Who Are the Fulani People?


The history of the Fulani seems to begin with the Berber people of North Africa around the 8th or 11th century AD. As the Berbers migrated down from North Africa and mixed with the peoples in the Senegal region of West Africa the Fulani people came into existence. Over a thousand year period from AD 900 - 1900, they spread out over most of West Africa and even into some areas of Central Africa. Some groups of Fulani have been found as far as the western borders of Ethiopia. As they migrated eastward they came into contact with different African tribes. As they encountered these other peoples, they conquered the less powerful tribes. Along the way many Fulani completely or partially abandoned their traditional nomadic life in favor of a sedentary existence in towns or on farms among the conquered peoples. The nomadic Fulani continued eastward in search of the best grazing land for their cattle. Their lives revolved around and were dedicated to their herds. The more cattle a man owned, the more respect he was given. Today, some estimate as many as 18 million Fulani people stretch across the countries of West Africa. They remain to be the largest group of nomadic people in the world.

What Do the Fulani Believe?

Religion and Beliefs:

The Fulani were one of the first African tribes to convert to Islam and are today more than 99% Muslim. The devoutly Muslim Fulani have seen themselves as the propagators and preservers of the Islamic faith in West Africa from as early as the fourteenth century. Historically it was a Fulani chief named Usuman dan Fodio, along with nomadic Fulani herdsmen who were instrumental in facilitating the spread of Islam across West Africa through evangelism and conquest. At times they would wage "holy wars" or jihad in order to extend and purify Islam. As the Fulani migrated eastward they spread their Islamic beliefs. As they became more powerful and attained more wealth they began to be more aggressive with their religion. Their adoption of Islam increased their feeling of cultural and religious superiority to surrounding peoples, and that adoption became a major ethnic boundary marker. Some settled in towns and quickly became noted as outstanding Islamic clerics, joining the highest ranking Berbers and Arabs.

Today it is difficult to find any Fulani who admits to not being Muslim, no matter how lax his or her practice may be. To a Fulani person: to be Fulani is to be a Muslim. Although they adhere very strongly to the tenants of Islam, it has been surprising to find a high level of belief that certain people possess supernatural powers. Like other West Africans, Fulani will frequent local religious practitioners who have established reputations for their curative powers. Many such practitioners - witch doctors and medicine men - are also Muslim religious leaders.

It is common to hear a Fulani tell stories of those who have the power to move themselves from one place to another supernaturally or perhaps to do harm to another person through some sort of supernatural power or curse.

What Are the Fulani Like?


The Fulani are usually very easy to recognize. They are taller, slimmer and lighter skinned that many of their African neighbors. Often times they are referred to as "white" by other Africans. Fulani men are often seen wearing a solid color of shirt and pants, a long cloth wrapped around their faces, carrying their walking sticks across their shoulders with their arms resting on top of it. Often the men have markings on either side of their faces and/or on their foreheads. They received these markings as children.

The Fulani women are very graceful. They are seen carrying their milk products stacked in tiers on their heads in calabash bowls. Their clothes often have a background color of yellow and/or red. Their hair is long and is braided into 5 long braids that either hang from their heads or sometimes are looped on the sides. It is common for the women and girls to have coins attached to their braids. Some of these coins are very old and have been passed down in the family. The women enjoy wearing many bracelets on their wrists. Like the men, the women have markings on their faces around their eyes and mouths that they were given as children.


While the Fulani in some countries across West Africa have thrived, those in Niger and Burkina Faso have struggled along with their neighbors. Most simply do well enough to provide the basic requirements for living. Most homes are very simple shelters. Their wardrobes consist of only two or three outfits. Their meals provide only minimal nutritional requirements at best. There are few things provided beyond the tools or equipment needed to carry out their tasks.

The Fulani have long been in the cattle business. For centuries to be a Fulani meant to be a cattle owner. However, due to the increasing hardships; famine, drought and poverty, many no longer own cattle. But for a majority, they still own at least a small number of animals, whether that be the cherished cow, sheep or goats. Often times those that do not own any animals will hire out to herd for others.

The cattle are raised to sell only when necessary. Most Fulani would not choose to eat beef. Yet as need arises, they will sell a steer to provide their family with required cash. Milk and milk products are highly valued - even more than the meat of cows. For the typical Fulani, "kossam kecum", fresh milk, or "pendidum", soured milk are delicious treats. Therefore, many of the Fulani sell milk and milk by-products.

The Wodabe Fulani of Eastern Niger are among the pure nomadic herders. They seek to find pasture for their herds just south of the Sahara Desert. Some are being forced to find other means of support. However, for most Wodabe to farm is a rejection of their heritage. The Jelgooji of Eastern Burkina Faso too have clung to the tradition of herding more tenaciously than many other groups, yet they tend to be more semi-nomadic.

