Who are the Fulani?

The Fulani in a Changing World

Though their origin remains one of the mysteries of African history, twenty-seven million Fulani (also called the Fula, Peul, Pula or Fulfuldeh) occupy a unique niche at the periphery of human settlement from Cameroon to Senegal.  The Fulani exemplify the plight of the poor populations who suffer disproportionately from the industrial development of rich nations.

Riding into remote dusty towns astride steel horses, Fulani men on bicycles bring to mind the cowboys of the old American West.  While they are often characterized as the gypsies of Africa, their bravado, pride, and character is pure cowboy.  Similarly, Fulani women display a quiet grit and determination reminiscent of those who settled the old American frontier.

It’s rare to see a young Fulani without a well-sharpened machete at his side, but he travels peacefully.  “Saidjam”, he will greet you.  “I come in peace.”  With steadfast individualism and an introspective demeanor, the Fulani come to town to trade cattle or sell milk and sun-dried cheese, but they leave before sundown for the quiet of their camp.  Settled in the bush, the Fulani live in small earth and straw huts with their immediate families.  They spend most of their lives outdoors with their herds, retreating to their huts only to sleep once their cattle are tied up each night.  Some have opted to stay in place as farmers and herdsmen for other people’s cattle, while others still travel as nomads.  In both cases, the Fulani maintain a distinct cultural identity.

It is not difficult to spot a Fulani.  With slender bodies and rugged facial features, they proudly adorn themselves in the brightest colors and display elaborate jewelry or even polished coins woven into their hair.  For a trip to the market, young Fulani girls may spend hours preparing their hair, attire, and makeup.  Extensive facial tattoos often identify an individual’s tribal affiliation and family status.  Within this display of traditional identity, it’s easy to see the influence of modern culture. A bright Chelsea football jersey frames colorful beaded necklaces.  A chrome-polished flashlight is slung from the shoulder on a neon nylon chord.  A Nokia phone hangs proudly from a belt loop with flashing LED lights enhancing the bling.  The Fulani haven’t joined the modern world; rather, they’ve observed discretely, grabbed what they like, and made it their own.

Fulani traditions vary widely from region to region.  The nomadic Fula of Niger, the Woodabé, celebrate the end of the rainy season with the Geerewol festival that features an elaborate male beauty pageant.  Teenage boys gather in their finest attire, paint their faces to highlight white teeth and bright eyes, and display their swords, flashlights, and stereo boom boxes.   The most impressive boys win the attention of the ladies, and potentially, a bride.  Further south, in Benin, Fulani boys celebrate their coming-of-age differently.  They stand stoically as elders lash them with whips.  Those who flinch are not suited for manhood.  From flagellation to fashion shows, the diversity of Fulani culture is linked by a common thread:  a strong sense of self and firm adhesion to tradition.

While the developed world pours millions of dollars into an array of struggling countries and ethnicities, the nomadic Fulani still have few dedicated schools and limited economic resources.  The Fulani are often politically marginalized and they lay outside the scope of most aid projects.  Climate change accelerates the growth of the Sahara desert and the Fulani herders often travel hundreds of kilometers in search of better pastureland.  With neighboring farmers under pressure to increase output, the Fulani face an ever-growing squeeze on their homeland, migration routes, and cultural identity.  Their lifestyle increasingly brings them into conflicts of interest with the settled farms and villages of the exponentially growing African population.  Thus far, most disputes have been settled through negotiations for dedicated pasture corridors.

If historical trends continue, the Fulani will continue to seek a peaceful balance in the face of tremendous odds.  But what new challenges lay on the horizon, and will the peaceful status quo remain?  This project aims to understand how the steadfast Fulani maintain such a unique identity while adapting to a changing world.

Fulani in the Media

The Fulani have been documented before, most notably a 1983 National Geographic article about the Wodaabe and Pat Ndukwe’s 1996 book entitled Fulani (Rosen Publishing), but this project will distinguish itself by deep reporting and rare intimacy with the subject.  The rich Fulani culture has yet to be documented in web 2.0.  Staying in Fulani camps and exchanging stories in their native tongue, this endeavor promises a new cultural insight.  Rather than compiling a conventional anthropological examination, this photodocumentary emphasizes individual vignettes to represent the larger themes and stories of the Fulani people.



Christoph and Guida

Travel Details