African Cultures – Fulani

The Fulani people, also known as the Fula in English, are an African group that are found in Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. Basically, they occupy the area from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Chad, and even certain areas of Sudan. There are currently approximately 15 million Fulani people living in Africa, the vast majority (about two-thirds, in fact) of whom are living in Nigeria.

The Fulani are part of the Niger-Congo linguistic group and speak the Fulaar dialect of the Fulfulde language. They are particularly proud of their culture, heritage and identity.

The Fulani people are believed to have come from Libya or the southern part of Egypt, from where they gradually moved towards the coastline in the west of Africa. Then, in the 1200’s, the Islam people, their religion and its traditions began to penetrate this culture, which happened at the same time that the Fulani people began to spread towards the central regions of Africa. They became a particularly strong warring nation, powerful in their successful endeavours to settle in various areas of the continent. Then, in the early part of the 19th century, the Islam or Moslem Empire of Sokoto was established, which subjected all of the Hausa kingdoms (of which the Fulani were one). Thereafter, the Europeans started to arrive in Africa, also playing a major role in the decline of the Fulani power. Still, this did not completely eradicate the culture, as the people retained their hold on many of the customs and ideals that defined them. This has meant that, even today, the Fulani people are a unique and fascinating group. They are lighter in complexion than most black African cultures and have straighter hair, which has been surmised to be due to their integration with the Islam folk.

This culture is divided into castes, which consist of (in order of importance) nobility, cattle owners, herdsmen and then craftsmen and cultivators, who are deemed to be the very lowest classes. In fact, the vast majority of those within these last two divisions have descended from black slaves. The Fulani family is under the head of the patriarch, or father. The entire society is based upon the different families’ patriarchs and the land that they own and occupy, as well as the buildings and livestock on that land. The marriages within this culture are polygamous. However, a bride price is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family, so no man will have more wives than he can afford to pay the bride price for. Because of their original ties to Libya and southern Egypt, the Fulani people retain many of the cultural characteristics of the Libyan-Berber people.

The Fulani people are strictly rural or pastoral. Any other jobs that need to be done in their area are left to neighbouring tribes and cultures. They are traditionally nomadic, moving from one area to the next according to their needs and the natural resources available to them. They are also known for their trading, making a life from bartering and selling their goods. Their livestock farming consists mainly of cattle (their most important and valued asset), sheep and goats. Interestingly, the Fulani tend to distance themselves from other agricultural populations around them.

These people are known for their tattoos, which are inked onto men, women and, sometimes, even infants. The Fulani women frequently tattoo their lips, making them black, or dye them with henna. Tattoos are considered to beautify the body, and aesthetic beauty is particularly important in this culture. Young girls and women typically wear strips of colourful cotton woven into the hair just above their foreheads. Their clothing is characteristically colourful, comprising long robes with a little embroidery or embellishment sewn on. Men and women both don these long robes, and the herdsmen and women wear turbans. Jewellery is important for both men and women.

Bravery is a very important concept in the Fulani culture. They have an array of weapons testifying to their warrior courage and lack of fear. When young boys are coming of age, they perform a ritual that requires that they strike one another with spears, laughing as they receive blow after blow to their young bodies. Many boys have died during these ceremonies.

Music and song are an integral part of the Fulani culture. Their instruments include a riti (similar to a violin), hoddu (like a banjo) and drums. Ululation is also a very popular addition to most musical pieces. This is a vocal technique that is high-pitched, adding a tribal sound to the overall piece.

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