Many of the Fulani have taken a more sedentary life and in addition to herding they farm. The farming is mostly a subsistence type of raising crops. Those in Western Niger mostly farm millet, a fairly nutritious grain which grows well in the hot dry climate. The farming takes place during the rainy season. Just after the first rains they will plant their fields, usually around late May or early June. Long hours are spent all through the rainy season "hoeing" the weeds.

They harvest their millet in September and October. Most of the grain is stored on the stalk in small storage houses near their compounds. They will sell some to get money for immediate needs.

A source of conflict arises from time to time between herders and farmers. When the cattle wander into the fields during the growing season and eat or trample the crops due to the herders' lack of attention, tensions rise. However, most of the time a workable agreement exists between the two as the farmer knows the manure will aide his crop production. He readily allows the cattle to graze in his fields after he has harvested and prior to planting.


The cows are certainly the most treasured of the animals the Fulani herd. The cows are so special, many people say that a person cannot speak Fulfulde if he does not own a cow. The Fulani have a tradition of giving a "habbanaya" - that is a cow which is loaned to another until she calves. Once the calf is weaned it is retained and the cow is returned to its owner. This habbanaya is a highly prized animal. Upon receipt of this gift, there is a special ceremony in honor of the gift. The recipient buys special treats and invites his neighbors for this event in which the habbanaya is given a name. The habbanaya is never to be struck under any circumstance.

In the Fulani culture there are numerous taboos. One of the foremost taboos says a married woman should never speak the name of her husband, her in-laws or her first born child. Even if there is another person by the same name, she is forbidden to call them by their name. Another taboo in some Fulani groups is against eating goat's meat. The fear is that if someone eats goat's meat he or she will become a leper. Yet another taboo is against an infant drinking goat's milk. It is believed the child will itch if he or she drinks the milk.

Various life events such as naming, marriage, funerals, first child and so on - are celebrated with some sort of ceremony. The 'sorro' ceremony demonstrates to the greater community that a young man has come of age. In it, adolescent boys take turns hitting one another with their walking sticks across the chest. No outward show of pain can be shown. It is common for the boy being hit to shout or laugh after he is stricken. Although adolescents have died in this ceremony, young men are eager to participate and display their scars with pride. In some cases a Fulani man is not considered a 'true Fulani' unless he has participated in this show of strength. In Niger the ceremony is against the law but young men will gather at a local market and have the ceremony away from the eyes of the local authorities.

The market plays a very important role in the life of the Fulani men and women. They will take their donkey and carts, bush taxis or walk the several kilometers to the various weekly markets. Many Fulani women sell their milk products, straw mats, calabash bowls, homemade soaps and other assorted goods. They meet with the women from the other villages and catch up on the latest births, deaths, marriages and other important news. The men congregate around the animal market. Many come to buy or sell cattle, goats or sheep. Others come to, like the women, catch up on the latest news from around the greater area.

In between markets women or men may occasionally visit one another in their homes. The Fulani are an extremely hospitable people. They greet visitors warmly and go to great lengths to make a guest feel welcome. It is not uncommon for the visitor to leave from the visit with a chicken or some other small gift from the host

"One whose mother-in-law has fallen in a well does not consider the price of the rope." This is just one example of the many proverbs the Fulani have. It is said that if one can quote the Fulani proverbs then he can truly speak Fulfulde. The Fulani are noted for their oral literature, which serves to define Fulani identity. Fulani oral literature has been influenced both by surrounding peoples and by Islam. The major categories of Fulani literature are poetry, history, story, legend, proverb, magic formula, and riddle. Many of these are sung either by amateurs or by professionals. Many men enjoy sitting around a fire in the evenings listening to others tell stories. Because of the very high rate of illiteracy among the Fulani, the tradition of oral story telling has been maintained.


Following the teaching of Islam, the Fulani allow a man up to 4 wives. However, a man is to only take additional wives if he is able to support them. In the rural areas it is typical for a young man of 18 - 22 to marry as he is able to acquire the finances needed. He must have enough money to present to the bride's family so they can purchase the necessary items to establish a new home and pay for the ceremony. For some young men it will take 5 or even 10 years to save the money required for marriage. The prices are even more expensive for the men in the cities and they typically do not marry until the late 20's.

For the girls it is not uncommon to be married as early as 13 - 15. Occasionally a girl will be married by age 10, but will live with the parents of her husband for a period of years. The girls in the city tend not to marry until the later teen years.


A vast majority of Fulani live in rural settings. Due to tradition and their reserved nature they tend to have communities which are spread out. Each village may have a population of as many as 100 or more, but the homes or huts are scattered in groups of two or three.

In the typical family compound they have a grass hut with room for as many as three beds inside. These beds are raised off the ground, with a firm wooden foundation covered by a millet stalk mat. They are very hard, but do get one off the ground away from some of the bugs.

Outside a fire or place where fire is made is centrally located between the huts as the women tend to work together. A very large pestle and mortar are always nearby for the pounding of the grain or sauce ingredients. A mat or possibly a small stool is found just outside the hut for sitting. Some have a straw shelter to provide shade.

