Pastoral Nomadism

Pastoral Nomadism
   Historically, Berbers were almost entirely nomadic peoples until the modern times ushered in by colonialism. Although some groups practiced semipastoral nomadism and engaged in seasonal and flood-based agriculture, the pastoral economy was supplemented by trading, raiding, escorting services, and above all herding. The herds were composed mainly of sheep, goats, and camels. Because of the diversity of the ecology of Berber country, modes of pastoral nomadism varied from one region to another. Some groups practiced transhumance, or seasonal migration, between high and low lands, while others tended to concentrate around wells or other points of water, such as springs and ponds. The Aït Atta of southern Morocco and some Tuareg groups are good examples of these pastoral nomadic strategies. This way of life was (and still is in some areas) a constant battle for survival in arid and semiarid zones, known for their highly variable rainfall and recurrent cycles of drought. Although limited by the scarcity of water and pasture, nomads have developed coping mechanisms in the form of using multiple subsistence strategies combining agriculture and herding to contain risk and making a living in lands with little or no rain at all. Nomads have also developed sophisticated cognitive skills about sense of direction, knowledge of the stars, and funds of ecological knowledge of desert and mountain landscapes. Furthermore, because of conflict over maintenance and management of scarce resources, nomads have been associated with the presence of maraboutic lodges and saints to keep law and order over contested water and pasture resources.
   From the 1960s to the present, many groups have abandoned pastoral nomadism partly because a series of droughts has destroyed their herds and also because of the expansion of economic and administrative infrastructure made necessary by the plans to explore and exploit mineral resource and opportunities to receive drought relief, education, and above all wage labor in villages and small towns. Moreover, following the devastating droughts of the 1960s, most governments launched sedentarization programs and established agricultural villages for drought-stricken nomads throughout Berber land. Today, with the exception of pastoral nomads in naturally endowed areas with reliable water and pasture, pastoral nomadism has almost ceased in the great Sahara, and most nomads have settled down either in villages and towns or in refugee camps, as in the case of some Tuareg groups in Mali, Niger, and Algeria.
   In general, pastoral-nomadic social organization is based on what anthropologists call the segmentary lineage model. The notion of segmentation stresses the fact that order and peace are maintained not by specialized agencies or institutions of a state but by the balanced opposition that unites forces and alliances in case of external threats. Such societies are divided into groups, which in turn further divide. All groups at the same level of segmentation are in balanced opposition, and this ensures that there will be groups in balanced opposition that can be mobilized in times of conflict. Another essential characteristic of pastoral-nomadic societies is the presence of the saints, like the Shorfa and the Murabitin Arabs, putative descendants of the Prophet and the holy saints, who mediate and resolve conflict over water and pasture resources. The elementary social unit of analysis is the household or takat, and a number of households form what is called an igezdu. Households belong to lineages, or ighsan. The ighram, or village, may shelter different lineages and often trace their genealogy to a common ancestor. Lineages are parts of clans, and a number of clans make up the taqbilt (tribe). Tribes, in turn, form confederations. The Aït Yaflman of the eastern High Atlas is a good example of a confederated group.
   See also Agdal.

Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen) . . 2014.

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