History. Culture. Islam
West African Sufi
The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal
University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.
A note on ethnicity
The matter of ethnicity is extremely complex, and in recent years a welcome debate on the precision of its definition has begun to emerge in the West African literature.
Ethnicity is primarily a question of identity, and identity is in fact a multi-dimensional process; it varies with who is doing the identifying and in what context. A Pullo, for example, has no need to identify himself as a Pullo when he is among other Fulbe; he would identify himself by family, lineage, clan or perhaps village. But if he travelled from Masina to Bamako, he would be seen as a Pullo; and in Paris, among other Africans, he would be a Malian, although to most Europeans he would be an African. This example suggests that one's identity becomes more abstract the further one moves from home; and the same is true of ethnicity. In this book we usually speak of ethnic groups as if they were clearly defined, homogeneous entities; the “Fulbe,” the “Dogon,” etc. And of course, this level of abstraction is usually appropriate to the topics under discussion.
But it is also necessary to point out, especially to readers who are less familiar
with the region here under study, that these general designations can be misleading.
The Fulbe, in the narrowest sense of the term, are semi-nomadic cattle keepers; but when one speaks of the “Fulbe of Masina” one denotes a much larger socio-economic and political agglomeration of farmers and craftsmen as well. These non-pastoralists constitute the subordinate classes of a larger Pullo society into which they have been integrated and acculturated. They speak Fulfulde and, depending on the context, they consider themselves Fulbe, even if they know their “true” ethnic origins to be something else. Of course, many of these are the descendants of slaves, but many also descend from free people who voluntarily settled in this region, intermarried and became “Fulbe.” This example suggests the dangers inherent in employing ethnic designations carelessly; the pastoralist Fulbe do not consider these subordinate classes in Masina to be “true” Fulbe, and if one defines them in strict genealogical and socio-economic terms, they are not. But if one includes the characteristics of language, culture, and polity in the definition, as most outsiders do, they certainly qualify as Fulbe.
The movement and mixing of peoples was extensive in West Africa, as the result
of war, migration, commercial activity and even, if on a much smaller scale, the
search for Islamic scholarly training. Cerno Bokar had close relationships, both
as a student and as a teacher, with persons from almost every one of the ethnic
groups listed in this appendix. Not all societies were as aggressively integrative
as the Fulbe; the Dogon do not seem to have brought many outsiders into their society,
although we know so little of Dogon history that one can in no way be certain of
this impression. The Marka merchants, however, not only amassed great numbers of
slaves, but they also seem to have accepted the inclusion of freemen into their
commercial enterprises, who intermarried, adopted the Marka language, and in this
case Islam, and who became “Marka.”
The concern of contemporary scholars to explore the dynamics of “shifting
ethnicity” has sounded a note of warning about the unqualified use of ethnic
terminology. But while these kinds of studies deepen our understanding of African
society and history, we must also remember that indigenous African ideas about
ethnicity have always been present and significant. These were concerned with ethnicity
not as a subject of study, but as a method of identification, that is, of distinguishing
oneself from others, and secondarily of distinguishing among the various groups
of others. African ethnic designations of other groups therefore tend to be coloured
by highly stereotypical and sometimes denigrating overtones. And many of the designations
adopted in European usage were not those by which Africans called themselves, but
those given them by outsiders. It was not until twenty years after the French established
their official presence among the Dogon that they actually began to refer to them
as Dogon; before that they employed the Fulfulde word “Habe” which
is a derisory generic term for non-Fulbe. Stereotypical attitudes, of course, are
not limited to Africans but are universal. And not all Africans endorsed them;
Cerno Bokar was highly critical of such prejudices. The French were not immune
to them; they were quite prepared to label all Futanke as “treacherous” or
all Muslims as “fanatical.” The manipulation of stereotypes is not
a major concern of this book, but it plays an important role in some of the events
portrayed. Hamallah was opposed by some people because he was a Moor, and he challenged
the religious leadership of many Futanke, a charge which gained a sympathetic response
in some quarters even though the Tijani leadership in West Africa was very mixed
ethnically. French antagonism to Hamallah was enhanced by the claim that he was
a fanatically anti-French Muslim, even though no evidence could ever be documented
to this effect. These phenomena were not manifestations of “tribalism,” nor
are they exclusive to Africa. They reflect the manipulation of stereotypes and
they are universal.
The descriptions presented here make no claim to being definitive, although they
have been informed by the many concerns discussed above. They are more historical
than anthropological in that they attempt to define different groups both as they
were seen by their contemporaries in the early twentieth century, as well as with
some regard for recent scholarship. This approach has been adopted, not in order
to perpetuate stereotypes, but to aid the reader in understanding the weight which
ethnic terminology carried for the contemporaries of Cerno Bokar.
1. Fawtier, “Le Cercle de Bandiagara,” Bulletin du Comité de
l'Afrique Française, Renseignements coloniaux, 1914, 70-1, makes the first
reference to them as Dogon which I have found in the literature. All population
estimates whkh occur in this Appendix for the Bandiagara plateau are taken from
2. See VE, 108.
3. See the introduction to Willis, ed., Studies in West African Islamic History.