Understanding Fulani People, Their Tribe and Language

Fulani people have been in the news and spotlight for quite some time for some good reasons and not-so-good ones, which has led to many people having mixed or hostile reactions towards them. To make sense of all that is happening with this unique set of people, we need to really seek to understand the Fulani people, their way of life, and the challenges and/or motivation that has made them who they are or have evolved to become over the years. They are a unique set of people – even though a few are trying to sever the great communal bond that has bound the Fulanis with the rest of the world together for many centuries now.

Many people and communities have very fond memories and encounter with the Fulani people and their presence would often mean an opportunity to purchase some unique Fulani merchandise – such as beautifully crafted gourds and calabashes, leather wallet/handbags, or horsewhips, etc. It could also mean a chance to purchase unique delicacies made from dairy products obtained from their cattle – such as the Fura da Nunu (a refreshing drink made from Millet and Milk), Donkwa (a spicy delicacy rolled into a ball made from maize and peanuts) or locally roasted/flamed slices of beef popularly known as Kilishi.

However, for some other people and communities – especially those prone to inter-ethnic violence and disturbances, the sight of a moving Fulani caravan rolling into town signifies a time to panic, be on the defensive or have to fight or flee for their dear lives.

Origin Of The Fulani People

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Knowing the origin of the Fulani people will no doubt help to properly understand them and also help to appreciate how far they have come and how well they have fared in their journey and settlement over the years. The thing about understanding exactly where the Fulani people came from is that it has been a bit difficult for historians to put a definite location to the origin of the Fulanis. There are a few theories postulated by historians on the origin of the Fulani people, and in some ways, they are quite different from one another.

Middle East Origin

Some historians believe that as early as the 5th century, the early ancestors of the group of people known as the Fulanis in the present-day originated from the Middle East. They believe that the early ancestors of the Fulanis were Nomads, who immigrated down towards parts of Africa in search of water and pastures for their herd. As they moved towards the green pastures, they began to mingle with indigenous tribes encountered along their journeys, and after several years of inter-marriage and living together, their initial physical features and attributes began to change till the present day.

North Africa Origin

Another set of historians believe that the present-day Fulani people actually originated from North African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and even Mauritania. They were then believed to have immigrated down towards other parts of Africa – particularly West African countries, where some of them have settled down and made their home for many centuries, fusing perfectly with the indigenous people of their adopted homes, and in some cases taking up the culture and way of life of their hosts.

Senegambian Roots

Some historians, probably for their inability to trace the true origin of the Fulani people, believe that they actually can be traced back to areas between present-day Senegal and the Gambia. There might be an iota of truth in this postulation considering the fact that the present-day pastoral Fulani people actually have a lot in common with people from this region of Africa, probably more than any other geographical region on the face of the earth. They share almost the same physical and cultural attributes with people from both Senegal and Gambia and could be easily taken for each other.

There is another theory that believes that the early Fulani people actually originated from the Arab world, but they migrated to other parts of the world – especially Africa, in search of water, pasture, and most importantly, markets to trade/sell their cattle and other dairy products gotten from their flock. The early Fulani people were also very instrumental in spreading the Islamic religion in Africa, as they took the messages of the religion to the territories they conquered during their Holy Jihad wars.

What The Fulani People Are Known For

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To gain a proper understanding of the Fulani people, one needs to really understand where they came from and particularly what they are known for. The people in their entirety were known principally to be cattle rearers/herders, and their herds consisted of cows, sheep, rams, and goats. From their cattle, they are also able to get other dairy products such as milk, cheese, and others which they sell to the local communities as they journey along their trading routes.

Fulani women are also known to be industrious and they support their husbands and families by selling “special” herbs and spices, as well as local delicacies made from fermented milk and groundnut. They are also good in handicrafts such as pottery, gourds, engraving, making beautiful earrings, bracelets, as well as knitting and producing very beautiful hats and calabashes.

The Fulani people are also known to make their traditional clothing and attire, which they sell to local communities they come across on their journey. Another major thing that they were known for was helping the Arabs to spread the religion of Islam to other parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, and till today, a vast majority of the Fulani people are practicing Muslims.

