Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Toubou Tribes in Libya: A Unique World

Toubou Tribes in Libya
Dancers and camel riders participate in a parade towards the Kassr el-Khald (former royal palace) in Libya’s capital Tripoli on September 21, 2020 during a Toubou (or Tebu) cultural festival organised by the General Authority for Culture. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

Libya is a country where tribes remain active in societal, economic, cultural and political life, according to Dr Bashir Ali al-Kut’s study ‘The Political Role of Tribes in Libya.’

Libyan society comprises many tribes, including Arabs, Berbers, Phoenicians, Tuareg, Toubou, Africans, Turks, Greeks, Circassians, Italians and others. Each tribe, including the Toubou tribe with its unique origin story, plays a significant role in the composition of Libya’s population.

Origin, History and Present

Herodotus visited the Libyan east coast around 450 BC and, in his book  The Historiesdescribed the Toubou as Negro, Ethiopian or Abyssinian. The historian located them from what is now Fezzan in Libya through Chad to Niger and into Sudan and Central Africa.

The historians Yaqubi and Al-Maqrizi ascribed similarities with the ‘Berber Amazigh‘ to the Toubou tribes. The German historian Gustav Nachtigal, however, disagreed in this regard, stating that “although the Toubou have nothing to do with the Berbers, they do not resemble the Negroes. They are an intermediate people between the indigenous people of North Africa and the Negroes of Sudan.”

Amraje Al-Sahati, in his book Tales, Myths, and Legends of the Toubou, listed several historians’ descriptions of the Toubou people. German traveller Friedrich Hornemann, in his memoirs, described them as “slender with muscular arms, graceful gait, intelligent eyes, and thick lips.” Hornemann did not describe the Toubou as entirely black, he considered their noses to be “flat but not prominent, and their hair is very long but less curly than that of Negroes.” The Latin historian Pliny the Elder stressed that the Toubou existed since time immemorial, pointing out in his book Natural History the presence of the Toubou in the Tibesti Mountains. In his book The Eastern Libyans, the American archaeological historian Oric Bates illustrated an ethnic map of the Semitic-Hamitic Races in Africa, showing the presence of the Toubou in Libya.

Ancient historical data and recent scientific evidence assert that the Toubou were among the first to settle in the African Sahara. Their history in some habitats may well be over 30,000 years old. According to Abu Kala Zen, “it is likely that the Toubou were the descendants of prehistoric cattle herders that settled in the area and were able to resist and adapt to the desert.”

The Toubou total more than 300.000 people where they now live. Statistics indicate that the Libyan Toubou consist of large tribes, clans and families.

The Toubou live on a vast ​​Libyan territory estimated to be tens of thousands of square kilometres. According to Amraje Al-Sahati’s Studies in Toubou Literature, the territory stretches along the southern border from Kufra in the far east to Qatrun and Al-Wigh south of Sebha.

There is no consensus on the origin of the Toubou people. The Sultan of the Toubo tribe, Zulai Mina Saleh, said:  “We are the people of Africa. We are all black, but our features are different. Our faces, noses, teeth and language also differ. Based on this, I believe we are from the Arabian Peninsula.”

Etymology and Language

The Austrian Egyptologist Leo Reinisch asserted that the word ‘Toubou’ is a modification of the word ‘Tehnu.’ The ancient Egyptians used this word to describe the tribes that inhabited the lands west of the Nile Delta—the Libyan desert. Some researchers ascribe the word ‘Toubou’ to the Kanuri people. The word is divided into two syllables: ‘tou,’ the name of the Tibesti mountains according to the Toubou, and ‘bou,’ the plural suffix added to a country name to indicate relatedness. As such, Toubou means ‘People of the Mountains’ or, in the local dialect, ‘People of the Rock.’

