The Fula, Fulani, or Fulbe people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Sahel and West Africa, widely dispersed across the region. Inhabiting many countries, they live mainly in West Africa and northern parts of Central Africa but also in South Sudan, Sudan, and regions near the Red Sea coast. The approximate number of Fula people is unknown due to clashing definitions regarding Fula ethnicity; various estimates put the figure between 35 and 45 million worldwide.
The Fula people are widely distributed, across the Sahel from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, particularly in West Africa. The countries where they are present include:
There are many names (and spellings of the names) used in other languages to refer to the Fulɓe:
There are generally three different types of Fulani based on settlement patterns:
The language of Fulanis is Pulaar or Fulfulde, depending on the region of the speaker and spoken variations. The Fulani share a language with the Tukulor, leading to the title of Halpulaar, or Haalpulaar'en, for all Senegalese who speak the language ("hal" is the root of the Pulaar verb haalugol, meaning "to speak"). Fula is classified within the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family.
There are at least five major dialects: Futa Toro, Futa Jallon, and Masina in the west and Central Nigeria; and Sokoto and Adamawa in the east. Although they have similarities in grammar and vocabulary, communication among Fulani from different regions is difficult. As Muslims, many Fulani can read and write Arabic.
With the exception of Guinea, Fulas are minorities in every country in which they live. Because of this, many Fulanis also speak the language of their home country.
The original Fulani people were of North African or Middle Eastern origin. As such, they had lighter skin, thinner lips, and straighter hair, and are referred to by many Africans as "white people." Current Fulani peoples contain a large number of people from diverse backgrounds who became a part of the Fulani through conquest and religious conversion.
The Fulani were the first group of West Africans to convert to Islam through jihads, or holy wars. In continuing religious conquest, they took over much of West Africa and became a political and economic force in addition to a religious force.
The largest nomadic group of people in the world, they've played an influential role in politics, economics, and religion throughout Western Africa for over a thousand years. The introduction of Islam throughout West Africa is due in large part to the Fulani. Following Islamic conquest in the 1800s, non-Islamic Fulani eventually joined ranks with their fellows to form an extensive and powerful empire.
The Fulani were traditionally a nomadic, pastoral people, herding cattle, goats, and sheep across the vast, dry hinterlands of their domain, remaining somewhat distant from the local agricultural populations. Today, having interacted with other groups, they have developed a broader variety of social and economic patterns. However, those who continue in the pastoral tradition today enjoy greater prestige than those who do not, as they are considered the truest representatives of Fulani culture.
Among the nomadic Fulani, life can be extremely harsh. They often live in small, temporary camps. These can be quickly dismantled as they move in search of pasture and water for their herds. Because of the settlements' distance from towns, modern health care is not readily available.
Fulani have also settled in towns and cities. In the cities they usually reside in large family houses or compounds.
Central to the Fulani people's life is a code of behavior known as Pulaaku, which enables them to maintain their identity across boundaries and changes of life style. Sometimes informally called "Fulaniness," Pulaaku consists of four basic tenants, (Laawol Fulve):
Among the Fulani, music and art are part of daily life. Work music is sung and played on drums and flutes. Court music (drumming, horns, flutes) and praise-singing are popular in towns, especially during festivals. Praisesingers tell about a community's history and its leaders and other prominent individuals. Religious singers may cite Islamic scriptures. The Fula have a rich musical culture and play a variety of traditional instruments, including drums, hoddu (a plucked skin-covered lute similar to a banjo), and riti or riiti (a one-string bowed instrument similar to a violin), in addition to vocal music.
Most commonly, decorative art occurs in the form of architecture, or in the form of personal adornments such as jewelry, hats, and clothing.
Among the Fulani, the family includes one's immediate kin and extended family, all of whom are all treated as close kin. In rural areas, these groups tend to live close together and join in work efforts. In the towns and cities, they tend to be more widely dispersed. Each kin group (lenyol) normally recognizes a common male ancestor who lived several generations ago and founded the family.
Male family members usually choose spouses for their children. Matches are generally made between relatives (particularly cousins) and social equals. This practice helps keep wealth (cattle and land) in the family. Polygyny (multiple wives) is not uncommon in Fulani society. A man's wives all help with domestic work and can bear him many children.
It is a belief among the Fulani's that marriages are supposed to produce many children, and as a result of this, they marry young without any desire for birth control.
Unlike other African cultures, virginity is not placed on a high pedestal. In fact, women are supposed to bring sexual experience to the marriage. However, they, on the other hand, are to display modesty when the topic of marriage arises.
During the marriage ceremony, the father of the bride transfers one of his herds to the groom, as a sign of legalizing the marriage.
After this, another ceremony called 'Kabbal' may take place and neither the bride or groom is to be present.
Customarily, the status of the bride increases with each child she bears, especially if they are male.
Fulani's practice endogamy (The custom of marrying only within the limits of a local community, clan, or tribe).
