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‘All desert people wear silver’

If you are with the Tuareg of Niger Republic, you will soon begin to notice their passion for things that glow and glitter, and this…

If you are with the Tuareg of Niger Republic, you will soon begin to notice their passion for things that glow and glitter, and this is linked to a fascination with silver or nickel. Angela Fisher writing in Africa Adorned states ‘All desert people who can afford to do so wear silver,’ the pure metal blessed by the Prophet, “in preference to gold, the metal of the devil, which is feared and believed to bring bad luck.” Then you also see a marked fondness among the group for their silver Crosses. They wear them proudly and keep them clean all the time. These crosses are available for sale all over the country too.
Across Niger Republic can be found Tuareg smiths or traders either making these nice items patiently in a corner, wearing the lovely objects, or sitting in one of the many colourful markets trying to sell items of silver to the visitor. These include anklets, bracelets,rings, necklaces of different sorts and much else. There is much colour and a radiance among this group. Naturally, Tuareg women are always well turned out in all these lofty  elements of fashion which the Tuareg make.
It is amazing that the Tuareg  who dwell around the desert and are thus used to arid conditions, should have developed such a  discerning eye and a profound skill  in creating forms of great  beauty.

Angela Fisher writing in the work referred to above, describes the Sahara desert, within which the highly creative Tuareg dwell, in the following words “…This is an infertile region, hostile to most forms of life. Mile after mile of shifting sand dunes and gravel plains are interrupted only by barren plateaux of sandstone or volcanic rock and dry river beds…” One aspect of Tuareg life which illustrates their leaning towards silver  is the Cross of Agadez and the whole range of similar crosses to be found in the country.
Labaran Sumaila, who trades in art objects in Zinder, capital of the Sultanate of Damagaram, tells Daily Trust “Wherever you find the Cross, it is a symbol of the Tuaregs. Thus, there are Tuaregs of Zinder, and so there is a Cross of Zinder. There are Tuaregs of Ingall, and there is therefore a Cross of Ingall.” He adds that there are at least 21 communities in Niger which have crosses similar in origin and nature to that of Agadez, and he emphasises that the crosses help to differentiate  one area in which  the Tuareg dwell  from the next one. In Agadez, Moha Ahmon  says that at first there were just four crosses among the Tuareg,and these were the Crosses of Agadez, Tahoua, Zinder and Iferouanne.
But then at a point the idea of the Cross gained momentum among diverse Tuareg groups. Then it spead across the country.Ahmon  says “If you see someone with the Iferouanne Cross, it means that he is from Iferouanne. The same for someone from Agadez whom you may find wearing the Agadez Cross.It is mainly used as a form of identification among the Tuareg.”
On the art of making the cross, one  of the smiths in Agadez says “if I start making  a cross early in the morning, by 6:00pm I would have finished.” He then adds “A small cross costs 12,000 CFA, while a big one costs 30,000  CFA.” A cross can also be inherited. In Agadez, Daily Trust is told that if a father dies,then his son can inherit his cross ,and wear it just as his father had done while alive. Also, the cross is freely used by both sexes. It is also mentioned that it is common to find Tuareg  men and women wearing  the crosses throughout the country.

Some families have a long history of making the cross. Sidi Mohammed Koumama, 65, says his family is one of such, and has been into cross making for many years. He comments on the process of learning the art  “A young boy begins to learn this art at a very early age. He can start by making a ring, then a bracelet. Later on, he can start to make the Cross. Once he starts to make it, in two to three years he would have become a master of the art of making crosses.” He adds that there are many who spend their whole lives making crosses. Daily Trust is told that the Cross of Agadez costs 35,000 CFA, while the type made of  Nickel costs 7,000 CFA. It is also mentioned by a few present that  the Nickel used for their work is sourced from Nigeria.

Angela Fisher writes on the cross of Zinder. According to her “The cross of Zinder is customarily traded for cattle by men and between times worn as a symbol of wealth by their wives. In the drought of the 1970s the Tuareg traded much of their jewellery in Sahel market towns in order to survive.”
She also explains “Tuareg and Mauritanian neck crosses are believed to  have strong powers: for Muslims the arms of the cross disperse all evil to the four points of the compass, and to some desert people the Christian cross is associated  with the achievements of the Europeans they meet. The cross of Agadez, the most popular of the Tuareg crosses, is similar in design to the Egyptian ankh-the symbol of life.”

She also explains that the Tuareg crosses were once worn solely by men, but now these are worn by women around the neck. Her words “Tuareg crosses… were originally worn by men, passed down from father to son when the boy reached puberty.The father would say: ‘My son, I give you the four corners of the world because one cannot know where one will die.’ She adds that most of the cross designs are named after  oasis towns between Agadez in Niger and the Hoggar Mountains to the north.”
On the smiths who play such a vital role in the Tuareg community, Angela Fisher writes “For the Saharan nomads, whose life is of necessity limited  in material possession,the smiths are much more than professional craftsmen.Since they make all their material belongings – from swords, tools and camel saddles to tent pegs and wooden bowls-they are the main medium for the creative expression of the entire community.”
In  every  Tuareg community  the  eager smith sits cross legged, busy moulding    another silver cross which is  much sought after. Very soon those who need crosses walk in, and then  begins  a little friendly  debate over its cost in CFA.

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