Introducing class, race, and Toureg artisan Amot Ag Mohamed

Notes from the field: By Laurie Reyman

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Amot Ag Mohamed is an extremely talented artisan living in Goudoubo Refugee Camp with his wife, Bintou, his son Aboukader and his daughter Ami. He, like his father, and his father before him going back for many generations in Mali, are artists who work with leather. In past times, they made saddles for their horses, shields for their warriors, cushions for the house and many other things. Now their craft has shifted to things more geared towards tourists such as leather boxes to hold various trinkets and desk sets. He showed me his current inventory consisting of a desk set and several boxes of different sizes and colors. Amot takes great pride in his work, and he is extremely talented. His role as leather artisan however, was prescribed to him by his society.

The Toureg society has historically been a nomadic caste society, with prescribed roles and statuses passed down within families from generation to generation. These roles have morphed over the years due to colonization, globalization and natural disasters such as drought, all of which have forced change in one way or another, including forcing the Toureg to become more sedentary than in previous times. Historically, the most powerful caste was the Imusha who were the warriors, and what we would know in our societies as the generals or admirals of the armed forces. Now the Imusha have largely moved into the role of police, and therefore still hold powerful positions in their communities. The Klussuk also held/hold a lot of power as they were/are the teachers of the Koran and therefore the judges of the society according to Islamic Sharia law. They also hold spiritual healing power and the rest of the castes are fearful of them because of their spiritual powers. The Imusha and Klussuk made up what was considered to be the noble caste.

The next powerful castes were made up of the tributary castes: the Imghads who fought under the leadership of the Imusha, and the Bergers who worked with animals (cows, camels, sheep, goats, donkeys) and who provided the main livelihood of the Toureg people. (This is still true to this day and the daily lives of the Toureg are intimately intertwined with that of their animals.) In more recent times, the Imghads either enter the Malian military or become Bergers and work with animals.

The artisans made up the next lowest caste and consisted of the Forgerons who were/are the blacksmiths and griots (musician-storytellers), and other artists, such as Amot who work with leather, clay, straw, beads and fabric. The Bella, or former slaves, make up the lowest class within the Toureg society. While many freed slaves have improved their status within the society, there are still many who are attached to their former families and continue do the menial labour within the household.  

Their is a clear racial classification assigned to these various castes – the nobles and tributary castes are what are known as the White Toureg, or “Tamashek Blanc” whereas the lower castes are general darker and are known as the Black Toureg, or “Tamashek Noir.” The issue of slavery is still  a very sensitive issue within the society and not freely discussed with outsiders. As we’ve spent more time with people though it has come up in various ways: the lighter girls trying to give the darker girls the more menial tasks of cleaning the brushes and carrying water in class; a black video assistant not wanting to video document the life of a white student because of the tension that would result from the reversed power roles within that activity; and lighter girls joking around with the black girls about who is whose slave. This is not a clear or simple issue to deal with in our classes and we continue to struggle with the best way to address it on a daily basis. Meanwhile, we enjoy the moments we get to spend with people like Amot and their families, because despite all of these struggles and disparities, the Toureg are a proud and generous people, who open their homes and share their lives with us, and speak proudly of their children and their work. 

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