by Melvin J. Collier

Fulani women of Cameroon
See Source

     When Africans were forcibly transported to North America from West & West-Central Africa, they brought with them a special strand of DNA that only their descendants would carry.  My first cousin, Charlotte, the oldest daughter of my mother's sister, embarked on a DNA journey to unlock the gateway to her African past.  This journey of discovery was made possible by African Ancestry, Inc., a DNA company in the Washington, D.C. area.  For over a decade, geneticists collected many samples from populations in West & West-Central Africa in order to provide African-Americans with a scientific means to determine some of their African background through DNA.  African Ancestry’s extensive African Lineage Database currently contains over 11,000 paternal lineages and over 13,000 maternal lineages of over 160 African ethnic groups.  Through their analysis, Charlotte learned that her mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is identical to the Fulani people of northern Cameroon.  The Fulani are also known as the Fula or the Fulbe.     

     Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) are chromosomes that are inherited exclusively from the mother. This DNA provides a solid record of one’s maternal ancestry.  MtDNA is passed down unchanged from mother to child; therefore, Charlotte’s mtDNA is the same as her mother, her mother’s mother, her mother’s mother’s mother, and so on for many generations.  Since our mothers are sisters, we possess the same mtDNA.  In our maternal lineage of foremothers was Louisa “Lue” Bobo Danner, our great-great grandmother.  Not only did Charlotte’s test results give her an African identity, but it gave all of the descendants of Grandma Lue’s mother, Clarissa Bobo, an African identity.  This same mtDNA was passed down to Clarissa Bobo from her mother, Matilda (born c. 1790), and from Matilda's mother, Jenny.

      Although records indicate that Jenny was born in Virginia c. 1765, someone in Jenny’s maternal lineage - perhaps her mother or her maternal grandmother - was a Fulani taken from Nigeria.  The Fulani of northern Cameroon can trace their origins back to the Fulani of northern Nigeria.  During the time of the transatlantic slave trade, the Fulani of northern Cameroon resided in northern Nigeria.  Sources indicate that some of them migrated into northern Cameroon from the late 1770’s to the early 1800’s.    Indeed the largest group of Africans (38%) brought into Virginia & Maryland ports along the Chesapeake Bay hailed from the Bight of Biafra region, a region comprising of present-day Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.  The second largest group of Africans (16%) hailed from the Gold Coast region, a region encompassing present-day Ghana.

The area of northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon where the Fulani people reside
Source: Victor Azarya, Aristocrats Facing Change, p. xiv.

      Scattered throughout West Africa, the Fulani people are believed to have a total population of nearly 10 million throughout the continent. They live in areas of West Africa, from Senegal and the Gambia in the west to Chad and Central African Republic in the east.  A sizeable number of Fulani people lives in the following regions: Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, Niger, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Chad, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, and Sudan.  The Fulani people of Cameroon comprise of only 10% of Cameroon’s 15 million-population.

      The Fulani people have distinctive physical features - lighter skin, wavy hair, and thinner noses and lips - compared to other African ethnic groups living adjacent to them.  It is possible to pick a Fulani out of a group with much certainty.  Because these features are similar to Africans in Egypt, northern Sudan, and Ethiopia, the Fulani people are believed to have originally come from northern Africa or the Middle East many centuries ago and gradually migrated round the bulge of the continent to the Senegambia region.  The Fulfulde language in which they speak is closely related to the Wolof and Serer languages of Senegal, giving further evidence of their migration into the Senegambia region.  Both as a sedentary and as a nomadic people, they played an important part in the history of West Africa, as they have been influential in regional politics, economics, and histories throughout West Africa for over a thousand years. A number of African states, including ancient Ghana and Senegal, had Fulani rulers.  The Fulani Empire was one of the most powerful states in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Because they were a very mobile people, the Fulani of northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon did not construct complex social organizations. However, the basic unit of Fulani social and economic organization was the family. The Fulani family was an independent and self-sustaining unit, since nomads rarely moved in groups of more than one family. Above the family unit was the clan, which comprised of households who traced their lineage back to a common male ancestor. In Fulani culture, clans occasionally united to form a camp consisting of several unrelated households. A camp leader was elected on popularity based on the size of the family and cattle herd, maturity, and wisdom.  The camp was a vital source of information on matters concerning the well-being of the herd, weather and grazing, markets, and even political news that may help to determine unsafe areas. The camp also participated in activities such as marriages that required more than one family unit.

     In their culture, the Fulani, not only in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon, but in all areas where they settled, developed a special code of behavior and morality known as Pulaaku. Pulaaku has been described as 'Fulaniness' or pastoral chivalry. This code of behavior distinctly distinguishes them from any other African groups.  The code involves important virtues such as munyal, which included patience, self control, mental discipline, and prudence; semteende, which was modesty and respect for others, even for enemies; and also hakkillo, which included wisdom, forethought, prudence in managing his personal affairs and giving hospitality. Pulaaku also implied that one can manage their own herd well.  Also according to this code of behavior, a Fulani despised conspicuous richness and consumption, lived poorly, and detested external signs of material comfort.  They were very content with the little that they possessed. This detachment from material items was offset by their great attachment to cattle. In addition to these unique “laws” of Pulaaku, this code of behavior also implied that a true Fulani attained respectability by keeping themselves physically and psychologically at a distance from other people, typically non Fulani.  They refrained from displaying their inner feelings. A common presumption about the Fulani is that no one really knows what a Fulani is thinking.

     When the European colonial powers invaded Nigeria and Cameroon, the Fulani in the northern regions naturally resisted their domination.  However, they soon decided to collaborate with them with the purpose of maintaining their ruling power over the rest of the indigenous populations. The Fulani were aware that they could not beat the more advanced European militaries. This tactic of collaboration with the European powers was their only choice rather than continued resistance, and inevitably it worked to their advantage.  The German, French, and British governments maintained the Fulani ruling structures and placed them over the rest of the indigenous populations of northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria under their watchful eyes.

     The Fulani did not quickly forego their traditions and beliefs under colonialism.  Additionally, they were not quick to assimilate into the changing world around them. This can be attributed to Pulaaku, their code of behavior which dominated their social structure for many generations. Under colonialism, the Fulani heavily rejected western education and maintained traditional Islamic education.  In northern Nigeria, this rejection inevitably impaired their advancement in the colonial, urban centers that were being established. The indigenous populations of the southern regions of Nigeria accepted western education, and they were able to obtain positions in the urban centers due to their western training.

     Today, more Fulani have distinguished themselves in various professional areas and have attained leadership roles in northern Nigeria and in northern Cameroon. The nomadic life has become difficult to maintain as more land is being taken over for agriculture and other purposes. There have been efforts to integrate their cattle-herding way of life with the demands of modern life. In Nigeria today, nomadic Fulani children are being provided with modern educational facilities without disrupting their way of life.

Ndukwe, Pat I., Ph.D. Fulani: The Heritage Library of African Peoples. New York: Rosen, 1996.
Azarya, Victor. Aristocrats Facing Change: The Fulbe in Guinea, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1978.

Copyright © 2009-2011 Melvin J. Collier. All rights reserved.

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