True history of Fulani, their origin and lifestyle

The untold story of the Fulani origin



ETHNONYMS: Bororo’en, Fellaata, Fellah, Filani, Fula, Fulata, Fulbe, Hilani, Peul, Toroobe


Identification. “Fulbe” is the preferred self-name of the group the Hausa term the “Fulani” or “Hilani.” In French countries, they tend to be termed “Peul” or “Fulata.” Because of their spread over a wide area and their assumption of cultural traits from surrounding groups, there is great confusion regarding the nature of Fulani ethnicity. This confusion is reflected in the confounding and conflating of names for particular segments or local groups of Fulbe, such as Toroobe and Bororo’en, with the entire ethnic group.

True history of Fulani, their origin and lifestyle
True history of Fulani, their origin and lifestyle

Location. The Fulani live in an area that stretches from Ouadaï, a city east of Lake Chad, to Senegal‘s Atlantic shore. There are groups of Fulani as far east as the border of Ethiopia.

Demography. Estimates of the number of Fulani vary. A major problem in reckoning the population is that Fulani are found in twenty nations in a wide swath of Africa—from Mauritania and Senegal to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Only Liberia may not have any Fulani settlements. It seems reasonable to accept an estimate of 7 to 8 million nomadic Fulani and 16 million settled Fulani.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is variously known as “Fulfulde,” “Pulaar,” “Fula,” or “Peul,” among other names. It belongs to the West African Subfamily of the Niger-Congo Group, along with Wolof, Serer, and Temne. There are many variations and dialects of Fulfulde. The influence of surrounding peoples is clearly seen in its local variations. Fulfulde is generally written in Roman script, although in the past it was written in Arabic.

History and Cultural Relations

A search for the origin of the Fulani is not only futile, it betrays a position toward ethnic identity that strikes many anthropologists as profoundly wrong. Ethnic groups are political-action groups that exist, among other reasons, to attain benefits for their members. Therefore, by definition, their social organization, as well as cultural content, will change over time. Moreover, ethnic groups, such as the Fulani, are always coming into—and going out of—existence.

Rather than searching for the legendary eastern origin of the Fulani, a more productive approach might be to focus on the meaning of Fulani identity within concrete historical situations and analyze the factors that shaped Fulani ethnicity and the manner in which people used it to attain particular goals.

People whom historians identify as Fulani entered present-day Senegal from the north and east. It is certain that they were a mixture of peoples from northern and sub-Saharan Africa. These pastoral peoples tended to move in an eastern direction and spread over much of West Africa after the tenth century.

Their adoption of Islam increased the Fulanis’ feeling of cultural and religious superiority to surrounding peoples, and that adoption became a major ethnic boundary marker. The Toroobe, a branch of the Fulani, settled in towns and mixed with the ethnic groups there. They quickly became noted as outstanding Islamic clerics, joining the highest ranks of the exponents of Islam, along with Berbers and Arabs. The Town Fulani (Fulbe Sirre) never lost touch with their Cattle Fulani relatives, however, often investing in large herds themselves. Cattle remain a significant symbolic repository of Fulani values.

The Fulani movement in West Africa tended to follow a set pattern. Their first movement into an area tended to be peaceful. Local officials gave them land grants. Their dairy products, including fertilizer, were highly prized. The number of converts to Islam increased over time. With that increase, Fulani resentment at being ruled by pagans, or imperfect Muslims, increased.

That resentment was fueled by the larger migration that occurred during the seventeenth century, in which the Fulani migrants were predominantly Muslim. These groups were not so easily integrated into society as earlier immigrants had been. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, revolts had broken out against local rulers. Although these revolts began as holy wars (jihads), after their success they followed the basic principle of Fulani ethnic dominance.

The situation in Nigeria was somewhat different from that elsewhere in West Africa in that the Fulani entered an area more settled and developed than that in other West African areas. At the time of their arrival, in the early fifteenth century, many Fulani settled as clerics in Hausa city-states such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria. Others settled among the local peoples during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the seventeenth century, the Hausa states had begun to gain their independence from various foreign rulers, with Gobir becoming the predominant Hausa state.

The urban culture of the Hausa was attractive to many Fulani. These Town or Settled Fulani became clerics, teachers, settlers, and judges—and in many other ways filled elite positions within the Hausa states. Soon they adopted the Hausa language, many forgetting their own Fulfulde language. Although Hausa customs exerted an influence on the Town Fulani, they did not lose touch with the Cattle or Bush Fulani.

