In January, extremist Tuareg rebels launched a rebellion in Northern Mali taking advantage of a coup in the capital of Bamako. Since then the rebels have declared independence for a region they call Azawad.  For centuries Tuaregs have lived a nomadic lifestyle across West and North Africa. Ten years ago I had a series of extraordinary experiences with the Tuareg. I wanted to share them, not because of the headlines, but because of a Tuareg sultan in Niger, who was kind and welcoming to me, recently died. He had ruled for 52 years.

In 1998 the final remaining armed Tuareg group signed an uneasy peace agreement, ending the third Tuareg rebellion in Niger (which borders Mali)  in the 20th century. One of the poorest countries in the world, twice the size of France and mostly desert, Niger was also awash with guns.

In late 2001, in collaboration with the UNDP and the government, we co-launched Radios for the Consolidation of Peace – a guns-for-radios project.  We donated a significant number of what would now be considered old model wind-up and solar-powered radios.  The UNDP worked with the government in the recovery and destruction of illicit small arms. Through the Rural Radio Network (RURANET) and the rapid expansion of community radio stations, communities would be informed about the initiative to collect and destroy illegal weapons. Our radios would provide much needed information access in local languages which would, in turn, accelerate development. Given that batteries are hard to come by for nomads and in far-flung villages and electricity is non-existent, it was believed access to information would be more valuable in peacetime than guns.

One such radio station was in Agadez, a once bustling crossroads where Saharan camel caravans converged. In the centre of Niger, Agadez was also the farthermost point of the vast Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim Oumarou, the Sultan of Aïr and an important political and spiritual Tuareg leader, was a frequent guest at the station, which broadcast in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language.  I wanted to meet him, but protocol required that I be interviewed by and granted approval from the caliph (an advisor) first.  The caliph and his colleagues agreed on the meeting for my subsequent visit in several months time.

On my next trip to Agadez in 2002, I had an audience with the sultan at his 15th century palace – made of mud. He proudly showed me the computer that he was learning to use, but didn’t yet have an email address.  Palace electricity came from a diesel generator. The sultan further proclaimed that both Tuareg men and women had to know all the modern technologies. He told me that he’d visited America two years previously and had loved it.   We sat in white plastic chairs while the brightly dressed palace guards served syrupy drinks in the domed reception room cluttered with mementoes. Pictures and sand covered the fading blue walls.

We talked for some time about his people, their struggles and their disappearing way of life. We spoke of the peace process and of the importance of ensuring that everyone could get information from the radio when they needed to. The sultan resolutely supported the guns-for-radios project saying that armed conflicts leave many scars and too often lead to further conflict.  I recall him being warm, wise and moderate in his views. Before our two-hour meeting ended, I innocently asked him if I could meet his wives, assuming that there were four. He didn’t give me an answer, but later a note was delivered to my hotel saying that the meeting would be the next day.

This proved to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Instead of meeting four co-wives, I met the six – the Sultanas of Aïr.  What was unknown to me initially is that I was the first outsider that they had ever met, let alone the first white person.  From the time that they were selected by the sultan to marry, they had been cloistered in the compact one-story mud palace in Agadez with their children, attendants and guards. We had two two-hour open and revealing discussions.  At the risk of sounding trite, it was truly an honour and privilege to meet them. I wrote about my experiences with the sultanas in detail in 2002.

With the sultan’s blessing, my Agadez trip ended with attending ceremonies whereby mainly Tuareg men (although there were some women) exchanged their working small arms for radios. The guns were then burned in ‘flames of peace’ ceremonies.  However, there was one minor hiccup – the army had neglected to empty a few bullets from the rifles.  When the fire was lit, the guns started going off; hundreds of petrified onlookers dove headfirst into the sand and several camels ran off, but no one was hurt. It was only amusing sometime afterwards.

I have reflected often about those trips to Agadez.  They were made by a road – a hard and dusty 15-hour drive from the capital city, Niamey. I have thought a lot about the sultan as I have read of the continuing food shortages that have affected them and the on-going conflicts in the Sahara involving the Tuareg and what they believe to be their traditional lands and rights taken from them. Most of all, I’ve thought about the sultanas and wondered now that the sultan has passed away, what will happen to them.  A friend in Niger has told me that one of his sons was groomed to take over.  I hope that the son will rule as wisely as his father.  I am optimistic that the sultanas will be able to make their way in a world that they know from radio, from television, and from the rooftop of the palace.

Update – 05 June 2012: Today I received a gracious email (in French) from the newly installed Sultan of Aïr from his @yahoo.fr address. I emailed a letter to the sultanas via my friend to forward to the palace for me.  The email said that the sultanas are well and will remain in the palace in Agadez, as is their wish.  The sultan has extended an invitation to visit and said that I would be ‘welcomed with great friendship’. I feel deeply honoured and I’m so pleased to have a fresh friendship with this sultan and that I am now able remain connected to his mothers.

by Kristine Pearson