The Amazing Amazingh of North Africa

Today, we’re highlighting North Africa’s Amazingh people. 

The Amazingh (or Imazinghen) live in communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. 

They’re known to outsiders as “Berber,” a term that actually means “outsiders,” derived from the Greeks, who used it to refer to the people of North Africa. The name continues to be used by Romans, Arabs, and other regional groups, but is not used by the people (source). Imazighen, plural of Amazingh, means “men of the land” or “free men” and may be a nod to their nomadic lifestyle.

The majority of Imazighen are Muslim, but the people have created their own traditions and customs that differ from other Islamic norms. Tribes are composed of extended family clans, each with their own chief to resolve disputes and make decisions for the tribe.

The origin of the Imazighen is not known, but it is known that tribes have lived in North Africa for thousands of years (source) and they have survived despite the harsh desert environments of the Sahara. Many Imazighen raise herds of grazing animals that they move from place to place, primarily camels, which can transport people and survive without water for long stretches. The Imazighen are key players in the trade network between North Africa and the Middle East (source).

Because the expanse of the desert could make for difficult journeys, like sailors, the Imazighen use the stars to navigate (source).

The Imazighen have a history of being persecuted by Arab groups, and maintaining a unique identity has been difficult. In Libya, for example, “any efforts at Amazingh cultural expression during (Moammar Gadhafi’s) rule were effectively forbidden,” CNN reported. Speaking the language, giving your child a traditional, non-Arabic name, or having a nomadic culture wasn’t allowed. 

Still, there has been a “resurgence of their culture” in the past decade. According to ATI, “These sorts of pressures have made it difficult for the Berbers to maintain their unique identity and avoid being assimilated by their Arab neighbors. But it has also caused a resurgence of their culture, highlighted by the increasing appearance of Berber-language newspapers and identity movements that are trying to establish a future for their traditional way of life.”

The Imazighen are another beautiful group in Africa that builds on the diversity and culture of the continent. May they thrive.

Photo from Tumblr