The Tebu language belongs to the family of tonal Nilo-Saharan languages and is ​​characterised by its rapid, sharp and similar tones. The language is divided into two main dialects: Tedaga and Dazaga. Tedega or ‘Teda Tongue’ is spoken by the Tedu – the northern branch of the Toubou – who have been residents of southern Libya and the Tibesti Mountains since ancient times before the emergence of modern states. The Dazaga dialect is spoken by the Daza. Some Western scholars believe the Toubou did not agree on using a certain name to identify themselves as a people.

Traditions, Poetry, and Women

Toubou Tribes in Libya
Girls dressed in traditional garb pose for a group picture during a Toubou (or Tebu) cultural festival organised by the General Authority for Culture, held at the Kassr el-Khald (former royal palace) in Libya’s capital Tripoli on September 21, 2020. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

Numerous studies agree that the Toubou’s life is dominated by their traditions. Although they differ in lineage, they share their tribal name and are part of rural communities that follow a traditional lifestyle.

According to Toubou tradition, greetings are performed from a distance. When two people meet, they salute from 10 meters away and then approach to greet each other without kissing. Ayed Amira wrote that “the Toubou women practice ‘Hami’ poetry to praise their relatives, boast about their lineage, depict heroism and slander opponents.” The women reciting Hami sit in a circle where the ‘maestro’ sings, and the rest claps and echoes parts of her poems.

In his book The Toubou Woman and Her Role in Strengthening the Toubou Identity,  Amraje Al-Sahati mentions how Toubou women occupy a special place in their society and their impact on Toubou identity and civilisation. Toubou elders use the women’s council during wartime, and during peace, they offer advice alongside their daily arduous tasks. Zulai Mina Saleh noted: “We don’t differentiate between Toubou men and women except in name. All the Toubou are equal in all aspects of life.”

Constitution and the Cultural Shift

Forty-two elders of the Toubou tribes met to draft their constitution in 1889. According to Tales, Myths, and Legends of the Toubou, this was under the supervision of the historical leader Sultan Chhai Boger, also known as Dorda Chhai. He promulgated the customary laws that are still in effect today. In these laws, Chhai relied on the Islamic Sharia and customs inherited from traditional life based on the Sharia. This constitution came to be known as ‘Kutuba’ or ‘Kundudi.’

Researcher Mina Tskadi states that “philosophers referred to the Toubou constitution as a concise expression of the social contract. In Toubou culture, we call it Kutma.” Researchers describe the Toubou constitution as “general frameworks that define responsibilities and detailed articles that specify the procedures to be followed. It merges the theoretical and procedural aspects.” It moves from defining responsibilities to regulating necessary dealings, especially those that require the issuance of specific judicial rulings. This includes dispute resolution, retribution, and material or moral penalties. Al-Arab states that “the Kundudi constitution is relied upon in various areas of life that may face the group or the individuals, such as wars, murder, theft, marriage, divorce and inheritance.” There is often no need to resort to the involvement of law enforcement.

Culture and Intangible Heritage

The Toubou culture is oral by nature, according to Amraje Al-Sahati. The oral library of the tribe is rich in culture and history in which neither the Libyan regimes nor academics were interested.

The Toubou tribes have tales, legends and myths like any other society and have enriched Libyan cultural heritage. Grandmothers pass down stories like the legend of Malahura, the legend of Nana Di, the story of the woman and the camel and the story of the kidnapped white camel. There is also rich literature on religious holidays.

The Toubou have been living in an existential crisis for years after Muammar Gaddafi stripped them of their identity and nationality. They have suffered ethnic discrimination by the Ottomans and now at the hands of Khalifa Haftar. Moreover, it is customary to accuse the Toubou of trying to achieve independence from Libya, which the Toubou deny.

Due to the historically accumulating conflicts with their adversaries, the Toubou are imbued with a strong bond. This, however, comes at the price of isolation and difficult integration with strangers. Those unfamiliar with the Toubou might describe them as cunning and insecure, but this could not be further from the truth. The Toubou people are simple, good-natured, generous and headstrong. They may sometimes endure injustice, but when they revolt, they are like an unstoppable desert storm.