The Fula or Peul, Peulh, Fulbe as they are sometimes better known by in other West African countries make up 18% of the Gambia's total population & are the second largest ethnic groups. They are closely related to the Tukulor and are traditionally herdsmen but later some groups entered the occupations of farming, trading and in more modern times are many are also heavily into shop-keeping. In West Africa there are over 9 dialects which was caused by their nomadic lifestyles as often there settlements would be near other villages such as the Mandinka or Serahule and they would soon pick up new words.
Fuuta-Toro in north eastern Senegal is said to be the cradle and original cultural homeland of the Fulani in Africa who began their migrations into the rest of the Senegambia region in the 13th century.
A number of research versions exist as to the origins of the Fula people. One hypothesis is that they were either Caucasians or Semites who had crossed the Sahara and entered the West African region. The other hypothesis is that they originated in the lower basins of Senegal and the Gambia as a result inter-marriage between Saharan Berbers and the Serer and Wolofs. This resulted in two distinct racial groups of Fulani. The Berber group are marked by their light brown skin, straighter hair and noses as compared to the more typical features of their neighbours such as the Wolof or Mandinka. This group kept with the nomadic cattle rearing lifestyle and are know as the Bororoje. The other group had more typical Negroid features and are known as the Fulani Gidda who engaged in farming or lived in towns and cities and entered trading.
By the 7th century the Fulas became a distinct people and were among the first to embrace Islam and later became very active proponents of the religion in a determination to spread the religion through Jihad (holy war) particularly by (Ousman) Othman Dan Fodio (born 1754) of Hausaland in northern Nigeria.
The fact that they were nomadic cattle herders meant that over time over population and over grazing led to migrations out of their homeland of Fuuta-Toro in search of better pastures. Their dwellings tended to be simple round mud huts with thatched roofs or made of cane covered in cow dung. As they migrated they formed settlements some of which evolved into states such as Fuuta-Jalon and Macina in Guinea. There are four general Fula groups in West Africa namely Peul Fuuta from Fuuta-Toro, those from the state of Bundu, those from Fuuta-Jalon in Guinea and those who came from the state of Firdu which was part of the Kaabu Empire. The people that migrated to The Gambia came from Fuuta-Toro and Fuuta-Ɓundu in Senegal and were non-Muslim pastoralists who asked permission from the Mandinka Mansas and Wolofs to graze their cattle on whose states they entered usually with an agreement to pay taxes and/or look after the cattle of their new landlords in return for protection from hostile natives. Other groups from Guinea Conakry, Kaja in Senegal and Mali also migrated into Gambia. They lived in communities in the main Mandinka towns and sometimes a Mandinka village would over time turn into a Fula one.
In the 19th century their main settlements in Gambia were in Jimara, Wuli, Tomana, Kantora and Niani located in the Upper River area. As the migrations continued some decided to settle in towns and villages. Some did inter-marry between the local indigenous groups yet they firmly held onto their cultural heritage and traditions.
At the bottom of the social scale in their society were the slaves who however, were very often brought into the family circle and adopted the surnames of their owners.
The various Fulani states and empires that had emerged in the 19th century were eventually destroyed by the Europeans so much so that by 1917 only the Fuladu Empire, under Musa Molloh, had maintained their independence but even this empire was soon broken up.
Source: Access Gambia