C.O. Adepegba
Decorative Arts of the Fulani Nomads

Ibadan. Ibadan University Press. 1986. 48 p.



The absence of a documented form of writing in sub-Saharan Africa before exposure to Islam and Western culture does not favour attempts to look at African arts for an historical perspective. When the art objects concerned are personal ornaments, which change with fashion, any form of writing they may bear may still not help, for, until recent centuries, such objects were hardly of much importance to attract documentary attention. Hence, the majority of ornaments used by the Fulani nomads are not easy to deal with historically.
However, one thing is certain; the Fulani nomads do not change their fashion as frequently as other Africans, particularly those living in cities. And since some of their ornaments are so valued as to be handed down from parents to children, there is some possibility that some of their items might have been adopted for some length of time, passed from generation to generation. Such items are their jewels and decorated calabashes. However, their jewels are usually not made by themselves, but bought in the market, hence there is the possibility that the makers of the objects might have made them for customers other than the nomads, and the possession of them by the nomads may not indicate the true origins of the objects. Since calabashes are, however, in some places decorated by the Fulani nomads themselves and their designs are in no way close or similar to those of any other groups around them, a historical examination of the designs appears pertinent.
The calabash decorations of the Fulani nomads of northeastern Nigeria as already indicated spreads from beyond the Nigerian border in Niger, southwards, across northeastern Nigeria into the Cameroons. The Fulani nomads in Adamawa point out that their designs originated from Borno, north of Adamawa and many more variations of their types of designs are found in the Borno area. The Wodaabe group of Fulani nomads who decorate the calabashes in Adamawa are also found in Borno and east of Niger directly north of northeastern Nigeria. Thus, the temptation to look further north for the possible origin of such designs is irresistible. This is more so if one takes into account the observation made by Delange:

The nomadic Fulani migrate through Niger in the Tahua Gao, and Mandua regions and extend into Nigeria among the Bororo Fulani, stubborn pagans, protecting their archaic pastoral traditions with pride. It is probably among these people that we will find the purest Fulani characteristics along with the most spontaneous application of their aesthetic feelings. It is not that the borrowing traditions are non-existent here, because the most basic needs demand the assistance of the sedentary people. But this time the importance of borrowings remains minimal, even at the aesthetic level and develops from the extraordinary insistence of the society on elaborating its own artistic themes from a way of life that is reduced to the essentials 1.

Then, she further notes that over the immense Fulani trail which touches the Sahara fringe and over other African cultures in the area, “hover the Moorish and Tuareg arts” 2. The Tuaregs are a nomadic people who live contiguously with the Fulani in those areas where the nomadic Fulani typically show their distinctive fine lines in cafabash decoration. Hence, Tuareg craft designs are carefully examined. The Tuaregs also use very fine lines especially in their jewellery but the geometric precision characteristic of their patterns in this craft are not found in the Fulani nomads' designs on calabashes.
However, directly further north beyond the region occupied by the Tuaregs, almost to the eastern coast of Algeria, there are some Berber groups, the Kabyles who also are famous jewellers and whose pottery designs are similar to the calabash designs of the nomadic Fulani of Niger and northeastern Nigeria, not only in their being made of very fine lines but also because of the way their patterns relate to their usual unified backgrounds (Plate 23). The patterns in both cases display lives of their own, independent of their backgrounds of which they are like actors and their stage. The most intriguing aspect of the Kabyles' pottery designs is the age of some of them whose tradition “has been recognized as preserving with remarkably little change an elaborate and idiosyncratic style first found in neolithic Cyprus about 2000 B.C.” 3.

Plate 25. Berber-Kabyle pottery patterns. (British Museum, London).

