History Corner - Peoples of The Gambia: The Fula
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Various versions have been given by historians about the origins of the Fula. One version is that they were originally a Berber speaking people who crossed the Senegal to pasture their cattle on the Ferlo Plateau Finding themselves cut off from their kinsmen by the Negroid communities occupying the fertile Senegal valley they gradually adopted the language of their new neighbours. As their herds increased, small groups found themselves forced to move eastward and so initiated a series of migrations throughout West Africa.
Another main version given about the origins of the Fula is that they originated in the lower basins of the Senegal and The Gambia as a result of a mixture between Berbers from the Sahara and the Wollof and Serer peoples. This view is held because, among other things, the Fulani language is akin to the languages of these peoples. The union between Berber, Wollof and Serer was said to produce two distinct groups of Fulani with differences in racial and occupational characteristics.
One of the groups, the predominantly Berber portion, marked by their olive skin and strait hair, stuck to the nomadic mode of life and became known as the Bororoje or Cattle Fulani. The other group of Fulani, known as the Fulani Gidda, was the Negroid portion who were agriculturalist and town dwellers for the most part.
Whatever explanation is accepted about the origins of the Fula, it is known that by at least the seventh century, the Fula were a distinct people in the Western Sudan and among the first West Africans to embrace Islam.
Fula society was also a stratified society of three main social groups. All the tope of the social ladder where the Rimbe who were free men and included farmers and traders.
Next to the Rimbe came the Nyenyube who formed the artisan class and finally the Machudo who were the servant class.
The Nyenyube class included the Gaulo or praise signers, the Bailo who were the smith, the Garanke or leather workers and the laube who were weavers. The Gaulo were oral historians who played the important role of preserving fula traditions and culture.
The Fulas who first migrated into The Gambia area were non-Muslim pastoralists who came to ask for protection from the Mandinka Mansas into whose states they brought their cattle. They lived in small communities in the chief Mandinka towns and cared for the herds and flocks of the Mansas in return for projection against attacks from hostile groups. Nine dialects have been identified, reflecting different areas of origin, period of arrival and considerable cultural diversity. This diversity seems to have dissipated the political impact of their numbers.
In the nineteenth century, the main Fula settlements were in the kingdoms of the upper river. Wuli, Niani, Kantora , Tomana and Jimara. Generally, the Fula migrants acknowledged the authority of the Mandinka Mansas and village chiefs over the use of land. A mutually beneficial relationship existed between them and the Mandinka leaders. In return for the protection afforded the Fulas by the Mandinka Mansas, the Fula brought wealth and prestige to those communities they settled.
In their spread throughout West Africa, the Fula founded states called "Imamates". The Imamate was a new kind of state in West Africa where the head of state was also Imam and leader of the mosque. Futa Jallow was the first of these Imamates. The "Al-mamy", who ruled the state, was very powerful and claimed to rule in the name of Allah, but had to listen to the advice of his counsellors.
The Al-mamy was the military commander of his state heading an army that was based on a strict system of compulsory service. One of the most remarkable examples of the dispersal of peoples in West Africa is afforded by the Fulani.
Today some of the best cattle attendants in West Africa are the Fulani and are to be found in almost every part of the Savannah-Sahel region from The Gambia to Sudan. The Fulani began their migrations into the regions of Ghana, Manding and Songhai between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, entering Hausaland in the fifteenth century. In all these areas they maintained their traditional way of life, the Bororoje sticking to the rural areas and the Fulani Gidda to the towns.
Because of their literacy in Arabic, the Fulani Gidda were employed in Hausaland as civil servants, diplomats, and tutors at the courts of the Hausa Kings, while some of them established schools of their own and taught Islamic Theology, law and Arabic grammar.
One of these Fulani Gidda was Ousman Dan Fodio who was born in 1754 in Hausaland but whose ancestral family had migrated from Futa Toro some fourteen generations before area.
Places like Bauchi and Adamawa became converted to Islam for the first time. If today Islam is a force to reckon with in Nigeria, and in deed in the modern states of The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Niger, it was because of the Fula led revolutionary Islamic Movements of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in general, and that of Ousman Dan Fodio in particular.