The Berber Nomadic Peoples of Africa
As part of our adventures touring inland our tour guide took us off-roading in the plains along the Atlas Mountains where we stopped to visit a Berber family. We learnt a lot about the Berber’s as part of our trip but the most interesting were the Berber Nomads. Here are some of our learnings and photo’s of our short visit with them.
This young mother (probably 20) has her 4 week old son beside her but under the blanket to keep the flies away. And yes she gave birth in the cave.
Berber Nomads in Morocco: Berbers (Amazighs, Imazighen, in the Berber Language) are the ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They are distributed in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. Mountain Berbers live in houses made of mud bricks, cement or in the case of the family we visited their home was a cave. The wandering desert Berbers Nomads use black tents made of goat and camel hair that can be easily loaded onto camels for the journey across the desert. The tents are simple affairs held up with wooden poles and have no floors.
Men are dressed in typical Berber blue clothing. The tough conditions of the Sahara desert prevented any serious attempt at agricultural development. For this reason, the Berbers preferred to lead a nomadic rather than sedentary lifestyle. This mobile lifestyle is central to their culture, which is perhaps why they refer to themselves as “free people.”
Men and boys take care of the livestock. Women raise the children, cook, and make handicrafts – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in regional open-air market places called souks. The Berber tribes are famous for woven carpets and rugs, especially those living close to, or in Morocco. The tapestry designs reflect the traditional customs and origins of each tribe. While mountain Berbers grow crops and raise animals on mountain terraced slopes, nomads depend upon the herds of sheep, goats, and camels for meat, milk, and cheese. Hunting and gathering, following seasonally available wild plants and game, offers some variety to the daily diet.
Traditionally, the Berbers have used their unique ability to navigate the Sahara to act as key players in the trade network between North Africa and the Middle East. It is difficult to find your way through the faceless, sandy landscape of the Sahara desert. That’s why Berber in the Sahara are like Sailors on the high seas, they orient themselves by the stars. The Berbers have many stories and songs describing how to find small watering holes and a number of recognizable landmarks scattered across the desert.
The Social Structure Of The Berbers
In terms of religion, the vast majority of Berbers are Muslim and have practiced their faith for centuries. But there are a few unique aspects of their culture that have survived cultural influences. Berber society is centered on the concept of the tribe, which usually consists of extended family clans. Each tribe has its own leader. The chief is responsible for justice and the resolution of disputes, as well as making important decisions concerning the tribe. Like other nomadic cultures, the Berber clans live in tents, which they set up when they find a good place to graze their animals. A particularly unique part of Berber culture is guest rights. When one receives food and water from the Berbers, he becomes their guest. In this case, the host takes responsibility for the safety of the guest. It may seem strange from a Western perspective, but in a place where finding accommodation and water is a matter of life and death, hospitality is very important.
Our visit with this Berber family was a rich and humbling experience. We were served tea as we sat with the multi-generational family in their cave. The elder explained he has lived there for sixteen years. The roof of the cave was blackened from the years of their burning wood to heat and cook food. They now have a small propane burner stove for cooking.