February 2011

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Danger! Changes Ahead For the Fulbe Peoples!

by Keith Carey

For years we have cheated the Fulbe peoples by not praying for them enough! Each time we cover West Africa, we include them. But with a population of as many as 27 million people, we give them the same coverage in our prayer guide as much smaller groups. They are the largest nomadic group in the world, according to “Peoples on the Move.”

The Fulbe, also known as the Fulani, the Fula, Peul, or Pulao, are more like a people group cluster than one people group. They share related languages and live scattered all over West Africa, reaching as far east as Sudan. Yet many have migrated to Europe and the United States. In fact, we will pray for a ministry in New York City on day 28 that reaches out to the Fulbe who live there.

Who Are the Fulbe and Why Are They Important?

Historians don’t know for certain where the Fulbe peoples originated since there is no written history of them until outsiders mentioned them. Arabs mentioned them in the 11th century and European sources begin in the early 15th century. Some think they came from Egypt or India. Others think they originated in West Africa. The latter seems more likely, because the Fulbe language, known as Pulaar or Fulfulde, is related to languages of peoples who live in modern Senegal on Africa’s far western corner, according to the Ethnologue. Most of the 21 countries that they live in today are in West Africa. Generally, they live in the Sahel Desert, just south of the more arid Sahara Desert. Others have migrated to places where water is more abundant like northern Nigeria and Cameroon where they intermarried with other tribes.

The Fulbe have been, and still are very powerful in Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries, but mainly in the 19th century, the Fulbe took control of much of West Africa culminating in the Fulbe Empire, also known as the Sokoto Caliphate. It was founded by Usman dan Fodio. Unlike many conquering people, the Fulbe remained primarily nomadic livestock herders and traders, though through the centuries some have become more settled and began farming. Those who have remained nomadic often look down on those who have settled into a farming lifestyle. Ironically, they depend on such farmers for millet and other grains that they eat along with milk and meat from their herds. Their wealth is in the size of their herds, and Fulbe people have been known to steal livestock from those who can’t stop them from doing so.

Fulbe Values and Religion

For centuries the Fulbe peoples have followed traditional African religion which is animistic at its foundation. They believe in a supreme god, who has little or no contact with humans. They believe that there are supernatural forces that need to be controlled by following certain traditions. If you follow the traditions of your ancestors, then things will go well for you. But if you stray from the traditions or break taboos, you are likely to wind up with sick livestock and other misfortunes. They are also aware of using foresight and working good plans to ensure that their lives are in order. They call this hakkilo, roughly translated as intelligence or foresight.

A second Fulbe value is called semteende, or reserve and modesty. Children need to exercise semteende by behaving appropriately in front of their parents, and spouses should maintain a certain amount of distance from one another in public. The Fulbe people try not to speak out of place or make false assumptions.

A third moral value is Munyal, means exercising patience and self-control. Fulbe people value keeping their emotions in check and not overreacting, even in times of hardship and tragedy. To violate these values, especially publically, would bring shame on the Fulbe and more importantly, on their family and clan. The Fulbe peoples will go to great lengths to avoid shame.

Combined, these virtues are known to the Fulbe as pulaaku, roughly translated as “Fulbe-ness.” These virtues and the code of behavior that goes with it are passed down from one generation to the next.

Getting Settled and Becoming More Islamic

The process of Islamization of the Fulbe has been going on for about a thousand years. During that time, their traditional beliefs in supernatural beings have been gradually replaced by faith in Allah. But even today, those who live nomadic lifestyles tend to remain animistic, while those who are settled as farmers or in cities are more dedicated to Islam. More on that later, but for now, let’s briefly look at the process of Islamization among the Fulbe.

According to Dr. Moussa Bongoyok, a scholar who studied the ways of the Fulbe, Islamization has gone hand in hand with the process of settling into farming or urban lifestyles. He divides their history into four parts. The first time period he calls the “Pre-Jihad Period” that began with their founding as a people up to the 18th Century. The Fulbe were completely animistic at that time. Almost all were nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. They lived in peace with neighboring tribes, and seldom had much of an impact on them.