The Fulani diet usually includes milk products such as yogurt, milk, and butter. Each morning they drink milk or gruel (gari) made with sorghum. Their main meals consist of a heavy porridge (nyiiri) made of flour from such grains as millet, sorghum, or corn. They eat it with soup (takai, haako) made from tomatoes, onions, spices, peppers, and other vegetables.
Fresh milk is termed 'Kossam' and yoghurt 'Pendidan'.
Other meals include Nyiri which is heavy grease made of flour and is eaten with soups (Takai, Haako) which is made from tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables.
Another popular meal is fermented milk with corn couscous which is referred to as 'latchiiri' or 'dakkere', it could also be taken as a fluid called 'gari' which is made of flour cereals.
On special and specific occasions they eat meat. Milk, goat cheese and millet with dates are pounded together to produce a thick beverage.
Dress codes and styles vary greatly. In general, however, married men and women follow the Islamic dress code, which prescribes modesty. The men wear large gowns, trousers, and caps. Women wear wraps and blouses. Married Muslim women wear veils when they leave their household.
Their mode of dressing depends on the region they come from. The Fulbe Wodabaabe wear long flowing embroidered or decorated robes which are always very colorful.
In central Guinea, the men wear hats with colorful embroidery, whereas in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger, both men and women wear a typical white or black cotton material gown, embellished with blue, red and green thread embroidery work.
The men wear a hat that tappers at 3 angular tips and it is called 'noppiire'. Fulani men wear solid colored shirts and trousers which go down to their lower calves, they carry walking sticks across their shoulders with their arms resting on them.
Women decorate their hair with beads and cowrie shells, they also decorate their hands, arms, and feet with henna (Lali).
A typical Fulani can be easily identified by markings on his/her face; around their eyes, mouth, and foreheads for men.
Nomadic Fulani also wear Islamic dress, but it is not as elaborate. The women do not wear veils. Younger men and women adorn themselves with jewelry and headdresses, and they braid their hair.
As Muslims, the Fulani observe the standard Islamic religious practices. They pray five times a day, learn to recite the holy scriptures (Qur'an, or Koran ) by heart, and give alms to the needy. For one month each year (Ramadan) they fast in the daytime. And at least once in their lifetime, they make a pilgrimage (hajj) to the Islamic holy land in Mecca. The most important duty is to declare one's true faith in Islam and believe that Muhammad was a prophet sent by Allah (God).
All Fulani participate in Islamic holidays (Id). The most important are the feast after the fasting period (Ramadan) and the feast celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. On these days, people pray in thanksgiving to Allah, visit their relatives, prepare special meals, and exchange gifts such as gowns or cloth.
Shortly after a child is born, a naming ceremony is held, following Islamic law and practice. Around the age of seven, boys are circumcised, followed by a small ceremony or gathering in their household. Shortly after this time, they begin performing herding or farming activities, sometimes on their own. At this age, girls help their mothers.
Girls are usually betrothed in marriage during their early to mid-teens. Boys remain sukaa'be (handsome young men) until around the age of twenty. At that time, they start a herd or obtain a farm, and marry. There are ceremonies to prepare the bride and groom for marriage. Afterward, their families sign a marriage contract under Islam. By middle age, a man may be known as a ndottijo (elder, old man) who has acquired wisdom over the years.
All Fulani have an elaborate code for interacting among themselves and with other people. The code, known as Pulaaku, decrees semteende (modesty), munyal (patience), and hakkiilo (common sense). All of these virtues must be practiced in public, among one's in-laws, and with one's spouse. Islam, which also requires modesty and reserve, has tended to reinforce this code.
All Fulani adults and older children help educate the younger children through scoldings, sayings and proverbs, and stories. Children also learn through imitation. In many communities, children from about the age of six attend Islamic (Koranic) school. Here they study, recite the scriptures, and learn about the practices, teachings, and morals of Islam. Nowadays, Fulani children in towns and cities attend primary and secondary schools. Some eventually enroll in universities.
It is more difficult for the children of nomadic families to attend school because they are often on the move.
Fulani children participate in various kinds of dances. Some are performed for their closest friends and kin, and some in the marketplace. Among the settled people, musicians and praise-singers perform at festivities such as weddings, naming ceremonies, and Islamic holidays. Today, most Fulani own radios and enjoy Western music. Among the settled Fulani, one commonly finds stereos, televisions, and VCRs.
Among the nomadic Fulani, young men participate in a kind of sport known as sharro. This is a test of bravery in which young men lash each other to the point of utmost endurance. This practice is most common as men enter manhood. However, some continue it until they become elders.
Among the settled Fulani, there is a variety of traditional local sports and games, including wrestling and boxing. Western sports such as soccer and track and field are now found in communities and schools.
In their spare time, Fulani women make handicrafts including engraved gourds, weavings, knitting, and baskets. Fulani men are less involved in the production of crafts such as pottery, iron-working, and dyeing than some neighboring peoples. They believe these activities may violate their code of conduct ( Pulaaku ) and bring shame upon them.