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Koumama Family

Niamey, Niger

- Designing and handcrafting silver jewelry

The Koumama family is Tuareg which traditionally has been semi-nomadic. Some call Tuaregs the "Blue People" due to the indigo used to dye men's deep blue tagelmusts (turbans). Most Tuaregs live in northern Niger with some living in Mali and Algeria. Today the ancient Tuareg classes, Nobles (camel herders), Vassals (goat herders), Inadan (blacksmiths) and slaves (now outlawed) still exist. However, following the famines of the 1970s and 1980s and civil unrest, many have been forced to abandon their herds and take on labor and lifestyles they might traditionally have rejected.

The family was nomadic until the 1970s. They belong to the Inadan class, people who work with fire and metals. The family was led by Mohamed Koumama, one of the most famous Tuareg silversimiths, until his death in 2004. He trained his sons, grandsons and extended family in the craft as his forefathers did for over a thousand years. Mohamed Koumama's work has been displayed in the National Museum in Niamey since Niger's independence from France in 1960. Elhadji Koumama, the ninth child of Mohamed, is now the family patriarch.

The Koumama family is famous for creating unique, high quality silver jewelry using the traditional hand tools and methods that have been used by Tuareg craftsmen for centuries. Although "born into the trade" Koumama men serve extensive apprenticeships under the watchful eyes and guidance of older and more experienced family members. This apprenticeship begins when the boys are about seven years old. At this time they help by polishing the finished pieces, running to the market to buy charcoal, fetching tools, etc. Soon after the boys are given small pieces of bee's wax to practice carving the simple cross designs and then casting them. By the time the boys are in their teens they have usually mastered all of the basic skills and can create jewelry both by casting and hammering. They are expected to learn all of the techniques and the traditional designs. Only after years of painstaking effort do they begin to make jewelry deemed suitable for sale under the Koumama name.


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