The second era began when they were exposed to Islam for the first time. Initially they resisted embracing Islam, a religion that was brought to them by Muslim conquerors. Though the Fulbe peoples moved further south, they were eventually forced to accept Islam around 1030AD. Since that time there have been a growing number of Muslim converts among them. However, most remained animistic, and they were not living in accordance with Islamic teachings. That led to a period of jihad, which took place during the 19th century. Islamic warriors, led by Usman dan Fodio, caused the Fulbe to become more Islamic, and in the process, they established Fulbe kingdoms. As Fodio’s forces expanded their jihad, they began to impose orthodox Islam on Fulbe peoples and others who lived near them. Powerful Hausa leaders opposed Fodio, but he was almost unstoppable at that time. During the 18th century, Islam became an integral part of Fulbe identity as their empire expanded. Fodio established the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria, from which he conquered in the name of Islam to the south and to the east. The wealth of Fulbe leaders came from war booty and the Zakkat tax imposed on non-Muslims. In reference to their history, Bongoyok comments, “The jihad period is an indication that Fulbe are capable of fighting if necessary for the sake of their religion. Religion and political leaders should watch that Islamists do not exploit this potential for dangerous confrontations.” (Bongoyok, The Sedentary Fulbe of Northern Cameroon: Culture and Worldview)

The third period that Bongoyok refers to is the European colonial period that began in the 19th century and ended with African independence in the 1960s. The French, British and German colonizers quickly noticed that Fulbe leaders were better organizers than other local leaders. Fulbe leaders already had power and respect, so they were natural choices as intermediaries between the colonial powers and the general African population.

The fourth period began with independence and continues to the present. That time period has brought about a loss of political power for the Fulbe. Bongoyok notes that this could change in places like northern Nigeria where Sharia (Islamic) Law is in effect.

The Fulbe Peoples Today

The Fulbe peoples seem to be going two different directions in the 21st century. Those who remain nomadic and pastoral look down on the ones who have settled on farms and in cities. To them, these people have compromised their pulaaku or Fulbe-ness. Furthermore, such urban dwellers do not possess cattle, the measure of Fulbe wealth. Those who live in the cities may despise the Fulbe who remain pastoral as being un-Islamic since the animistic ways are more dominant than their Muslim practices.

As time goes on, the Fulbe are more and more likely to settle in cities, especially those who make their living through trade. Urban life is posing serious challenges to their traditional values. Western and Arab ways are replacing the ways of the Fulbe and pulaaku is becoming a thing of the past for many who want to excel in their new urban environment. Ironically, those who are more settled are more likely to become more dedicated to Islamic ways though if often means becoming more Arabized and militant in the process. As it stands today, the Fulbe are instrumental in efforts to Islamize West Africa.

Let’s Pray!

Pray that Fulbe people will understand that Jesus is the one they need to guide them during this time of great changes.
Pray that the Holy Spirit will draw both rural and urban Fulbe to the person of Jesus Christ.


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From the Editor

by Keith Carey

Dear Praying Friends,
In some ways, learning about the Fulbe peoples of Africa is very complicated. Though there are many names for them, we will call them “Fulbe” throughout this issue to keep things simple. Then there is the issue of whether there are lots of subgroups, or just one group called “Fulbe.” In the past we have often treated them as one group, which has resulted in having the same amount of prayer for this group of 27 million people as we have for much smaller groups. We might be artificially dividing the Fulbe into smaller groups this month in the interest of providing more prayer for each sector of this strategic people group cluster.
But other things about true for every Fulbe sector. Every subgroup lives by the simple code of honor known as pulaaku that includes patience, self-control, modesty, and respect. For this reason, most of our Bible portions will come from the Proverbs this month. Their idea of wealth is also simple. Basically, the more cattle you own, the wealthier you are. Their identity and self worth is wrapped up in owning cattle. This way of life is providing tragic results as grasslands become deserts in West and Central Africa. Fulbe communities cannot support themselves, and they feel useless when they live in towns. Those who are settled are becoming easy targets for Islamic jihadists who recruit them for their militant cause. Unless God intervenes, the Fulbe peoples could easily get caught up in Islamic militancy. Pray fervently for God to work His life-saving miracle into Fulbe lives.
In Christ,
Keith Carey, managing editor, GPD