Fulbe

Fulbe

Fulbe (plural) and Pullo (singular) is the proper name of this pastoral people who specialize in cattle herding of West and Central Africa. Roaming the Sahel and the Savanna expanses, these nomadic cat-tle herders are named differently by their hosts or neighbors: Peul, Fula, Ful Fula, Fule, Fulani, Fellatah, and Silmiga, among others. Today, the majority of Fulbe are sedentary and live in more than 17 African countries, from Senegal to Darfur, and from Mauritania to Cameroon. However, the Wodaabe of Niger to northern Nigeria and Cameroon remain nomads.

Main Fulbe regions include Futa Toro and Futa Bhundu (Senegal), Futa Jalon (Guinea), Maasina (Mali), Sokoto (Nigeria), and Adamawa (Cameroon). The major Fulbe urban centers are Podor (Sen-egal), Labe (Guinea), Dori (Niger), Sokoto (Nigeria), and Maroua (Cameroon). The overall population of Fulbe and related com-munities is estimated at 35 million people.Fulbe speak a noun-class language split into two dialectal areas; Pular (also Pulaar) is spoken west of the Niger River Bend, whereas Fulfulde extends east of that line; hence the Pular-Fulfulde com-pound name. UNESCO ranks it among Africa’s top 10 languages for numbers of speakers.

A wealth of linguistic resources enables the continued renewal of genres in both the oral (myths, legends, tales, epics, proverbs) and written ajami (meaning written in their language using Arabic script) literature. They shape and proceed from the quest for beauty, knowledge, and under-standing: a hallmark of Fulbe culture. Folklore masters, court poets (griots) and scholars tap them to carry on a vibrant cultural heritage.

Theories on Fulbe origins abound, ranging from outlandish and superficial to plausible and heuristic. They have been varyingly called “distinguished Semites,” “negricized” Caucasians, mysterious Hamites, a lost tribe of Israel, 12th-century dynasty Egypt, or Dravidian descendants.

Fulbe civilization rests on four major groupings identified by their family names, Baa, Bari, Jallo, and Soo, which correspond to the four natural elements (earth, water, fire, wind) and to the cardinal points (north, south, east, west). In contrast, ‘Haal-Pular are nonethnic Fulbe communities who speak Pulaar/Fulfulde. In Futa Toro, they have a dozen family names. Conversely, while retaining the four-tiered naming system, some Fulbe communities (Khasonke, Wasulu) speak Mande, not Pular/Fulfulde. Similarly, Hausa has assimilated the Fulbe (Fulani) elite in northern Nigeria.

The Fulbe population displays physical traits (skin tone, hair, facial features) charac-teristic of a phenotype. Pular/Fulfulde reflects awareness of the phenomenon, hence Fulbe consider themselves non-blacks and call their neighbors Bhaleebhe (blacks). Yet, despite some phenotype peculiarities, it is more likely that Fulbe are indigenous to Africa. Accordingly, the time-line of their civilization breaks down into four periods: Prehistory, Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modern Times.

Fulbe prehistory is likely embedded in the domestication of cattle. The recent description of the genome of the cow shows that the bovine achieved a genetic switch 15,000 years ago. The mutation meant the processing of low-quality food intake into high-grade output (milk, meat). The taming of the bovine constituted “one of humanity’s first leaps forward” (Anselin 1981). Subsequently, humans marched with the cow into civilization. Between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago, “Proto-Fulbe” participated probably into adopting this ruminant as a lasting companion. In effect, the Pullo and the cow bonded strongly and became inter-dependent. A dictum reminds that “the strength of the Pullo is in the bovine; if he loses it he will face distress.”

Fulbe devotion to their cattle started in the Sahara, when that region was a watered land of green pastures. Fulbe were among the area’s likely inhabitants. Ever since, the Pullo has stuck to the cow like a stick. As the desert advanced, they emi-grated southwest, leaving behind engrav-ings of their pastoral lifestyle and hints of their cosmogony. Archeologist Lhote (1959) was the first to associate contempo-rary Fulbe with his findings in Tassili n’Ajjer (Algeria).

Amadou Hampat􀀁eBa and G. Dieterlen (2009, 1961) agreed and pointed to similarities between today’s Fulbe pastoral rites and some rock draw-ings. However, since rock art predates writing considerably, its analysis entails guesswork and, hence, warrants caution. Thus, scholars have expressed reservation about Fulbe Saharan legacy. However, no refutation of the Baˆ-Dieterlen-Lhote hypothesis has yet appeared.