Since time immemorial, the Fulani people were also known to follow a way of life known to them as pulaaku – meaning “Fulani Pathways,” which they pass from one generation to another, and it is built on 4 pillars to guide their way of life:

  • Munyal – which teaches prudence, discipline, patience, and self-control
  • Gacce – which teaches respect for others (even including one’s enemies) and modesty
  • Hakkille – which teaches hospitality, personal responsibility, and forethought
  • Sagata – which imbibes hard work and courage

The “Fulaniness” of an individual is deemed incomplete or seriously in question if he or she does not imbibe or exhibit these 4 fundamental concepts that have become their way of life over many centuries.

Types Of Fulani People

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So many tend to have a general or unitary view of the Fulani people. To this set of people, all Fulani people are one and the same and have only one type of lifestyle, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is that just like several ethnic groups all over the world – and particularly in Africa, not all members have the same orientation and lifestyle, and the Fulani people are not exempted as well.

There are 3 broad categories of Fulani people, and their common attributes and lifestyles are listed below:

Pastoral or Nomadic Fulani

This is the set of Fulani people who are cattle herders and pastoralists by nature and they are on the move with their cattle all year round, making temporary camp in a suitable location for just a few months while taking shelter in portable huts before moving on. Their main source of livelihood comes from cattle rearing and associated dairy products from the cattle. They are lax in nature and might not be practicing Muslims at all. All Fulanis began life this way, but as they began to settle in different locations across Africa and other parts of the world, their lifestyle and orientation experienced some changes.

Semi-Nomadic Fulani

This set of Fulanis also rear cattle as their main source of livelihood, but they differ from their Nomadic brothers in the sense that they do not travel long distances across countries and regions with their herd. Rather than roam through communities, they choose a homestead and raise both their children and cattle in their adopted home. If resources to cater for their family and cattle are becoming scarce, they simply move their homestead to another favorable location and make it their new home.

Settled Fulani

These are the ones who have, over time – running into decades and centuries, given up their nomadic way of life permanently. They have embraced modern times and are found in urban areas living their lives just as everyone does in the big cities. They are found in all sectors of the economy and are not pastoralists at all. They live in cities, villages, and towns, and their profession can range from traders to industrialists, bankers, academics, etc.

Climate Change Has Caused The Fulanis to Migrate More

As the effect of climate change continues to alter a lot of things and conditions across the world, the Fulani people are feeling it as well. Lake Chad – which was the largest body of water that nourishes the Fulani people and their cattle is rapidly drying up and forcing those who have settled across this area to be on the move in search of water and food to nourish their families and herds. Countries all over Sub-Saharan Africa are developing rapidly, and many areas that used to be travel routes of the Fulani pastoralists have now either become modern villages or urban centers and sources of conflict between the Fulani people and their communal hosts – albeit temporary.

Are Fulani People The Same As The Hausas?

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To so many people in Nigeria, Sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps even all over the world, there is no difference between the Fulanis and the Hausas, and perhaps even all Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa, with very few people even giving thought to what could be the difference between these two prominent tribes. This is a very important thing to know in order to properly understand Fulani people, their uniqueness and distinct identity from their brotherly tribe – the Hausas.

If we look at this differentiation from the lens of multi-ethnic groups, especially in most African countries that have a mixture of both Southern and Northern ethnic groups, one can tell that they are not the same people. Take a country like Nigeria, for example, many people consider those from the North as “Northerners” and can’t differentiate one tribe/ethnic group from the other.

Moreover, using Nigeria as a focal point – which definitely is regarded as the “Home Base” of the Hausas with a population close to 66 million (the largest in the world), the Hausas were traditional settlers and resident of the northern part of the country known as Nigeria today (meaning they were indigenous occupants of Nigeria before the amalgamation by the British), while the Fulanis, on the other hand, were immigrants from the Northern/Sahelic part of Africa, who settled across several countries in Africa – including Nigeria (and several others).

