The Fulani: a people without borders

The Fulani: a people without borders

The Fulani are undoubtedly nearly thirty million in Africa.  Present in about fifteen countries, they share the same language, the same culture, and often feed the same fantasies.  Meeting with a people without borders.

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 The 10 pillars of "pulanity"

 Here is one that responds to the canon of what the writer Tierno Monénembo calls "the tumultuous breed of Dôya Malal [the first Fulani]".  Contrary to the fable that the followers of the ethnicist cliché would like to immortalize, they are not all fair-skinned and not all have aquiline noses.  But Dian Diallo has it all: the name obviously, certainly the most common in the Fulani universe.  But also that zinzolin complexion, those oversized ears and that elongated face, of which Monénembo, author of a monumental fresco dedicated to his people (Peuls), wrote that he sweated anger and susceptibility.  And then there's this fragile figure that you swear won't get through the next weld.  "Hungry like a good Fulani," laughs the friend Dian brought us to: Professor Fary Ka, head of the linguistics laboratory at the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (Ifan) in Dakar.  Dian Diallo smiles.  We tease each other among brothers.  Professor Ka would later admit that today "the physical characteristics attributed to the Fulani are no longer valid."  Everywhere, they mingled with the Mandingo, the Dogon, the Hausa ...

 At 34, Dian Diallo is proud to belong to this people without borders.  Every day, from his house at the foot of one of the two Mamelles, in Dakar, he tracks down the Fulani from all over the world on the Web.  It brings them together in a forum, where we write in English, French, Arabic, Portuguese… And in Pulaar obviously, one of the most spoken languages ​​in Africa.  Soon, Dian will be launching a Fulani dating site.

 This passion for "this people so typical and so particular", in his own words, devours him.  It hasn't always been that way.  For a long time, Dian ignored his origins.  Of course, at home, we spoke Pulaar.  But outside, he spoke in Wolof.  “When I was younger, I looked for Fulani who were happy to call themselves Fulani, but I couldn't find any,” he explains.  Then one day he wondered about his ancestors.  Today, he writes in Pulaar on his Facebook page and uploads pictures of himself in traditional clothes, with the pootu (multicolored hat) on his head.  In 2007, he even made what he calls "the pilgrimage", a trip to Fouta-Djalon, Guinea, to the land of his ancestors.  He kept images of it in his head.  “It's a paradise,” he said.

 In the Fulani imagination, Fouta-Djalon is a land of plenty - like Macina (in Mali, between Mopti and Timbuktu), Fouta-Toro (in north-eastern Senegal) and Adamawa (in the north  Nigeria).  Because it is a beautiful region, green and hilly, where the oxen graze there peacefully and there is abundant fruit harvest.  But above all because it is here that the Fulani have expressed all their power.  In the name of Islam and Pulaaku (which could be translated as "being Fulani"), for two centuries (in the 18th and 19th centuries), they imposed their law there.  It was from here that they waged endless jihads against the wicked they despised.  This is also where they let their divisions speak.  Two centuries of conspiracies and fratricidal struggles.

 Today, the theocratic state of Fouta-Djalon is a distant memory.  The two capitals of yesteryear, Timbo and Fougoumba, are now just villages.  The epicenter of Fouta now lies further north, in Labé, the second most populous city in the country after Conakry.

 Labé, capital of Fouta, where the majority of Guinean traders come from.

 Labé, capital of Fouta, where the majority of Guinean traders come from.

 © Sylvain Cherkaoui / JA

 This is where decisions are made.  Since colonization, the Imam of the Grand Mosque has taken over from the theocratic heads of state, the Almamy.  "When he decides, all the Fouta follows", we are assured.

 Glorious past

 We can hardly believe it: power, in Africa as elsewhere, has accustomed us to pomp.  Here, nothing like it.  The imam, El Hadj Tierno Abdourahmane Bah, a modestly dressed 96-year-old man, awaits the call from beyond in a crumbling house.  He has long ceased to lead prayer in the mosque founded three centuries ago by his ancestors.  The only trace of a glorious past: on the walls, photos show "the old man" alongside Yasser Arafat.