These ties proved useful when their strict adherence to Islamic learning and practice led them to join the jihads raging across West Africa. They tied their grievances to those of their pastoral relatives. The Cattle Fulani resented what they considered to be an unfair cattle tax, one levied by imperfect Muslims. Under the leadership of the outstanding Fulani Islamic cleric, Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the Fulani launched a jihad in 1804. By 1810, almost all the Hausa states had been defeated.

Although many Hausa—such as Yakubu in Bauchi—joined dan Fodio after victory was achieved, the Fulani in Hausaland turned their religious conquest into an ethnic triumph. Those in Adamawa, for instance, were inspired by dan Fodio’s example to revolt against the kingdom of Mandara. The leader was Modibo Adamu, after whom the area is now named. His capital is the city of Yola. After their victories, the Fulani generally eased their Hausa collaborators from positions of power and forged alliances with fellow Fulani.


For the fully nomadic Fulani, the practice of transhumance, the seasonal movement in search of water, strongly influences settlement patterns. The basic settlement, consisting of a man and his dependents, is called a wuru. It is social but ephemeral, given that many such settlements have no women and serve simply as shelters for the nomads who tend the herds.

There are, in fact, a number of settlement patterns among Fulani. In the late twentieth century there has been an increasing trend toward livestock production and sedentary settlement, but Fulani settlement types still range from traditional nomadism to variations on sedentarism. As the modern nation-state restricts the range of nomadism, the Fulani have adapted ever increasingly complex ways to move herds among their related families: the families may reside in stable communities, but the herds move according to the availability of water. Over the last few centuries, the majority of Fulani have become sedentary.

Those Fulani who remain nomadic or seminomadic have two major types of settlements: dry-season and wet-season camps. The dry season lasts from about November to March, the wet season from about March to the end of October. Households are patrilocal and range in size from one nuclear family to more than one hundred people. The administrative structure, however, crosscuts patrilinies and is territorial. Families tend to remain in wet-season camp while sending younger males—or, increasingly, hiring non-Fulani herders—to accompany the cattle to dry-season camps.

Town Fulani live in much the same manner as the urban people among whom they live, maintaining their Fulani identity because of the prestige and other advantages to which it entitles its members. In towns, Fulani pursue the various occupations available to them: ruler, adviser to the ruler, religious specialist, landlord, business, trade, and so forth.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Fulani form the largest pastoral nomadic group in the world. The Bororo’en are noted for the size of their cattle herds. In addition to fully nomadic groups, however, there are also semisedentary Fulani—Fulbe Laddi—who also farm, although they argue that they do so out of necessity, not choice. A small group, the Fulbe Mbalu or Sheep Fulani, rely on sheep for their livelihood.

The Toroobe are outstanding clerics in the Sunni branch of Islam. They have generally intermarried with Hausa and no longer speak Fulfulde. They are found practicing other urban trades: teaching, serving in government positions, engaging in legal activities, renting property, financing trade, and so forth.

Many of the other Town Fulani were actually slaves of the Fulani who now identify with the group because of their high prestige. These urban dwellers engage in all the trades one finds in Hausa towns from crafts to long-range trade throughout Africa and the world.

Industrial Arts. The Fulani are not particularly noted for industrial arts, except for those associated with cattle. They do engage in leatherworking and some craft production. Many of their former slaves who have assumed Fulani ethnicity follow the basic crafts of other West Africans: silver- and gold-smithing, ironworking, basket making, and similar crafts.

Trade. The Fulani are engaged in long-distance trade, generally involving cattle, with their Hausa colleagues. Often the Hausa are also butchers who control West African cattle markets by controlling access to Fulani cattle.

Division of Labor. Herding cattle is a male activity. Tending and milking cattle, however, are women’s work. Women may also sell dairy products; their graceful movement with containers of milk or cheese is a common sight in West African towns. Adolescent males traditionally have been in charge of moving the herds, whereas their elders deal with the political decisions and negotiate with sedentary people for the safe movement of the herds through farmlands.

Land Tenure. Land is held by—and inherited through—the patrilineage. As the Fulani have become increasingly sedentary—generally as a result of the pressure of the modern nation state and its centralized control—rights in land have become increasingly important.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Fulani are patrilineal and patrilocal. Kinship and seniority are vital to their way of life. The basic elements of kinship are sex, age, and generation. Full siblings tend to unite against half-siblings, although half-siblings with the same mother do share a special bond.

The Fulani have a principle of generational seniority that is embodied in the general organization of lineages. There are four general lineages, all traced to descent from a common ancestor and his sons; however, everyday groups cut across these yettore lines. Such groups developed to meet historical needs. Over time, patrilineages—much shallower than the four general lineages—emerged. These patrilineages, in turn, are intersected by territorial groups under men called “guides.”

