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Scent As A Sanctuary: Aromatherapy Amongst The Tuareg

Plants have always played a vital role in the physical emotional and spiritual well being of human kind. The Tuareg of Niger are an example of a people for whom scent plays a major role in everyday life, exchange and kinship.

The Taureg are a nomadic people largely scattered across North / Northwest Africa. They can be found in Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisa, Algeria and Niger. The Tuareg are instantly recognisable as the ‘blue men’ due to the blue cotton turbans/garment (tagelmust) the men wear to protect their faces from the harsh sandy terrain. The Tuareg speak Tamacheq, are largely of Amazigh ethnicity and form a system of clan membership largely practising the religion of Islam.

The Tuareg of Niger like many other civilisations before them heavily use the power of aroma, aromatherapy and scent as a part of their sociocultural systems and local sociability.

Anthropologist Susan Rasmussen in her 1999 paper ‘Making better scents in Anthropology’ analyses culture from the underexplored standpoint of the circulation of aromas. In her essay, Rasmussen argues that aroma amongst the Tuareg of Niger marks boundaries, challenges and diminishes distance:

1.) Aroma and herbs are used in Tuareg healing rituals. 

Female herbalists use incense or inhaled smoke of barks as remedies against head and eye pain. Herbal medicines are counteractive and tend to emphasize balance. Amongst the Taureg, perfumes play an important role in treating psychological ailments where the aim as in herbalism is to re-establish harmony (1999:65-66).

2.) Tuareg uses of aroma also connect people to each other.

Perfumes and incense among the Taureg is used where there is an evaluation of moral character, generosity and openness or anti socialness, miserliness and danger (ibid:61). Female cousins and siblings in a joking relationship or age- mates often cover themselves with perfume, henna and jewellery. Rasmussen notes that elderly persons tend to avoid this which is contrary to the Islamic devotion of prayer and reserve.

Local residents often give each other perfume or spices which are applied to each other on casual visits, however the exchange is the most popular on special holidays such as Tabaski- a Muslim holiday commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram. Al Baraka, Islamic blessing is believed to penetrate cloth as a vapour or scent and is rubbed on the skin in a similar fashion to cloth soaked with scent. ‘The faithful often rub their faces with cotton cloths believed to be saturated with al Baraka of a prominent holy man. (ibid.)’

3.) Local socialbility

In Tuareg culture, aroma complements the gustatory in local sociability. It is central to Taureg tea drinking which is comprised of three rounds each with a glassful having differing properties. The first is strong, the second sweet and the third is spiced. The first glass is functional, the second and the third are for aesthetic pleasure. In all three rounds there is sociability where conversation is stimulated not only by taste but by scent. Tea drinking is also for the purposes of aroma. One is supposed to drink tea to allow it to ripen for the enjoyment of guests.

These brief reflections on the use of scent amongst the Tuareg brings me to conclude with several thoughts. The most potent being that perhaps mimicking the Tuareg’s emblematic sociocultural system will allow us to be more spiritually connected in our daily lives to little happenings that weave in hindsight the tapestry of what has made us truly happy, connected and centred. 

Article by Soukeyna

Soukeyna is an anthropology graduate of SOAS with an interest in global healing ritual and nomadic peoples such as the Tuareg.

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