The Bovidian period (4500–2500 BCE) sealed the connection between Fulbe pas-toral society and cattle herds. Practicing cow worship, Fulbe believed that Geno, the Supreme Being, created the universe from a drop of milk. A pantheon of adjunct deities (laareeji) oversaw animal hus-bandry and partook with herders in the ani-mals’ well-being. Strikingly, millennia later, Muslim Fulbe writers Mombeya and Baˆ and mystic Sufis would merge Geno with that of Allah, thereby acknowledging God’s oneness beyond language barriers.

Moving in on the banks of the Senegal River, Fulbe eventually achieved a dual spe-cialization, nomadic pastoralists and seden-tary agriculturalists. Between the 5th and the 13th centuries, Fulbe rulers led the cen-tralized state of Takrur (a.k.a. Tukulor) run-ning a standing army, engaged in domestic slavery, and alternating between vassal and rival of the Ghana Empire. Takrur probably was the result of nomadic leaders (silatigi) and trailheads (arbe, sing. ardo) turning their power into a pastoral monarchy domi-nated by the herder-in-chief, the Aga,sym-bol of wealth, might, and wisdom. King Yero Jaaje was one such ruler in the ninth century.

In that period, Takrur rulers converted to Islam, which became religion of the court but remained unknown to rest of the people. Historical records indicate the presence of a Takrur Fulbe regiment in the Arab conquest of Southern Spain. At the peak of its hegemony, Takrur designated generically all sub-Saharan Africans in Arabic writings.

In the 13th century, Sundiata Keita, emperor of Mali, vanquished both Ghana and Takrur. Fulbe scattered throughout the region during an interregnum that took place with the rise of the Koli Tenhella Baa dynasty in the West. They also marched eastward, and by 1200 CE, they had arrived in Hausa country. Until circa 1600, these non-Muslim rulers controlled noncontiguous territories, from northern Senegal to western Guinea.

Beginning in the 17th century, Muslim Fulbe scholars launched an Islamic hege-mony that placed them to the forefront of history in the western Sudan. The Jihad-driven movement began in 1625 in Futa Bhundu, Senegal. Then it spread out south, north, and east to Futa Jalon (1725–1896), Futa Toro (1775–1885), Maasina (1804–1865), Sokoto (1814–1908), Adamawa (1815–1909), and lesser dominions. The main leaders of these Sunni theocracies were: Karamoko Alfa, ‘Abd al-Qadir Kaan, Sheyku Amadu, Shehu Usman dan Fodio, and last but not the least, Al-Hajj ‘Umar Taal. Imitating the model of the Prophet Muhammad, these priest-warriors mastered the intellectual (esoteric and exoteric) and the aesthetic dimensions of Islam.

They proselytized and built empires. Theirs were stratified societies of aristocrats, civil com-munity, castes, and captives. Critics have emphasized the practice of slavery under Fulbe hegemony. However, this should not negate the achievements of those leaders, who learned, taught, wrote, and upheld the spiritual and temporal duality of their rule.At the peak of the Fulbe states, two great minds, Tierno Muhammadu Samba Mom-beya and Usman dan Fodio, separately took Pular-Fulfulde ajami literature to new heights. Yet, Muslim Fulbe supremacy also significantly altered tradition by replacing indigenous nomenclature (people, places) with Arabic designations.

Furthermore, narratives of Muslim rulers sought to give Fulbe an Arab ancestry. However, this view should be construed as a secular dogma of the ruling clergy.“West Africa’s master cattle herders,” the Fulbe’s material art and intangible cul-ture stand out as original and universal. Pulaaku, the Fulbe/Haal-Pular cultural her-itage, is acknowledged throughout the world. It builds on three successive—and overlapping—stages: nomadic, Islamic, and modern; and it emphasizes both mat-erial culture and intangible art.

Fulbe creation myths and millennia-old way of life point to a perpetual quest for enlightenment and wisdom, as expressed in verbal art, speech mastery, and abun-dant poetry. Hence, in the epic poem Kay-dara, the journey of the hero, Hammadi, evokes the quest—pre-Christian and Arthurian—for the “Holy Grail,” or to seek the unattainable.Fulbe material culture yields a precious inventory: the “home-in-the-bush” and antique pastoral altar (kaggu), decorated calabashes, iron and leatherwork, pottery, carving, basketry, jewelry, indigo tie-dyed fabric, woven textiles, embroidery, photos, paintings, signature pieces by modern sculptors.

