The Fulani are found in Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. The Sahara desert defines the north boundary; Cameroon and the Central African Republic define the south boundary. Overall, the population encompasses 17 countries. The Fula, or Fulani, are considered to be the largest nomadic pastoral group in the world. Literature suggests that the term Fulani is used to describe the entire population, whereas Fula is a subgroup of the large population. There are five major groups of the Fulani, the Fula Toro, Fulakunda, Fulfulde, Fuuta Jalon, and Tukolor.
The Fulani are a very large and disperse group. This dispersion results in many differences among the groups. Despite the cultural differences that have emerged over time and separation, the Fulani still have the same appearance that distinguishes them from other African people. Physically, they are very slim, with a coppery-light skin and they possess almost Caucasian features. Many of these features have changed slightly over time because of intermarriage with other ethnic groups, producing many Negroid features in some Fulani.
Another common feature that exists among the Fulani is their language. The common language is known as Fulfulde or Pulaar depending on the region. There are 11 known dialects of this language used throughout western Africa.
Historically, this culture was strictly nomadic. The people traveled from one region to another in a search of water to support their herds of cattle. They migrated from North Africa and eastward from Senegal to as far as Sudan. Through time the Fulani have moved towards a more sedentary life-style. It is estimated that today, seven million Fulani cling to the nomadic life-style, while up to twenty million are sedentary or semi-nomadic.
The tropical climate makes semi-nomadic life the choice for many Fulani. During the wet season the people settle at a permanent location and pasture the cattle there. The woman and girls are responsible for milking and caring for the cattle, while the men are involved in agriculture. The men are busy planting and harvesting the crops, consisting of millet, rice and peanuts. Women are expected to spend the majority of the afternoon preparing the evening meal for the men. During the dry season, the young men of the village leave with the cattle and move around looking for water. When the rainy season approaches, they return to the village.
Social culture of the Fulani varies slightly from group to group, but some similarities exist. Islam is the primary religion and it is estimated that more than 99% of Fulani today are Muslim. The influence of the Islam kinship patterns is evident. Intralinear marriages are preferred. Most men are polygynous with one man as a family head.
De Bruijn, Mirjam. "The Hearthhold in Pastoral Fulbe Society, Central Mali: Social Relations, Milk and Drought." Africa, Fall 1997. Vol. 67; Pg 625-652.
Fulani: the Largest Unreached Nomadic Pastoral People Group in the World www.dci.org.uk/noframes/Fulani.html
Fulani: A Cluster Profile Covering 28 Fula Groups in 16 Different Countries www.bethany.com/profiles/clusters/fulani.html
Written by Tami Thielbar