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Background on the Fuuta Tooro Oral History Project

Map I: Fuuta Tooro and Surrounding Region in the Nineteenth Century
Map II: Modern Fuuta Tooro (circa 1969)

The Fulbe people have played a prominent role in West African history. As cattle pastoralists they spread across 2,000 miles of savanna land, from Senegambia in the west to Cameroun in the east, over the last one thousand years. As Muslim revolutionaries some of them established Islamic regimes over the last three centuries in four widely separated zones of the savanna. It was in these areas that they adapted the Arabic script to the writing of their language, Fulfulde, and developed other institutions for the dissemination of Islam in West Africa. More than any other single people, the Fulbe have led in the process whereby Islam has become the majority faith of the savanna region.

In their pastoral and state-building roles, the Fulbe have been known by a variety of names. In the English-speaking world they are often called Fula, a term derived from the Mandinka and the Gambia, Fulani, a term which comes from the Hausa language, or Fellata, which comes from Kanuri, in Nigeria; all three terms reflect the usage of British colonial rule. In the French-speaking world they usually go by the expression Peul, which comes from pul or up llo, the singular of Fulbe: a up llo is one speaker of Fulfulde; this usage developed in French colonial Senegal. Before the Islamic revolutions most of these speakers would have been part of a pastoral and nomadic life-style consistent with the probable original meaning of the verb fullude, "to disperse."

The traditions of dispersion of the far-flung Fulbe converge on the area which is the subject of this anthology. (See Map I and Map II.) Fuuta Tooro corresponds to the middle valley of the Senegal River. Today the north bank lies in Mauritania, the south bank in Senegal. Fuuta is the general name which the Fulbe gave to the areas in which they lived, while Tooro is the region with the oldest identity in the middle valley; it lies in the western portion, around the towns of Podoor and Njum.
The linguistic evidence also suggests that this region may be the birthplace, or close to the birthplace of the Fulbe people. The comparative linguistic work of Joseph Greenberg has shown that Fulfulde belongs to the West Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. Within the Atlantic sub-family, it is closely related to the other languages of the Northern group, which include Serer, spoken by the people living southeast of Dakar, and Wolof, the tongue of the people just to the north of the Serer and increasingly the lingua franca of all of Senegal. All three languages were probably spoken in southern Mauritania and the Senegal River valley in the first millennium A.D.

The name of the dialect of Fulfulde spoken in Fuuta Tooro and used in this anthology is Pulaar. It is also applied to the other forms of Fulfulde spoken in the Senegambian region: the speech of the pastoral Fulbe of the Ferlo steppe, the speech of the inhabitants of Fulakunda, on the south bank of the Middle Gambia, and the forms of the inhabitants of Futa Jalon in the mountains of Guinea. The people of Fuuta Tooro, as an amalgamation of various "ethnic" groups attracted to the middle valley over the centuries, have come to call themselves Haalpulaar'en, "those who speak Pulaar," since the language is one of the major factors binding them together. In Wolof, French and common Senegalese usage, the Haalpulaar'en are called Toucouleur, derived from Takruur, the name of the ancient state contemporary with the Ghana Empire.

Over the centuries the liaalpulaar'en have introduced words and concepts from a number of neighboring languages. Berber and Hassaniyya Arabic borrowings reflect the northern or Mauritanian influence. Soninke, Mandinka and Wolof expressions reflect the long period of interaction in the Senegal River valley. Classical Arabic borrowings show the long association with Islam, while the numerous French loan words reflect the contacts with European merchants and colonial authorities in the last one hundred years.

A. The Strategic Setting

The migration traditions and linguistic evidence point to the strategic position and economy of the middle valley of the Senegal River. It lay just beneath the Western Sahara and very close to the Transsaharan caravan routes which developed in the days of the Ghana Empire and the Almoravid movement. The Mediterranean geographers locate the Muslim state of Takruur in or close to the middle valley in the 11th century. From the 16th to the 18th centuries Fuuta was often the subject of raids by Moroccan forces anxious to expand the influence of their state and acquire the wealth in gold and slaves of the Western Sudan.

The middle valley also occupied a strategic position in relation to the coast and European penetration of the interior of West Africa. By denying or according access to ships its leaders could turn European goals to their own advantage. The Fuutagkoobe, "people of Fuuta," were largely successful in this effort from the time of the first Portuguese activities in the 16th century until the period of French expansion under Governor Faidherbe in the 1850s. After the mid-19th century, however, the Europeans held the upper hand and used the river as a staging area for the conquest of the savanna.

Strategic position correlated closely with agricultural productivity. The rains of the summer months watered the highland or 'e~ eri crop, which Fuuta had in common with the other zones of the savanna. The rains also raised the level of the river, which in turn spilled over its banks in the middle valley. After the waters receded in December, the moist floodplain or waalo could be seeded with millets, sorghum and maize for a dry season harvest, just when other areas were entering the "hungry season." This additional harvest made Fuuta a breadbasket for the surrounding regions and it drew immigrants of all stripes from all directions.