However, an important question cannot but be asked on the curious similarity between Kabyle pottery designs and the calabash designs of the nomadic Fulani and the possibility of any historical link between the two design traditions,. That is, how could the Fulani nomads in this region have been influenced by the artistic designs of another place very far away from them, particularly as the wide Ahaggar plateau and Tassili n'Ajjer stand between them in Niger and the Kabyles in eastern Algeria (map).
The possibility of a trade connection between them and the Kabyles which would have provided some answer to the question, while it cannot be ruled out, is not very tenable because the Tuaregs who live between the Fulani and their kindred Berber groups to the north are, like the Fulani, not remarkable traders and do not possess or make objects whose decorations are like those on Kabyle pottery and Fulani calabashes. Neither can the supposition of Passarge as well as other scholars, that the Fulani were in origin of North African Berbers 4 be of much help as no linguistic link has yet been established between Fulfude and the Berber languages.
More relevant to the question is the observation made by Lhote about the rock paintings of Tassili n'Ajjer that a group of figures wearing body ornaments like the present day Fulani and found with cattle are likely to be the people now called the Fulani 5, and the observation is said to have been confirmed by a publication of an initiatory text of Fulani pastoralists in the region of Senegal and Gambia 6. In the text A. Hampate Ba, who has himself been initiated, is said to have shown that the different scenes in the paintings and even individual objects correspond to representations in the initiation rites particularly evocations pertaining to clothes, the formation and malformation of cattle horn, sacrifices and shrines. There are also details in the paintings which correspond to elements from Fulani myths taught during the initiation rites like the hermaphroditic cow. The Fulani initiation field is depicted graphically with the sun surrounded by a circle lined-up with heads of cows as different phases of the moon at the bottom and surmounted by a male and a female figures. The female figure even has a hanging braid of hair to the back. Though no exact dates have been established for the paintings they are undoubtedly much earlier than the historic times when the Fulani were first noticed in Western Sudan.
With this observation of Lhote and the confirmation of it by Fulani ritual traditions and practices, the extant earliest and concrete traces of the Fulani people in Africa are directly north of the area where Delange says the purest Fulani characteristics can be found and where their calabashes are decorated by themselves. Thus, the region, Tassili n'Ajjer, where they appear to have originally settled is close to Berber Kabyle country.
Brentjes has even associated certain figures painted in white in the paintings where Fulani figures appear with the Berbers 7. Then, therefore, interactions between the Fulani and the Berbers at that time in the region is not impossible. It might be that it was there that the Fulani came in contact with the Kabyles' pottery, design with which they moved southward, due to the growing encroachment of the desert, and applied it on calabashes, their new easily obtainable vessels.
On this premise, the consensus that the Fulani, having been first noticed by outsiders as a people in the Senegal valley region, spread from the Senegal area eastwards needs to be reviewed. Claims by certain Fulani groups of moving from west to east nothwithstanding, no evidence is available as to when exactly the Fulani began to inhabit the areas east of Senegal. It is not unlikely that the migrations of the Fulani are also likely to have been southwards, possibly in all directions from Tassili n'Ajjer where their earliest traces in Africa have been documented on the surfaces of rock. Those who spread southwestwards and to Hausaland lost most of their original characters because of the entrepreneurship and the technological skill of the people into whose regions they moved.
But those who moved to the east of the Niger and to northeastern Nigeria moved into regions where their neighbours are less enterprising in terms of commerce and the production of needed handiwork, hence they are found doing things for themselves following their original artistic tastes. If they had all moved across the areas of Hausa influence to the eastern part of Nigeria, they would have been accustomed to Hausa types of designs which their kinsmen in Hausaland are very much fond of. There would not have been a north to south track of decorative designs.
In fact, west of Borno, where the Fulani nomads now interact with the Kanuri, was not occupied by the Kanuri until a few centuries ago; and in Adamawa there is no major ethnic group to which we can point as well-established and influential landowners before the arrival of the Fulani. The fact that the area was intensely settled by Fulani clans who have abandoned their traditional mode of life to take to agriculture as a means of subsistence 8, which is unparallelled anywhere in Nigeria, might not be due only to loss of cattle, which usually makes the Fulani become sedentary, farming might have been attractive in the area as other peoples around might not have been able to provide enough for themselves as well as the surplus staples needed by the Fulani. The Fulani in the region to a large extent may have been self-reliant right from their debut in the area and except for the agricultural produce, jointly supplied them by their sedentary cousins and other peoples, the situation has virtually remained unchanged.
For this reason, it may be implausible to suggest that they introduced probably calabash engraving into the region. The method which they still use, cherish and proudly display is the oldest technique in the area. Other peoples have given it up for being old fashioned. But to the nomads, the technique, as well as the patterns have somehow become their pride and their distinguishing characteristic.

1. Delange, 1974, p. 147.
2. Delange, 1974, pp. 142-143.
3. William Fagg and John Picton, The Potters Art in Africa, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1970, p. 28 with colour plates on p. 31 and Louise E. Jefferson, The Decorative Arts of Africa, London: Collins, St. James's Place, 1974, p. 250.
4. Siegfried Passarge, Adamawa, Berlin: Weimer, 1895, and Stenning, 1959, p. 18 for various suppositions about non-West African origin of the Fulani.
5. H. Lhote, “Les peuplement du Sahara neolitique d'après l'interpretations des gravures et des peintures rupestres” Journal de la Société des Africanistes, xi, 1970, pp. 91-102. Mondes, Vol. II, 4, 1962, pp. 210-214. Brain, 1980, pp. 61-65; and Burchard Brentjes, African Rock Art, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1969, p. 72.
6. Brain, 1980, p. 65, making reference to B.A. Hampate and G.K. Dieterien, Texte initiatique des pasteurs peuls, Paris: The Hague, 1961.
7. Brentjes, 1969, p. 72.
8. Chappel, 1977, p. 2.