 In Labé, some would like nothing to change.  The theocratic state is an ideal to be rediscovered.  And the pulaaku a treasure to be preserved.  El Hadj Mohamed Badrou Bah, the son of the imam, his designated successor, and the few notables who attend our interview see themselves as the guardians of the temple.  “Pulaaku,” he said, “is a set of behaviors that all Fulani must follow.  It is to love Islam, to love the foreigner.  It is sharing and being patient.  Give great importance to education as well as to work.  "

 Bah and his companions cite as an example the city of Touba, a holy city built to the glory of Allah.  A daring comparison: Touba is the epicenter of Mouridism in Senegal;  Labé is just one landmark among many for a people present in a significant way in some fifteen African countries.  Of course, when a serious problem arises in the community, delegations come from Senegal, Nigeria or Mali.  But the Peuls will never be able to have a promised land.  "Miserable vagabond, bohemian of nothing at all," writes Monénembo.

 Preserving "what makes a Peul is a Peul" is also the fight of Zeïnab Koumanthio Diallo.  Eleven years ago, she founded with others the Fouta-Djalon museum (to her knowledge, the only one dedicated to the Fulani) to slow down the decline of Fulani values ​​while young people, who are increasingly going into exile.  , “Move away from their culture”.  In Fouta, the exodus is such that we now speak of "cellular marriage": the only link between the woman, who has remained in the village, and the man, who has gone to make his fortune in the United States, in France or in another country.  African, is the cell phone.

 In this museum, as in Fulani homes, there are no masks, no drums, but pastoral flutes and calabashes.  There are also Islamic books and turbans, the stool called dyullun, on which the woman sits to milk the cow and which is passed from mother to daughter.  Or the yhbbe, this fig tree wood container in which milk is poured, the treasure of the Fulani.

 According to Zeïnab Koumanthio Diallo, like many keepers of tradition, these are the three pillars of pulaaku: Islam, woman and cow.  But what is left?  “The faith,” Ms. Diallo tells us, “is intact.  The Fouta has always practiced moderate Islam.  Women still have many battles to win, including the fight against female genital mutilation.  As for the cow, it no longer represents much - at least here, in the Fouta.  Elsewhere, she says, pastoralism continues.  There is even a tribe, the Mbororos, which continues to “walk behind the oxen” between Niger, Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  No mixing, no pied-à-terre: they would be pure, we believe in certain circles… “But here, people have settled down.  We are traders, ”laments Ms. Diallo.  For her, this development threatens “the Fulani”.

 However, this is not the first time that these people have suffered a brutal moult.  Once an indecipherable pagan, a few centuries ago he became an active proselyte of Islam in West Africa.  From a pastor who had a reputation for talking only to his oxen, he turned into a trader able to buy in Shanghai and sell in Dakar.  Fifty years ago, in Conakry, the Peuls were caretakers or housekeepers.  They "slept on the veranda of the settlers' houses" and lived "on the generosity of the Soussous", tells us an old inhabitant of the Guinean capital from Fouta.  Today, they monopolize import-export and arouse the jealousy of other Guineans.  However, have they lost the values ​​that were theirs a hundred years ago?


 This is not the impression that Mamadou Cellou Diallo leaves us.  The career of this 50-year-old trader is exemplary.  Her father sold oxen in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  He wanted to become a doctor, but after two years of study he went into business.  First by selling cigarettes in Conakry imported by other Fulani traders from Senegal.  “At that time,” he remembers, “all goods landed at the port of Dakar and reached Guinea by road.  Labé was the heart of this traffic which was then illegal.  Thereafter, Cellou, helped by traders like him from Fouta, imported shoes from Liberia, then coffee from Sierra Leone.  In 1994, a surge in the price of coffee made his fortune.  He has since started importing trucks and auto parts from Europe and China.  He brews millions of dollars.

 Mamadou Cellou Diallo

 Mamadou Cellou Diallo, Fulani businessman.