Patrilineages are named and consist of three ascending generations. They are coresidential, and members cooperate in pastoral pursuits. The patrilineage controls marriage and is endogamous. A clan is a cluster of lineages, and the clan members generally share a wet-season camp.

Kinship Terminology. There is a good deal of ambiguity in the Fulani use of kinship terms. Thus, any of these terms can be used to refer to a specific person or a range of people. Part of this ambiguity results from the Fulani preference for close marriage so that any person might, in fact, be addressed or referred to by any of several terms.

Goggo is used for father s sister or paternal aunt. Bappanngo is father’s brother, whereas kaawu refers to mother’s brother; dendiraadodesignates a cross cousin, and sakikeis a sibling. Baaba is father, and yaayeis mother; biddo or bu is a child. These terms are often combined, however. Thus, sakiraabe refers to both siblings and cousins of all sexes. A true sibling if elder is termed mawniyo ; if younger, minyiyo. Maama refers both to grandparents, of either sex, and their sakiraabe and their grandchildren. When it is necessary to distinguish male from female, a term may be added: biddifor male, and dibbo for female.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Ideally, the Fulani do not practice birth control because the perfect or model Fulani marriage will produce many children. Toward that goal, the Fulani marry young. No special value is placed on virginity, and women are not shy about boasting about their various experiences. In fact, the Fulani expect young women to bring sexual experience to marriage. There are even special dances in which women select mates, with the proviso that the mate selected not be her fiancéor a particular category of relative—one to whom she could be affianced, for example.

At the same time, a woman is expected to display appropriate modesty whenever the subject of marriage arises, for marriage confers on her a special status. There has been some confusion regarding what constitutes the marriage ceremony among the Fulani. Because neither bride nor groom may be present at the ceremony, owing to shame-avoidance taboos, the significance of the cattle ceremony (koowgal ) has often been overlooked. In that ceremony, the bride’s father transfers one of his herd to the groom, legalizing the marriage. There may also follow a more typical Islamic ceremony, termed kabbalAgain, neither bride nor groom may actually be present at the ceremony.

An important public acknowledgment of the marriage is the movement of the bride to her husband’s village, termed bangal.The women of that village come to greet her, and the welcome is a rite of passage for the bride. The bride’s status increases with each child she has, especially with the birth of males.

The Fulani prefer endogamy. Their first choice of a marriage partner is a patrilateral parallel cousin. If that is not possible, their other choices are for the partners to share a great-grandfather, a great-great grandfather, or a patrilateral cross cousin.

Domestic Unit. A man is allowed four wives. Each wife brings cattle with her to the marriage. It is a major obligation for a woman to milk the cattle and prepare the dairy products. A woman receives respect from her sons and daughters-in-law.

Inheritance. Lineage members inherit cattle and widows. Among Town Fulani, inheritance generally follows Islamic prescriptions, with the exception that generally women do not contest their inheritance with their full brothers.

Socialization. At 2 years of age, children are weaned. A child’s father remains distant throughout its life. Women provide for children’s needs. Thus, a mother and her daughters tend to the needs of her sons. A young girl first plays at carrying dolls on her back and then moves on to carrying her baby brother.

Among the Pastoral Fulani, baby girls are given amulets for fertility and boys for virility. Mothers take care to preserve and shape their children’s conformity to the Fulani ideal notions of beauty. Mothers attempt to lengthen their children’s noses by pressing them between their fingers, stretching, and squeezing hard. They also attempt to shape their children’s heads into the ideal round shape.

Acquiring a culture is perceived as acquiring something that is found. The Fulani term is tawaangal. There is a sense that no one invented nor can change these traditions, for they define what it is to be Fulani.

Young children are treated with great gentleness and are rarely disciplined. Adults seek to avoid giving them any emotional shocks. Most training is given by a child’s mother and the other women of the compound. They are believed to be more capable of patience and reciprocity. Young girls are initiated into their adult work through games. The young girl carries her doll. At 2 or 3 years old her ears are pierced, six holes in her right ear and six in her left. Almost as soon as she can walk well, she is placed into the middle of a circle of dancing women who begin to teach her to dance and praise her efforts lavishly.

Indeed, the transition to adulthood proceeds in smooth steps. At about 5 years of age, girls are taught the rules of the moral code -mbo. There are to be no sexual relations of any kind with brothers. A woman may not look at her fiancé in the face. She must demonstrate respect for elders and must never mention her future parents-in-law. Women have two essential roles in Fulani society, that of sister and daughter. Either at her naming ceremony or just before she leaves her father’s home for her husband’s, a woman’s father presents her with a heifer. There is shame for a man on entering his daughter’s home; however, the strong affection he demonstrates for his grandchildren is meant to show his affection for his daughter as well.

