The Fulani Ethnic Group


The Fulani people are also called the Fula or Fulbe people. They are among the largest tribes or ethnic groups in the Sahel and the continent’s western region, widely dispersed across the area. Inhabiting several states or countries, they reside mainly in W. Africa and the northern regions of Central Africa. They also live in South Sudan, Sudan, and areas close to the Red Sea coast. The exact number of the Fula people is not known because of clashing definitions regarding Fula ethnicity. According to estimates, the Fula people’s figure might be between 35 million to 45 million globally. A significant proportion of the Fula people, estimated 12 million to 13 million, are pastoralists, and their tribe has the biggest nomadic pastoral community in the globe.

The majority of the Fula people comprised semi-sedentary people and sedentary settled farmers, artisans, scholars, merchants, and nobility. As a tribe or ethnic group, they are bound together by the Fula language, their way of life, and their history. About 100% of the Fula people are Muslims.

Most of the West African leaders are of Fulani descent, including the Head of State of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, the Head of State of Senegal, Macky Sall, the Head of State of Gambia, Adama Barrow, the Head of State of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embalo and the Deputy President of Sierra Leone, Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh. The Prime Minister of Mali, Boubou Cisse, was also of Fulani descent. The Fulani also lead major International institutions such as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, the 74th President of the United Nations General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad, and the Secretary-General of OPEC, Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo.

The Geographic Distribution of the Fula People

As mentioned in the introduction, the Fula people are widely distributed across the Sahel from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, especially in W. Africa. The states where they are present are Mauritania, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Niger, Chad, Togo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Liberia. The Fula speak the other languages of the states they inhabit, making most of the Fulani bilingual or trilingual. Such languages include Hausa, French, Bambara, Wolof, and Arabic.


The History of the Fulani

The Fulani origins are unclear, and people have postulated several theories. As nomadic herding people, they have moved through and among several cultures. Skutsch notes that their oral history points toward a start in Jordan and that their language might have originated from the Senegambian region. Walter Rodney, in his work, argues that the Fulbe are originally from the northern part of Africa, and they took over the Fouta Djallon region. The Fula people’s ethnogenesis may have started because of interactions between an old West African population and North African populations such as Egyptians or the Berbers.

Brief Description of the Early History of the Fula

The earliest proof that shed light on the pre-historic Fulani culture can be found in the Tassili n’Ajjer rock art. Examinations of these rock paintings suggest the presence of proto-Fulani cultural traits in the area by at least the 4th century BC. Scholars believe that some of the imagery depicts rituals that modern or contemporary Fulani people practice. There are also some details in the paintings that agree or correspond to Fulani myths taught during the initiation rites.

The Fulani initiation field is shown graphically. The sun is surrounded by a circle lined up with heads of cows as different phases of the moon beneath and surmounted by a male and a female figure. The female figure has a hanging braid of hair to the back.

About Islam

The Fula people adopted the Islam faith early. By being the 1st group of people in West Africa to convert to the Islam faith, they became active in supporting Islamic ideology and theology from centers such as Timbuktu. The Fula people, who later were called the Toroobe, worked with Berber and Arabian Islamic clerics, charting out Islam’s spread in Africa’s western region. The Fula people led several jihads or Holy wars. These war efforts aided in spreading the Islamic faith in W. Africa and helped them dominate most Sahel areas of W, Africa during the pre-colonial and medieval era, establishing them as a political and economic force and a religious group.

The Fula Society (The Fulani Caste System)

The Fula society features the class divisions typical of the West African area. The rigid class or caste system of the Fulani people has medieval origins or roots and has survived into the modern age. The four significant castes or classes are nobility, traders, tradesmen, and descendants of slaves.

There is the Fulani proper, also known as the Fulbe, including the Pullo and the Dimo, meaning noble. There is the artisan class or caste, including potters, griots, blacksmiths, genealogists, woodworkers, and dressmakers. There are those castes of slave, captive, or serf origins: the Maccudo, Dimaajo, Rimmaybe, and Baleebe, the Fulani equivalent of the Tuareg Ikelan called Bouzou or Bella in the Hausa and Songhay languages, respectively.

The Fulani castes are endogamous, meaning individuals marry only within their class or caste. However, this caste system was not as elaborate in regions like northern Nigeria, Eastern Cameroon, or Niger.

The Fula Culture (Language, Moral Code, Dress, Music, Food, and Houses)

The Fulani language is known as Pulaar, which is also the Toicouleurs language. All the Mauritanians and Senegalese who speak the language locally are called the Halpulaar or Haalpulaar’en, which means ‘speakers of Pulaar. In some regions, such as northern Cameroon, Fulfulde is a native lingua franca.


There are more than two writing systems employed or used to write this language. An Arabic-derived one is known as Ajami, a Latin-derived system with over five sets. A local phonetic-faithful system known as Adlam, invented in the late 20th century (1989). The 3rd one is the most popular, not only learned by many people among the Diaspora globally but also has computer programs and apps created to assist in the script’s adoption.

Central to the Fulani ethnic group’s lifestyle is a code of behavior called pulaaku or laawol Fulbe, meaning the ‘Fulani pathways’ which each generation pass on as high morals of the Fulbe, which help them maintain their identity across boundaries and lifestyle changes. Pulaaku included patience, self-control, discipline, and prudence, all in one name called Munyal. The Gacce or Semteende included modesty and respect for other people. Hakkille involves wisdom, forethought, personal accountability or responsibility, and hospitality. The acts of courage and hard work fall under Sagata or Tiinaade.


There are no specific or particular outfits for all Fulani sub-groups. Dressing and clothing accessories such as ornaments depend on the specific region. The traditional dress of the Fulbe Wodaabe comprises long colorful flowing robes, modestly embroidered. In the Fouta Jallon highlands of central Guinea, it is usual to see men wearing a distinctive har with colorful embroidery. In Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger, men wear a hat that tapers off at 3 angular tips called a noppiire. Both men and women wear a black or white cotton fabric gown adorned with intricate red, blue and green thread embroidery work with styles differing according to sex and region.

It isn’t uncommon to see the women adorn or decorate their hair with bead hair accessories and cowrie shells. Fula women use henna for arm, hand, and feet decorations. Their hair is put into 5 long braids that either hang or get looped on the sides. It is widespread for the female gender to have silver coins and amber attached to their braids. Women also wear many bracelets on their waists.

Just like the men, the women also have markings on their faces around their mouths and eyes that they got as children. The Western Fulbe uses indigo inks around the mouth, resulting in a blackening around the gums and lips.

The Fula have a rich and great musical culture and play several traditional instruments, including drums, hoddu, and riti. Zaghareet is a popular form of vocal music created by moving the tongue sideways and making a sharp, high sound. People play music on any occasion. They can play music when herding cattle, working in the fields, preparing food, or religious places such as the temple.

Kossam is the general term for both fresh milk and yogurt. It’s central to Fulbe identity and revered as a drink. Kettugol and lebol are derived from milk fat, and people use them in light cooking and hair weaving. Other meals include a heavy porridge made of flour from grains as sorghum, millet, or corn, which people eat in combination with soup made from onions, tomatoes, spices, and other vegetables.

Traditionally, the nomadic Fula reside or live in domed houses called a bukkaru. During the dry season, compact millet stalk pillars support the hemisphere-shaped domed dwellings or houses, while in the wet season, the reed mats held together and tied against wood poles serve the support purpose. These mobile houses are easy to set up and dismantle. When it’s time to move, the people easily disassemble the houses and load them onto horses, camels, or donkeys for transport.



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