them, in their mediating roles in the wider community, reveal a cultural construction of youth that enables those who feel economically and socially marginalized to produce a critical social commentary transcending their marginality into heroism, thereby healing wounded pride.

54Thus, social vignettes and play performances reveal a culturally-specific variant of the widespread experience of youth and intergenerational relationships as contradictory and ambiguous. Tuareg performances reveal youths’ interstitial and, at times, mediating position in conflicts within Tuareg society as well as between some Tuareg and the nation-state, but also their protracted liminality. In this regard, youths continue (albeit in a different manner) some other mediating roles very important in Tuareg culture, for example, smith/artisans and, nowadays, also some globally-famous musicians (Rasmussen, 2013a, 2013b). The category of youth—if indeed this can be neatly delineated as a unitary category—becomes constructed differently in official voices at performances during urban festivals and spectacles than in private social interactions. Performances on and off stage express not only the marginalization of unmarried and/or unemployed youths but also their active agency and creativity in facing these challenges.

55The larger point is that in a critical exploration of cultural constructions of youth, disruptions, as well as continuities, yield useful insights into local ways of interpreting and coping with interruptions in the transformations of youths into adults. Performances reveal these processes and responses to them. In Tuareg communities, as in some others elsewhere, cultural constructions of youth are messy—youths also actively participate in shaping them—and generations or age cohorts can be best understood by focusing on that messiness rather than on neat classifications or linear progressions. In northern regions of Niger and Mali, many urban Tamajaq-speaking youths linger in an age “limbo” with uncertain directions or end points. Plays with age-related themes portray youths, children, and some “childlike” adults whose social status as mature adults is threatened, as well as some “adult-like” youths wise beyond their years, but still in precarious economic circumstances. Ideas that are pondered and negotiated here are the dilemmas and ambivalences of belonging simultaneously to competing entities: to age cohorts, to household and kin groups, and to emergent national and global communities with their educational, job-training, and cultural/artistic programs holding promise, but not always fulfilling these promises.

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1 Their regional diversity notwithstanding, Tuareg display some common cultural themes. Several dialects of Tamajaq are spoken. Most Tuareg, until recently rural, are today semi-nomadic, combining diverse occupations such as livestock herding, oasis gardening, artisanry, healing specialties, long-distance trading expeditions (trucks now compete with camel caravans), market trade, and labor migration. Previously, Tuareg society was hierarchically organized into specialized occupational groups based on descent and was predominantly endogamous. Imajeghen (approximately denoting aristocrats) monopolized most large livestock and weapons, controlled the caravan trade, and collected tribute from other groups of varying client and servile statuses, such as imghad (approximately denoting tributaries), former nobles who had been subjugated in wars and who raided and traded for nobles and had rights to some war booty, and ighawalen and iklan (approximately denoting, respectively, clients and slaves), who performed agricultural, herding, and domestic chores, some long-freed but owing work and harvests to their overlords, and others owned until manumitted and freed by the mid-20th century; and also inaden (smith/artisans), who provided jewelry, tools, and weapons, and acted as go-betweens and ritual specialists, and ineslemen (Islamic scholars), who interpreted the Qur’an. Recently these longstanding class divisions and client-patron relationships have been much modified, particularly in the towns, and in some cases, have broken down. See Bernus, 1981; Claudot-Hawad, 1993; Nicolaisen and Nicolaisen, 1997.

2 Since Tuareg conversion to Islam between the eighth and eleventh centuries, when local pre-Islamic matrilineal institutions encountered Arabic—and later state—derived patrilineal institutions, some matrilineal property arrangements and ritual practices have persisted to varying degrees in different groups, in healing, gender constructs, and inheritance matters. Women, for example, are compensated for male bias in Qur’anic inheritance by property endowments intended for daughters and nieces. See Casajus, 1995; Keenan, 2003; Nicolaisen and Nicolaisen, 1997 and Rasmussen, 2006, 2013.

3 The French colonial administration tended to neglect the northern regions of what are today Niger and Mali, then part of French West Africa and French West Sudan respectively, primarily using them as military buffer zones. At first, predominantly southern farming populations and, among Tuareg, children of subordinates received secular education and jobs in the modern infrastructures; Tuareg were not included in decision-making on the national level until much more recently, and northern regions of what are now Niger and Mali remained economically poorer. Projects tended to either ignore northern regions or to implement policies detrimental to Tuareg cultural and ecological practices there. Some state regimes inherited an anti-nomadic bias from colonial regimes. See Boilley, 1999 and Claudot-Hawad, 2002. In response to these historical events, there have been a series of Tuareg rebellions against the central states of Niger and Mali, with numerous splintered factions and differing grievances and demands. In northern Mali, Tuareg relations with the very distant capital city and central state have been much more tense than in Niger. The first armed conflict broke out around 1963, following Mali’s independence under Keita’s presidency, in and around Kidal during disputes over taxation and food aid distribution, and some national commanders and soldiers committed atrocities there (though commanders were brought to justice by Traore later). In Niger, until the late 20th century, the Diori government tended to leave the north and nomads alone, though later, in the 1969–1974 and 1984 droughts during Kountche’s presidency, refugees from both countries faced crises crossing borders and returning home. Although Tuareg in Niger have tended to intermarry more frequently with other groups there and have been somewhat more integrated into the nation-state, in both nations the Tuareg ichumar age cohort, consisting of mostly young, unemployed men, on returning to their countries from political and economic exile felt betrayed by promises made by central governments of education and jobs in their home regions, resulting in the 1990–1996 Tuareg rebellion across the north of both Mali and Niger. Peace accords promised more “development” for the north, though both countries experience general poverty and limited budgets. Later, sporadic fighting recurred in both countries around 2006 and 2007 (in Niger, over mining), culminating in the declaration by Tuareg nationalists of independent Azawad in 2012. As of this writing, despite peace efforts in June 2015, this conflict is not completely resolved and remains complicated by additional fighters from Islamist-reformist militant factions who briefly aligned with some Tuareg rebel groups. It should be noted, however, that not all Tuareg (including not all youths) support the rebellions, and Tuareg hold varying political viewpoints. See Bourgeot, 1990, 1994.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Actors in Kidal
Crédits © Susan Rasmussen, Mali
Fichier image/jpeg, 456k
Titre Figure 2. Audience in Kidal
Crédits © Susan Rasmussen, Mali
Fichier image/jpeg, 485k
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Susan Rasmussen, « Youth as actors and mediators in Tuareg theater and social life (Urban Niger and Mali) », Ateliers d'anthropologie [En ligne], 47 | 2020, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2020, consulté le 26 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Susan Rasmussen

Professor of Anthropology, Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston

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