 Cellou does not have an office in Labé.  Its HQ is a small cafe located in the heart of the Dow-Saré "business" district, in the city center.  This is a strange place: a string of narrow lanes housing dozens of semi-trailers carrying cans of palm oil, cartons of cigarettes or baskets of cola nuts.  "All the sub-regional traffic between Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia goes through here," says - exaggerating - Cellou.  This unexpected spectacle in a relatively isolated region (it takes at least eight hours, driving well, to reach Conakry, and twelve hours to reach the Senegalese border), he explains by "Fulani solidarity" and by the fact that "  80% to 90% of Guinean traders are from Fouta ”.

 When he started out, Cellou had the support of Alpha Amadou Diallo, a notable known in Guinea as Nissan because he imports that brand of vehicles.  You could also call it Yamaha, Samsung or Marlboro.  For a long time, it was the main importer of rice and flour.  He is said to be one of the wealthiest men in the sub-region.  His company headquarters, located in Matam commune, Conakry, shows nothing.  His office is spartan.  The air conditioning used in small doses.  For a Fulani, there is a saying, what matters is not what you spend, it's what you amassed.

 Fulani international

 Nissan is the godfather of Fulani traders.  The example to follow.  The son of a farmer, he started from nothing at the age of 12, selling odds and ends.  In 1975, he already made his hole but is not yet a billionaire.  He is fleeing the country, the ban on private trade and the anti-Fulani purges of President Sékou Touré.  The beginning of an exile of almost ten years ... and fortune.  From Liberia, despite the ban, it supplies traders in Labé with all kinds of products.  In 1984, after Touré's death, he responded to the appeal of Lansana Conté, who was counting on the diaspora to revive the economy (it was estimated at 2 million the number of Guineans living abroad, mainly Peuls)  .  Diallo returned to his country, took advantage of the economic openness and created the Société de commerce et de financement (SCF), which became a tool of ethnic solidarity.  His distribution network is his parents settled in Dalaba, Pita or Mamou, the main towns of Fouta.

 The fame of Alpha Amadou Diallo allowed him to take the head, in 2006, of Tabital Pulaaku International, an association created in 2002 in Bamako to bring together the Fulani from all over the world.  A “Fulani international”, in a way, which functions with an office of twenty-one members and ten technical commissions: education and language, arts and culture, environment, pastoral issues, women's affairs, finance, etc.  "All the countries are represented there and some governments support us", explains, from Dakar where he lives in exile, the Gambian Boubacar Baldé, responsible for international cooperation.

 "Fulani associations existed in each country," continues, in Conakry this time, Alpha Amadou Diallo.  The idea of ​​Tabital Pulaaku is to go beyond borders, to value and defend Fulani culture, and to harmonize the use of our language.  According to the businessman, it is also about intervening wherever conflicts expose Fulani, playing mediators or putting pressure on a government.  It's a matter of survival, he said.  “The Fulani are scattered all over the world.  And everywhere they are on display.  "

 How many are they exactly?  And where are they?  "We have no reliable data," admits Diallo.  It is estimated that around twenty countries in the world have a well-known presence.  In the United States and Europe, they are government officials, teachers, taxi drivers or housekeepers.  In Dakar, Banjul and Bissau, it is they who do the small and large trade.  Further north, along the Senegal River, they practice animal husbandry.  As in Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria (the country with the most Fulani, around 20 million).  In Guinea, they dominate the economy.

 The Peuls would be the most important ethnic group there, even if, on this point, a doubt remains.  The only census with information on ethnicity dates from 1955, but today many Fulani believe they are in the majority.


 Although the feeling of belonging to one and the same Fulani nation is not very developed, in Guinea as in Chad, in Mauritania as in Togo, we are nonetheless interested in what the brothers of neighboring countries are experiencing.  "When a Fulani is the victim of an injustice, the whole community is affected," said a notable from Labé.  Who is sorry: “We are discriminated against everywhere.  »Conflicts are numerous and sometimes bloody, especially between pastoralists (Fulani) and farmers (non-Fulani).  One of them particularly made an impression.  It was in May 2012: nearly thirty Fulani from Burkina Faso perished in clashes with Dogon from Mali.