We can look at this differentiation between the Fulani and Hausa people again from the angle of the language spoken and population. The main language spoken by the Hausa people is the Hausa language, while Fula is the traditional language spoken by the Fulani people; it is also estimated that the Fulani people have a population of about 50 million all over the world, while that of the Hausas has been recently understood to be between 70 and 150 million. The Fulani people are also known to have facial and physical features that are unique and quite different from their brothers and sisters amongst the Hausa people.

The truth is that both the Fulani and Hausa people share a lot of similarities and since they have lived together for so long in some countries like Nigeria and intermarried severally, many don’t really see the difference between the two brotherly ethnic groups and commonly refer to both of them as one and the same people or collectively as Northerners, with most not sensing or knowing any difference at all.

Details of the Language Fulani People Speak

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The Fulani people are a well-traveled people and though they have their traditional language spoken predominantly amongst the early immigrants/settlers, some have adopted alternate languages (or second languages) based on their region of settlement over so many years, and this is another key attribute that will enable us to understand Fulani people better.

The main language spoken by the Fulani people is called the Fula and it is the predominant language among those indigenous to most West African countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Guinea. The Fulfide is another language commonly spoken amongst (immigrant) Fulanis spanning across the West African, Central, Eastern, and some parts of the Northern African region, and it is quite distinguishable from the Fula language. Fulfide is the official lingua franca in countries such as Chad, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Guinea, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Mauritius, Togo, Central African Republic, Northern Benin, and several others.

The Fulanis that have settled in different countries across Sub-Saharan Africa have either adopted the language of the predominant ethnic group in such countries – such as the Hausa language in the Northern part of Nigeria or managed to mix their own language with that of the local people as well. Researchers and historians have stated that the Fulani languages have several varieties and believe that the Fula language has more than 10 different variations that exist amongst the several Fulani dwellers and migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa. They also speak languages such as Arabic, Wolof, Bambara, and even in some cases, the French language.

Highlights of the Languages Spoken by the Fulani People

  • Nigeria – Fula
  • Cameroon- Fula
  • Niger- Fula
  • Mali- Fula
  • Senegal- Fula
  • Guinea- Fula
  • Chad – Fulfide
  • Somalia – Fulfide
  • Sudan – Fulfide
  • Ethiopia – Fulfide
  • Guinea – Fulfide
  • Cameroon – Fulfide
  • Burkina Faso – Fulfide
  • The Gambia – Fulfide
  • Mauritius – Fulfide
  • Togo – Fulfide
  • The central African Republic – Fulfide
  • Northern Benin – Fulfide

Geographical Distribution Of The Fulani People

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The Fulani people are well distributed amongst most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and they can be seen in the Sahelian part of Africa as well. In most places where they are domiciled, they either make up the dominant ethnic group or are the minority ethnic group. The Fulanis are the dominant ethnic group in countries such as Guinea, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal; and in some cases, they are known to be bi-lingual and even trilingual in some cases. Fulani settlers can also be found in North African countries such as Egypt and Sudan.

The Fulanis are part of the minority ethnic groups in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Cameroon, Niger, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Togo, Liberia, Benin, Chad, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Mali. They are very prominent in countries such as Senegal, the Gambia, Mauritius, and South Sudan. As a people, the Fulani seems to have settled down in large numbers in West Africa, where many believe greatly favors their herds with its lush vegetation and abundance of water, as the Lake Chad region where they are known to have favored in the past is fast drying up, no thanks to global warming, hence, they are moving to other areas that are more favorable to their herds.

It is true that the Fulani people have made most of the West African countries their home over several years now. In some cases, they have reproduced so rapidly that their numbers have increased very significantly to the extent that they have now become a very significant percentage of the indigenous population in these countries.

The country with the largest Fulani population in West Africa is Nigeria, with a Fulani population of well over 16 million. Other West African countries with an estimated Fulani population includes Guinea who has about 13 million Fulanis within her borders, while Senegal has about 3.5 million. Mali has a population of 3 million, while Niger follows with about 1.6 million. Mauritania has a Fulani population of about 1.3 million, while Burkina Faso has about 1.2 million in the country.

