The Fulani people, also called Fulbe (pl. Pullo) or Peul, are well known for the delicate decoration of utilitarian objects such as milk bowls that reflect their nomadic and pastoral lifestyle. The history of the Fulani in West Africa begins in the fifth century A.D. Islamized early on and traveling constantly, they did not develop a tradition of figural, sculpted art. The complex nature of art among this large and long-established group in West Africa is widely recognized but still understudied.
A Long Itinerary
Although the migrations of the Fulani cattle herders, as well as their physical appearance, have generated a variety of hypotheses about their origins outside the region, current studies demonstrate that Fulani culture belongs to the West African context.
Their language, Pular or Fufulde, onto which some pre-Berber components are grafted, is of the Niger-Congo group. The ancestors of the Fulani, among other groups, seem to have been pushed from the Sahara southward at the onset of its desertification around the third millennium B.C. Established in southern Mauritania at the beginning of the Christian era, Fulani people developed a strong presence in Futa Toro in Senegambia from the fifth to the eleventh century. From there, they migrated further east.
Fulani people were among the first Africans to convert to Islam. Between the eighth and the fourteenth century, Fulbe-speaking people of Takrur had produced a class of Muslim clerics, the Torodbe, who would take on proselytizing activities across the entire western Sudan. Increasingly, the memory of their previous pastoral religion was lost, except in some subgroups such as the Bororo or Wodaabe (i.e., “Isolated”), who remained animists and nomads. Between the eleventh and the seventeenth century, the Fulbe gradually extended their grazing territory from over much of the West African savanna up to Borno. They usually took no part in the political life of the surrounding entities, and were sometimes subjected to heavy taxes.
To resist taxation and military conscription or acquire more grazing land, Fulani waged religious wars in the nineteenth century. From these jihads, or holy wars, Muslim theocracies emerged, for instance, the Sokoto caliphate, which became, under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio (‘Uthman ibn Fudi), the largest single West African state of the nineteenth century.
Over the centuries, Fulani migrations have interacted with all the other groups in western and central Sudan. Today, Fulani people live in nearly every country of the West African savanna, between Senegal and Cameroon.
Traces of Fulani Culture in Tassili
Examination of certain rock paintings in the Tassili n’Ajjer suggests the presence of proto-Fulani cultural traits in the region by at least the fourth millennium B.C. Scholars specializing in Fulani culture believe that some of the imagery depicts rituals that are still practiced by contemporary Fulani people.
At the Tin Tazarift site, for instance, historian Amadou Hampaté Bâ recognized a scene of the lotori ceremony, a celebration of the ox’s aquatic origin. In a finger motif, Ba detected an allusion to the myth of the hand of the first Fulani herdsman, Kikala. At Tin Felki, Ba recognized a hexagonal carnelian jewel as related to the Agades cross, a fertility charm still used by Fulani women.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Heralded as one of the most beautiful people in Africa, the Wodaabe people live a life where looking good is the norm. There are many indigenous tribes throughout Africa, but none of them are centered around beauty like the Wodaabe people. From macho-men in makeup, to fascinating ceremonies, here are 15 things you didn’t know about the Wodaabe people.
Originally nomadic and a subgroup of the Fulani people, the Wodaabe live predominantly in the deserts of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Central African Republic. They would often migrate during seasonal changes to more hospitable and livable areas.
Today, there are an estimated 160,000 to 200,000 Wodaabe in Africa. They are a subgroup of the Fulani people, which has a population of 41 million. The Wodaabe show aversion to the mainstream Fulani, since they perceived them to have “lost” their true Wodaabe traditions. The Fulani people also show disdain for Wodaabe, and sometimes refer to them as “wild.”
It’s common to see Wodaabe people donning tattoos, body paint, jewelry and colorful sashes. Beauty is very important for the Wodaabe. Even men will invest large amounts of time, money, and effort into beautifying themselves to attract women.
A woman can choose a man by his beauty — usually constituted of a long nose, light skin, big eyes and super white teeth. This is why you’ll see the men in ceremonies grinning wide and enlarging their pupils. The makeup they wear is often used to enhance their best features.
They speak the Fula language but do not read or write the language. The word Wodaabe means “people of the Taboo.”
Courtesy of Dan Lundberg/Flickr.com
The Woodabe religion is predominantly Islamic, and adheres to the teaching of Muhammad. They were one of the first ethnic groups outside of the Middle East to convert to the religion. However, there are a few tribes which stick with the pre-Islamic traditional belief system.
The Wodaabe people take their code of ethics (pulaaku) very seriously. They must learn the balance of discipline, wisdom, courage, responsibility and self control. This moral code helps the people maintain their identities and lead a flourishing life.
8. Marriage and childbearing
Wodaabe are largely polygamist and marriages are often arranged by parents. Once a bride is impregnated by her husband, she moves back home with her mother to take care of the child. After the birth of the child, the woman becomes a “boofeydo” (a pariah or taboo) and both the wife and the husband are not permitted to speak with each other for a few years.
9. Gerewol ceremony
The most important ceremony among the Wodaabe is the Gerewol, where men compete to be selected by women as the most beautiful. The men will sing, dance, and model themselves to appear attractive to women. After the beauty contest, the winners may or may not sleep with the women. It all depends on the woman’s wish.
The Wodaabe people are famous for their beautifully woven textile art. The dyed cloths are highly sought after and usually pricey to buy internationally. The fabrics are usually made by women, who spend hours applying intricate embroidery onto the cloth.
Although the Wodaabe originally lived in grass huts, more and more of the members are adapting modern lifestyles and living inside camping tents. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, fold-up tents prove to be much easier and less burdensome than building grass huts every time they relocate.
Courtesy of Dan Lundberg/Flickr.com
12. The role of women
Wodaabe women have more sexual freedom than their significant others and may sleep with two men (at the same time) before marriage. If a woman marries an unattractive man, the husband will allow her to sleep with an attractive man to produce better-looking babies, since beauty is held in such high regard within the culture.
The Woodabe people heavily rely on their Zebu cattle (a long-horned breed that withstand unbearable climates). They will sell or loan their cattle during dry seasons. During rainy seasons (when the cattle are healthier), the cattle are used for milk and meat production.
Courtesy of Rosemarysheel.com
14. The role of men
When a Wodaabe boy turns 15, he officially becomes a man, and is given a cow and a communal celebration to mark his coming of age. Once he’s declared a man, he’ll start working to make himself more attractive to please women.
The unique Wodaabe traditions of singing and dancing are slowly gaining attention from international media (such as National Geographic) and various record labels. Recordings of their songs have been made into CDs, and the men are often invited to display their talents in Western countries. Some Wodaabe people will respectfully decline, but invite visitors to their land where they will offer them drinks with hallucinogenic effects.
Alexis BorochoffAlexis Mass Borochoff is a professional writer and painter currently living in South Florida. A restless wanderlust, she has lived in New York, Atlanta, Tallahassee and Orlando searching in vain for a home that doesn't exist. She paints people's pets in Victorian attire and is an avid collector of daguerreotypy photographs. Her idea of fun is visiting hole-in-the-wall restaurants for authentic cuisine, browsing antique malls and retiring the day with an intriguing non-fiction book. She is also fluent in American Sign Language.