Young boys play at taking care of the cattle and performing men’s work. Mothers come to rely more on sons than on daughters because daughters will leave the compound upon marriage.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Fulani are many different people. Among those who term themselves “Fulani” are former slaves and members of castes or guilds, such as blacksmiths or bards. It is important to note that the Fulani hold that belonging to society itself is dependent on the will of the individual.

Political Organization. Fulani tend to be the ruling caste among Islamic communities in the northern areas of West Africa. They control the various northern emirates in what was Northern Nigeria, for example. They also play a major role in the modern governments of many West African states.

Among the Cattle Fulani, a leader (ardo) of a territorial group has a major role. Patrilineages play an important part in regulating day-to-day matters and in controlling cattle. They also govern marriages and widow inheritance.

Conflict. Kinship and regional groups regulate conflict within and between groups. The Fulani often come into conflict with settled populations among which they pass. Alliances with Town Fulani help resolve a number of disputes between Fulani and their neighbors. The Fulani are quick to resort to combat in the defense of their interest but also have a reputation for waiting for the opportune moment to seek revenge if the situation demands patience.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Over 90 percent of the Town Fulani are Muslims. It is, in fact, rather difficult to discover any Fulani—Town or Cattle—who admits to not being Muslim, no matter how lax his or her practice may be. The Fulani share many beliefs with other West African Muslims. They use Islam both as a means to distinguish themselves from others, through the reputation of Fulani clerics, and as a link to members of other African groups.

At the same time, there is belief in the steady-state nature of culture that preceded Islam. Culture is seen to be unchanging and constant from generation to generation. The only improvement a Cattle Fulani sees possible is to have more children than his or her parents. Otherwise, the appropriate thing to do is to live according to the code of the ancestors.

That code stresses the symbolic importance of cattle in defining Fulani ethnicity. There is also a requirement to respect one’s seniors and to love one’s mother. The ethos of the Fulani is best summed up in the concept of palaaku. It portrays the ideal Fulani as one who has stoic sobriety, reserve, and strong emotional ties to cattle. At the same time, the model Fulani is gentle in demeanor. His carriage conveys a proud reserve, almost a disdain toward non-Fulani. It is said that no one knows what a Fulani is thinking. The true Fulani is physically as well as psychologically distant from other people, especially non-Fulani. Moreover, he is enjoined from displays of strong emotions. His demeanor is taciturn, loathing the boisterousness of others. Wealth is not to be vulgarly displayed but carefully and quietly tended.

The Fulani have a number of taboos. They may not pronounce the name of a spouse, a first son, a first daughter, a father or mother, or a parent-in-law or the names of the parents of any beautiful girl or young woman. In addition to observing the usual Islamic dietary laws, they may not eat goat meat, lest they become lepers.

Religious Practitioners. As Muslims, the Fulani share with other Muslims reliance on traditional Islamic religious practitioners and are themselves prominent members of the Islamic clerical class. In common with other West Africans, however, Fulani will frequent local religious practitioners who have established reputations for their curative powers and supernatural abilities.

Ceremonies. Various life-cycle events—naming, acceptance of young girls into the group, marriage, first child, and so on—are marked by ceremonies. The Shar’o ceremony demonstrates to the community that a young man has come of age. In it, adolescent friends take turns beating each other across the chest with their walking sticks. No sign of pain or discomfort can be shown. Although adolescents have died in this ceremony, young men are eager to participate and display their scars with pride throughout their lives.

Arts. The Fulani are noted for their oral literature, which celebrates the concept of palaaku and serves to define Fulani identity. Fulani oral literature has been influenced both by surrounding peoples and by Islam. The major categories of Fulani literature are poetry, history, story, legend, proverb, magic formula, and riddle. Many of these genres are sung, either by amateurs or by professionals.

Medicine. The Fulani participate in a number of medical systems. One is an Islamic system, basically derived from the Arabs and through them from Greco-Roman sources. They share many traditions with the groups among whom they live. Since the onset of British colonization—around the turn of the twentieth century—they have been exposed to Western medical practices. In common with other West Africans, they have incorporated elements from these various systems in a rather syncretistic and pragmatic fashion.

Death and Afterlife. If one lives up to the palaaku code and obeys Allah‘s laws, there will be rewards in the afterlife. The Fulani, in common with other Muslims, believe in an afterlife of material rewards for the followers of Allah.


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