The French colonial concentration on the development of peanut cultivation in western Senegal has overshadowed the central economic role of Fuuta Tooro. The conditions of near drought and famine in the last 15 years are partly the result of that neglect, but they have also brought home to Senegalese, Mauritanian and international experts the centrality of the middle valley to the agricultural and livestock productivity of Mauritania and Senegambia. It remains to be seen whether the recent substantial investments in dams, irrigation, and other projects will be able to restore the economic importance of the river region.

B. The Organization of Fuuta Tooro

The settlements of the middle valley developed in east-west tiers corresponding to the main channel and the edges of the floodplain. One line of villages lies close to the southern edge of the average flood. There the inhabitants could farm the floodplain (waalo) in the dry season and the higher or 'eeri land in the rainy season. They could graze their cattle, sheep and goats in the jeeri during the wet months and in the waalo after the floodplain harvest in February. Another line of villages lay along the southern bank of the river; the livelihood of these people came from waalo farming or fishing in the main stream and its tributaries. A similar line of villages dressed the north bank, while some jeeri settlements formed a fourth and final tier, in the north before the land gave way to steppe and desert.

The total distance from the southernmost "Senegalese" to the northernmost "Mauritanian" tier was rarely more than 15 miles. Strong ties of kinship and economic complementarity bound villages in the various tiers together. In fact, some villages in the two waalo zones were completely abandoned when the waters rose, and the inhabitants moved in with relatives in the jeeri. The larger and wealthier families had both waalo and jeeri fields for farm and pasture. If Mauritanians or Moroccans invaded from the north, everyone would take refuge on the south bank. If some superior force pressed in from the south, a less frequent occurrence, the people could move to the north side of the river.

This social organization and environment obviously reinforced north-south ties at the expense of east-west linkages. Throughout the known history of Fuuta, which is to say the last thousand years, immigrants and dynasties have sought but rarely succeeded in controlling the whole middle valley. They have often placed their capitals in the central zone, in order to better survey the 250 miles which stretch from Dembac)kane, at the beginning of the upper valley, to Dariana, at the edge of the lower valley, but local and regional chiefs have usually been able to establish their own relations with Senegambian societies, Mauritanian confederations and the European ships.

For the sake of convenience the east-west expanse can be divided into three regions and nine provinces. The eastern zone has somewhat less floodplain farming. It blends into the steppe of Bunndu to the south and into the densely populated villages of Galam or Gajaaga on the east. In fact, many of its people speak Soninke in addition to and sometimes in preference to Pulaar; these inhabitants entered the middle valley from Gajaaga and have maintained their ties with that region. The central zone is the most densely populated part. The cultivable waalo lands are wide, partly because two tributaries link up with the river here: the Gorgol on the north side, the Due Marigot on the south. The suitability of the central zone for government has also reinforced its population. The western zone contains the largest floodplain but the sparsest habitation, in part because of the saline content of this part of the sluggish Senegal River, in part because of the pressure of Mauritanians and Fu16e from the north and south, and perhaps because of the substantial migration of people for the holy war of Umar Taal in the 19th century. Just as the Soninke language and culture is often present in the east, Wolof origins and settlement are strong in the region, and they become stronger as one moves towards the west and the sduthwest. Tooro province was often politically dominant in this region and formed a counterpoise to the regimes in central and eastern Fuuta.

These dimensions of residence, occupation and origin formed the social and ethnic structure of Fuuta. Some occupations provided the class identity of groups. This was true for the fishing lineages (subalbe, singular _cubballo) who lived in some of the oldest villages along the river. It was also the case for the artisans (neenbe, sg. neeno) who created metal, wood, clay,leather and cloth objects necessary for the whole population. These artisans transmitted their crafts to their children through apprenticeship systems, married into lineages with the same occupation, and together constitute what are often called the hereditary castes of Fuutanke, and indeed other Senegambian societies. Included in their number are the traditional historians and musicians commonly known as g riots, who congregated at the political courts and performed many diplomatic and judicial functions in addition to their public performances. Fuutanke griots include awlube (sg. ag wlo), who constituted the principal group attached to local dynasties; the maabube (sg. maabo), who usually combined weaving and praise-singing; and wambaabe (sg. bambaado), who were characteristically attached to pastoral Fulbe lineages. All three are represented in the texts of this anthology.