The intangible culture features deeply substantive—pastoral initiation texts, the “haunting beauty” of legendary tales and epics, European language authors and masterworks, the inspiring life of mystic (Sufi) masters, an esthetic Islamic liturgy and an articulate teaching system, world-famous musicians, haute couture celeb-rities, photographers, filmmakers, paint-ers, etc.Traditional Fulbe images are known worldwide. Fulbe popular art and caste products, namely cotton weavers, gold-smiths, and indigo tie-dyers, are the topics of field studies.

Delange (1974) has com-pared Futa Jalon women’s Phrygian hair-style (jubaade) to a mobile (hanging art piece) by the American sculptor Alexander Calder.The defeat of Maasina by the army of al-Hajj ‘Umar Taal in 1865 preceded the Euro-pean Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. As elsewhere in Africa, Fulbe indigenous states successively fell under foreign rule. They splintered between British West Africa/Sudan and France’s Afrique Occidentale Franc¸aise. “Procon-suls” and “Rulers of Empire” organized the exploitation of the economy and the administration of the people to the metropo-lis’ advantage.

The Institut Franc¸ais d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) specialized in research, libraries, archives, and muse-ums. Colonial ethnographers collected and published extensive records on Fulbe history and culture, which are stored in documents conserved by those institu-tions. Secondary, professional (Ecole nor-male called William Ponty) and military schools trained teachers, researchers medical staff, and junior officers.

Colonial administrator Gilbert Vieillard champ-ioned Fulbe studies. After extensive field-work he published detailed ethnographic works. Upon his death on the front during World War II, Fulbe Ponty graduates from Futa Jalon formed an association to carry on Vieillard’s legacy. Eventually, the group switched to partisan politics in Guinea, reflecting similar trends else-where. Its members were among the fore-runners of the emancipation struggle that led to independence.

Pointing to the aberrant and violent nature of slavery and colonialism, authors argue that the independence series of the 1960s reversed Europe’s Scramble for Africa in the 1880s. However, given the dismal postcolonial record, others object that independence has been as much a blessing as a bane. Nonetheless, HampaˆteBaˆ undertook the promotion of Fulbe—and African—oral tradition. Drawing on serendipitous fieldwork and privileged access to core pastoral initiation, he wrote Kumen (1961) with G. Dieterlen.

Then, he composed the beautiful Kaydara (1969) and Koodal (1974) epics. Baˆ coined the phrase “In Africa, when an elder dies, a library burns down.” His tire-less efforts earned him the moniker of “pope of African oral tradition.” Cheikh Hamidou Kane (1954) and scores of modern Fulbe writers followed suit. And artists (Sori Bobo, Hamidou Balde, Ali Farka Toure, Baaba Maal, Oumou Sy, Cole Ardo Sow, Ousmane Sow) contrib-uted significantly to Fulbe cultural revival.

Finally, Fulbe politicians participated in the inception and the expansion of post–World War II African nationalism. In 1963, Guinea’s Telli Diallo headed the Organization of African Unity. Today, Mali and Nigeria have Fulbe presidents. Yet, like elsewhere on the continent, the economic prospects are bleak. Wrong pol-icies and climate deterioration threaten the Fulbe way of life (Pulaaku).

Conse-quently, various grassroots associations trytorisetothe challenge, andonthe Internet, dozens of Web sites publish Fulbe content. Last but not least, the Wodaabe face painting and male beauty contests (jeerewol) are a topic of educa-tional literature and a mainstay of world tourism. It is a fitting tribute to the origi-nality, vitality, and universality of Fulbe-Haal-Pulaar civilization.

Tierno S. Bah

Further Reading

Adepegba, C. O. Decorative Arts of the Fulani Nomads. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1986.

Aherne, T. D. Gude Ngara: Exploring the Dynamics of the Creation, Use and Trade in Guinea’s Indigo Cloths. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2002.

Al-Naqar, ‘Umar. “Takrur the History of a Name.” Journal of African History 10, no. 3 (1969): 365–74.

Arnott, D., ed. “Literature in Fula.” In Litera-tures in African Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.