The Fulanis are present in other West African countries too, but their numbers are in the minorities, ranging from just a few thousands to hundreds of thousands. It is worth noting that Fulanis are in other parts of Africa as well – particularly Central, West, and some Northern part of Africa, but their numbers are not as much as those of the West African countries; the only exception to this is Cameroon that has about 3 million Fulanis living within the country.

Highlights of Countries Where Fulani People Can Be Found

  • Guinea
  • Mali
  • Niger
  • Burkina Faso
  • Senegal
  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • Ghana
  • Nigeria
  • Cameroon
  • Ivory Coast
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Togo
  • Liberia
  • Benin
  • Chad
  • Sierra Leone
  • The Gambia
  • Mauritius
  • South Sudan

Some Influential Fulani People Around The World

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As stated earlier, there are different types of Fulani people, and while the pastoralists and semi-sedentary Fulanis may not be well known all over the world, their settled brothers and sisters who have embraced the urban life are those whose names may ring a bell when mentioned, especially those people of Fulani descent who are found in other parts of the world. Here is a list of some very prominent Fulani people (and those of Fulani descent) that are very influential around the world:

Politically Influential Fulanis in Africa

  • Muhammadu Buhari – the current President of the most populous black nation on the face of the earth, Nigeria.
  • Adama Barrow – the current President of Gambia
  • Macky Sall – the President of Senegal
  • Boubou Cisse – Prime Minister of Mali
  • Uman Sissoco Embalo – President of Guinea Bissau
  • Mohammed Juldeh Jalloh – The Vice President of Sierra Leone
  • Aicha Bah Diallo – ex-Minister of Education and a former Senior Education leader at UNESCO
  • Cellou Dalein Diallo – an ex-Minister and Prime Minister of the country

Influential Fulanis on the International Scene

  • Tijjani Muhammad-Bande – the 74th President of the United Nations General Assembly
  • Amina J. Mohammed – former Minister in the cabinet of President Buhari, before she was nominated as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo – current Secretary-General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)

Influential Fulanis in the Diaspora

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  • John Legend – Many don’t know that popular American singer, songwriter, actor, and philanthropist is of Fulani descent
  • India Arie – The famous singer and songwriter is also of Fulani descent
  • Anthony Anderson – The famous Black-ish actor and comedian who plays the lead role of Andre “Dre” Johnson Sr. on the show is also of Fulani descent

Demised Influential Fulanis in Nigeria

  • Usman Dan Fodio – an Islamic scholar who led Jihad and established the Sokoto empire
    Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa – the First Prime Minister of Nigeria
  • Shehu Shagari – a former President of Nigeria
  • Umaru Musa Yar’Adua – also a former President of the country
  • Karamokho Alfa – a Jihad leader and founder of Futa Jallon
  • Boubaccar Diallo Telli – the 1st Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)

Influential Fulanis in Senegal

Some of the notable Fulanis in the country include

  • Baaba Maal – a singer and traditional African guitarist
  • El Hadj Umar Tall – the founder of the Toucouleur empire
  • Amadou Ba – the country’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • El Hadj Amadou Sall – an ex minister of Justice
  • Daouda Saw – an ex-President of the country’s National Assembly, just to mention a few

Influential Fulanis in the Niger Republic

Some of the influential Fulani in the Niger Republic include:

  • Ide Oumarou – an ex-Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)
  • Mamadou Tandja – a former president of the country
  • Amadou Cheiffou – an ex-Prime Minister of the country, amongst a few other very influential people.


Generally, it is very presumptuous to make assumptions about a particular tribe or set of people due to how a few of them act. In the same vein, it is wrong to make assumptions about the kind of people they are without trying to understand the Fulani people.

This is the same way Muslims all around the world continue to fight the image of terrorism that has come to be attached to Islam due to the attitude of some Muslims. Even though we can’t rule out the fact that there are some bad eggs among the Fulani people, not all of them are terrorists and murderers, as many of them live a worthwhile life worthy of emulation. Moreover, when their origin, culture, and history are explored, it will aid in understanding the Fulani people.

Feyisayo Oluokun
Feyisayo Oluokun
Feyisayo is a passionate writer, voracious reader and a lover of romance. She is interested in doing intensive research, traveling and exploring new things.


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