Family Life

During the cold season and hot season, the men tend to spend time repairing their homes, digging or re-digging wells, and preparing the fields for planting. They also spend a lot of time weaving a variety of items themselves. A 50 foot rope can be woven in an hour's time using long thin leaves indigenous to the area. Tall grasses are woven together to make the tops of the huts. Other plants are used to weave what makes the walls of the huts. Each item is inexpensive yet tedious and painful on the hands, however, it makes for very affordable housing which sheds water and stands up to the elements for one to two years.

It is the woman's role to take care of all household tasks. They spend several hours preparing the evening meal. Their meals usually consist of some sort of millet porridge with a sauce over it. Before the meal is prepared they retrieve water from the well a bucket or two at a time and often must carry it on their heads over a mile back to their home. They are also responsible for laundry, collecting wood (if there are no children old enough to search for it), caring for small children and shopping for ingredients for their sauces. In addition to these tasks the women also spend time weaving with dried grass to make mats or other useful items. Many of them are allowed to sell leftover milk or milk products in order to buy cloth or ingredients for their sauces.

Fulani children begin to learn their roles very early. While Fulani families would prefer their children to attend Koranic schools to study and memorize Koranic verses, many cannot afford the fees of the schools. Boys follow their fathers to learn how to tend the cattle or work in the millet field. When the boys reach the age of about 10 they are put in charge of following the cattle. Girls also help with the cattle if but only until about the age of 9 or 10. Other common jobs for young girls is gathering firewood and helping to look after their younger siblings. Girls are taught by the older women how to be a good wife when they are married.

What Are Their Needs?

In the first 30 years of attempted evangelization, not one Fulani became a committed Christian. The Jesus film has been translated into several fulfulde dialects. Some dialects have the entire Bible and most have at least Scripture portions. There are radio broadcasts and storying cassettes available. Largely as a result of radio ministries, some Fulani have begun to show interest in Christianity. Continued radio broadcasting, effective scripture translations, especially in oral forms such as radio, tape, and easily learned Bible stories oriented to a shepherd culture, may be effective in winning some Fulani to Christ. However, the number of workers actively engaged in evangelism among the Fulani is extremely small in comparison to the vast numbers of peoples to be reached.

Burkina Faso and Niger Fulani Population

Population of Fula Barani unknown

Age Breakdown of Fulani


The Sahara Dessert has been encroaching on the Sahel for many years. With the continued drive south, over the years ahead, the dessert will drive farmers and herders south or into new work. I foresee that many Fulani will be forced to live in cities and learn new trades over the next 10 - 15 years. Many have already taken up residence in the cities or have relocated to other areas. These "refugees" are likely to be more open to the gospel in this time of change and turmoil in their lives. We will need to be sensitive to target the 'city Fulani' and intentionally take the gospel to these areas.

There is word of the possibility of a devaluation of the West African currency, the CFA. It would seem that a devaluation will bring increasing hardship on all the poor, which basically means the vast majority of Nigeriens and Burkinabe.

It is reported that there will be a shortage of Meningitis vaccines for the coming year in countries all across the "meningitis belt". Niger, Chad, Mali and Nigeria are listed as the countries which will be most severely affected. According to WHO, 280 million people are at risk. Many of these are the Fulani. Given the greater number of them who live in rural settings, they are even a more likely target for not receiving the vaccines and contracting the disease. In the past some villages lost a complete generation of children because help and medicines did not arrive in time.

Therefore ministry can be done in a variety of ways; 1) assistance in getting and giving the vaccine, 2) educating the people about early signs and/or prevention, 3) aid in treating areas highly affected, 4) in areas of epidemic, ministry to the families and villages which have been tragically affected.

Three years ago there was a small coup in connection with the presidential election to insure his place in office. With increasing tensions in country due to the economic difficulties and a presidential election yet 2 years away, caution is advised for missionaries traveling. Due to the tensions, safety is a concern since violence can erupt in many locations across the country. Not only do missionaries need to be aware of safety concerns but these tensions have also affected fuel availability for some areas of the country.

Incoming missionaries need to be briefed of these possibilities and prepared for emergency evacuation in the event of escalating violence. Also, due to the higher visibility of the "white missionary", there might be a greater opportunity for black missionaries to blend and avoid some of the violence which is intentionally directed at "wealthy" foreigners.

Islamic leaders are receiving pressure from fundamentalist groups outside of the country for more strict adherence to religious laws, especially dress code of the women. Furthermore, these leaders are likely frustrated by their own governments allowance of Christianity and other religions within their countries. These tensions are likely to push the leaders to decide to pursue a more fundamental or liberal shift, either of which will be advantageous for the Christian church movement. Should the push be towards strict adherence of a dress code in Niger where this code is not only contrary to cultural traditions, but also to practical living conditions, it seems people will likely call into question there beliefs in this religion.

However, should the leaders shift to a more liberal stance, this too benefits Christians. Less persecution means more freedom for building, witnessing and teaching.