 Each time, social networks swarm with alarmist rumors and extremist speeches.  “Let's defend our language and our culture, which many dream of seeing disappear forever.  Let us unite everywhere on earth ”, we can read there.  We write from Tunis, Bamako or Washington, and we fear an "anti-Fulani genocide".  Some draw a parallel with what happened to Jews and Tutsis.  But this discourse remains in the minority.  We can also read this: “Being from the Senegalese branch […], I simply allow myself to say that the solution must pass through an openness to others rather than through too strong an affirmation of who we are.  "

 The incomprehension between the Peuls and the settled peoples is a constant of history, as illustrated by this Bambara description quoted by the Malian Fulani writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ: "In black country, here they are like ants destroying fruit.  ripe, settling in without permission, decamping without saying goodbye.  There is also this insolent success, in commerce of course, but also in administration, in the arts ... The Foulbés - another name for the Peuls - explain these successes by the importance they attach to education and  by their diligent practice of the Koran.  An argument often badly perceived by other ethnic groups, who see it as further proof of their arrogance.

 Sociologist Amadou Bano Barry, a specialist in ethnic conflicts met in Conakry, does not believe in the feeling of superiority that one attributes to one's community.  But he admits that this is how they are judged.  “Fulani society is very individualistic,” he explains.  This is not the case with the Malinkés, for example.  Among the Peuls, each one lives his life.  After a certain age, you no longer obey your father.  And since success is highly valued, the competition is fierce.  It is only in the face of adversity that the Fulani find themselves.  "

 On this point, political leaders have shown their limits in Guinea.  Faced with the attempt by Lansana Conté's entourage during the last years of his reign to promote sub-sub businessmen, Fulani traders reacted.  For the first time, they decided to take power in the 2010 presidential election and sought a candidate.  It is naturally that they turned to a former Prime Minister of Conté, Cellou Dalein Diallo, “the prototype of the Peul”, according to Barry (“a son of a marabout, very polished, fair complexion, aquiline nose, who  successful and who is rich ”).  Since then, the front unit around Dalein has been shattered.

 The defeat of their foal, in a tense context, and after the massacre of September 28, 2009, during which they had the impression of being particularly targeted by the furious of Dadis Camara, “was a shock for the Peuls,  Barry continues.  They felt like everyone was against them. "  The election of Macky Sall in Senegal, who belongs to the Fulani sub-group known as Toucouleur, was also a shock, but positive one.  “In Labé,” explains a Dalein supporter, “we all celebrated his victory.  Before, we weren't too interested in these things, but for some time now we've been thinking that political power is important too.  "

 Sociologist Amadou Bano Barry promises, in the near future, a multiplication of candidatures from Fulani in the countries of the sub-region.  “In our culture, political power has never been valued.  But today we feel a real desire to conquer power.  This march will not stop, "he predicts.  Will they claim their ethnicity?  "History of Peuls, history of idiots, you never know how it starts, you never know how it ends", wrote Monénembo.

 On the trail of the last nomads

 They are the last true nomads, the only ones to have preserved intact the ancestral way of life of the Foulbés.  They are referred to as Mbororos.  Ignoring borders, they accompany their herds between Niger, southwestern Chad, northern Cameroon, northeastern Nigeria, the Central African Republic and Sudan.

 But since the beginning of the 2000s, the resurgence of armed rebellions (in the Central African Republic in particular) has forced them to "migrate" to other grazing areas, where they have not always been well received.  The arrival of their herds in the fields and ponds of northern DR Congo thus provoked tensions with the local populations, to the point that in 2007 the Congolese government seized the African Union (AU) and threatened to push back  new arrivals outside its territory.

 Appointed Special Envoy of the Chairman of the AU Commission on the Question of the Fulani Mbororos, Senegalese historian and politician Abdoulaye Bathily is tasked with assessing their situation and making recommendations.  In 2010, a regional conference was organized in Addis Ababa with representatives of the states concerned.  Some now provide them with transhumance corridors.
 Source: young Africa
 Note: this article is journalistic so the information can be true or false depending on the reader.