The Tuareg are a nomadic population that historically travelled across the Sahara desert with their animal herds. Much of their craftsmanship reflects their ability to thrive in the desert by making both aesthetic and utilitarian items, like jewellery, saddles, swords, rugs, and tents.
In the Tuareg culture, artisans belong to a hereditary caste which includes blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and jewellers. They are artisans at birth, with their own dialect and myths related to their skills and tools. Each of their handmade pieces carry the know-how of countless generations, and is a repository of the Tuareg cultural heritage.
Malian refugee artisans cutting leather in Burkina Faso © UNHCR / 6M Productions
Traditionally, women in the Bella caste reared livestock, and tanned hides to make nomadic tents, while blacksmiths from the Inadan caste melted down trading coins for their distinctive jewellery including the “Croix d’Agadez”. Today, the Tuareg continue to practice their distinctive crafts. Women tan hides by hand using a mixture of water, lime, ash, shea butter and ammonium sulfate. Men use anvils and hammers to shape recycled bronze, aluminum, and copper.
As part of the MADE51 Holiday Collection, Tuareg refugees in the Sahel are creating ornaments that offer glimpses of their many talents. In Burkina Faso, men and women collaborate, bringing metal and leatherworking skills together to create the Shooting Star ornament. Recycled aluminum is hammered into the shape of a star, embossed with a heritage motif and embellished with a turquoise leather tassel. The beauty of the pieces contrasts with the current realities in the region in which they are produced.
(Left) Desert Moon Ornament handcrafted by Tuareg artisans living in Niger.
(Right) Tuareg refugee in Niger, Sidi, explains his craft, “As a Tuareg blacksmith, I make almost everything that is necessary for daily life and survival in the desert: tents, bags, saddles, swords, pottery, padlocks, keys, shields, lances, beds, musical instruments and, of course, jewels.” © UNHCR / 6M Productions
Violence erupted in Mali in 2011, forcing hundreds of thousands from their home, many of whom sought asylum in neighbouring countries. Though many found relative safety in Burkina Faso and Niger for many years, including a large population of Tuareg, the contagion of violence has respected no borders.
In recent years, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have been struggling to cope with new outbreaks of conflict being inflicted on their populations, and the refugees they host, by numerous militant groups moving between the three countries. As of October 2020, violence in the Central Sahel region has driven 2 million people from their homes, 650,000 in this year alone.
For many of the Tuareg who fled from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger, the opportunity to earn an income is crucial for their survival. Their artisanal skills are invaluable assets and that many are able to use, producing goods for local markets. MADE51, UNHCR’s brand and flagship initiative that brings refugee-made products to consumers worldwide, has been working to strengthen Malian refugees' connections with international markets, and simultaneously build artisan capacity to react to the new opportunities.
In 2020, UNHCR initiated MADE51 in Niger by holding workshops on design and product innovation. “We learnt to think outside the box...to make jewellery combining different products such as leather, silver, horn,” said a 55-year-old Tuareg blacksmith Sidi, who fled Mali on foot with his family after brutal violence erupted in his hometown.
Malian refugee artisan attaching leather tassel to Shoot Star Ornament © UNHCR
In addition to developing a jewelry line, which will be released in 2021 as part of a wider MADE51 ‘Sahel Collection’, Tuareg refugee artisans in Niger started crafting the ‘Desert Moon’ ornament. It highlights the refined techniques of blackened engraving on metal with ebony and symbolises protection and prosperity. Starting with this small piece has allowed the refugees in Niger to earn immediate income as they become acquainted with crafting as a collective group that is able to serve buyers on a global market.
“I often feel inspired by nature, people and everything I see around me. It does not matter whether I am in my home town or in a refugee camp, the inspiration and desire to create is always there.” - Almahoumoud, standing with Zouha and Fatouma, fellow Malian refugees of Tuareg ethnicity. © UNHCR / 6M Productions
Working as a group is, in itself, part of the process and value of MADE51. As Sidi observed, there is solidarity and support in a group that has tangible psychological benefits. “We learn new things from each other and give each other courage and strength. A product that is the result of a hard work in group has more value than a product I have made myself alone,” said Sidi.
The ability to build this social cohesion and make these market connections is made possible thanks to the European Union, which has supported the expansion of UNHCR’s work with Malian refugees in MADE51.