Tuaregs celebrate culture in Niger Sahara festival

IFEROUANE, Niger — Tuaregs in northern Niger are hoping to draw tourists back to the region by putting their traditional dances, music poetry and camel races on display.

Despite concerns about Islamic extremism throughout the Sahel region in West Africa, organizers recently hosted more than 1,000 visitors to a cultural festical in Iferouane, a village in Niger's far north.

"Without tourism, our youth risks falling into idleness and misery, and will join the wave of migration to Europe," said Mohamed Houma, the mayor of the town located about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the central city of Agadez.

The Air festival, considered one of the most important gatherings to celebrate the culture of the Tuareg people, has been held since 2001.

It was marked last month by the sound of tende, the Tuareg style of music and drumming, as the women and men, on foot and on their camels, participated in song and dance competitions.

Since 2001, the gatherings have been held to celebrate the culture of the semi-nomadic Tuareg people. More than 2 million Tuaregs live in the Sahara Desert area, stretching across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Tunisia.

Niger's Air region, with oases, mountains and sand dunes, has been a destination for adventurous Western tourists since the 1980s and the visitors have been a financial boon for the region. But the tourism has dwindled since the Tuareg rebellion, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, and from the proliferation of armed and extremist groups in the Sahel region.

Security guards watched over the dozen French and Belgian tourists who participated this year's in Air Festival.

"We are very happy because this festival shows the rest of the world that despite the international geopolitical and security context, we live here in peace, sheltered from the upheavals of some of our neighboring countries," Houma said.

French tourists to the festival this year included Jacques Maire, a French legislator who heads a France-Niger Friendship group in the French National Assembly.

While the situation in Niger is tense, he said it is not the worst in the region.

"There has always been a strong French appetite for the Sahara," said Maire. "We must seize every opportunity to recreate tourist flows."

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