Farming was the occupation of most of the rest of the Fuutai)ke, and indeed was pursued by many of the subalbe and artisan groups. The largest group of farmers were the sebbe (sg. ceddo), an expression with many connotations in Senegambian usage. In Fuuta it refers to the "blacks" or "persons of non-Fulbe origin" who, along with the Fulbe, constituted the earliest population of the middle valley. By their residence they became Haalpulaar'en in time. In a second context the sebbe are contrasted with those who practice Islam. This was certainly the original case with the sebbe, and they have never constituted the learned Muslims of the society, but in time they did become practicing Muslims like the other inhabitants. In a third setting the term suggests persons who are attached to some particular leader or court, as officials, soldiers and enforcers. This connotation goes back to the role of particular sebbe in the Deeniyanke regime in the 17th and 18th centuries and to the role of the famous sebbe "pillagers" at the Wolof courts of the 19th century. By their great consumption of alcohol, they fused the second and third meanings of the term.

The Fulbe of Fuuta come from a pastoral tradition. Beginning perhaps 1000 years ago in the days of Takruur, some of them became attracted to the agricultural potential of Fuuta, settled on the land, and adopted the religious faith which has traditionally been identified with sedentary life in the middle valley. Other Fulbe remained nomadic and continued to move in regular transhumance patterns, either in the steppe north of the river and close to the Sahara, or in the steppe called Ferlo between Fuuta and the Gambia. They depended upon the sedentary citizens of the middle valley for food and water at the end of the dry season, but they sometimes expressed that dependence by raiding as well as by submission. They formed the principal source of new settlers and new recruits into the ruling classes of the middle valley. The other two classes of Fuutai)ke society are the jaawambe (sg. jaawando), a small group who became political counselors as well as farmers, and the tooro66e (sg. tooroodo), who emerged in the late 18th century and constitute the principal actors in this anthology.

C. The Emergence of the Islamic State

Most of the ruling classes of Fuuta have been the sedentarized descendants of the pastoral Fu16e. Some of these classes came under external domination, by the Wolof of Jolof, the Mandinka of Mali or the Soninke of Jaara, while others were autonomous. In the early 16th century a Fulbe lineage called the Deeniyanke, under the leadership of Koli Tepella and with the support of a variety of se66e from within and without the middle valley, became dominant (see Text 2). For over a hundred years the Deeniyai)ke managed to control not only the highly segmented valley but a large portion of Senegambia as well. In the 17th century they lost the larger domain, while in the 18th they were weakened by growing Moroccan and Mauritanian pressure from the north, on the one hand, and growing resentment at their exacting demands from the local people, on the other.

The local resentment crystallized in small communities bound together by allegiance to Islamic piety and learning. By the 1760s these groups, in the face of the exactions of the Deeniyanke and the raids from the north, organized themselves into a resistance movement. Under the leadership of Sileymaani Baal, they launched the Islamic revolution which in turn gave birth to the regime called the Almamaagal or Almamate (from the Arabic al-imaam, "the one who leads in prayer"). In the process they constituted themselves as a new class, the tooro66e, and added that class to the social pantheon of Fuuta. While the term toorobbe is often associated with the province of Tooro by those living outside of Fuuta, it is derived from the verb tooraade, "to beg for alms," with reference to the Koranic school pupils who supported themselves in that way. The original label of "begging" was probably applied by the Deeniyanke court, who made fun of the earnest Muslims (see Text 2). The toorob6e transformed the pejorative connotation into a proud new identity through the successful revolution of the 1770s and 1780s. They became the new ruling class and grew rapidly in numbers as pastoral and sedentary Fulbe, sebbe and others hastened to avail themselves of the new identity and new opportunity to rule.

The new regime, under its Almaami or imaam, endured for over a hundred years, but its ability to control the middle valley was spent by the early 1800s. Until that time Almaami Abdul Kaader, the first and most effective ruler of the new government, was victorious in battle. He was able to redistribute lands, assign local imaams to many villages, and extend Futanke influence into the regions of western and southeastern Senegal. The defeat of his forces in Kajoor in 1797 marked the beginning of the decline of the regime, and his assassination by internal and external enemies in 1807 marked the failure of the vision of the toorobbe. The periods of emergence and decline define the first two parts of this anthology.

During the 19th century the Almamate survived in its basic institutions, but it never recovered the strength and zeal of the earlier period. It was governed officially by the Almaami, chosen from a group of "eligible" lineages who possessed the necessary credentials of learning, but effective control lay with regional chiefs of the central provinces who possessed considerable land, constituents and slaves. Most of these chiefs served in the capacity of "electors" (jaggorde, sg. jaggorgal) of the Almaami; their electoral council contained a fixed core and fluctuating periphery of members. Two families who were "eligible" for the post of Almaami, the Lih of Jaaba in Hebbiyaabe province and the Wan of Mbummba in Laaw province, also succeeded in maintaining considerable power during the 19th century. The Wan in particular used their growing wealth in land and slaves to establish a power base in Laaw, compete for the Almaami-ship, and at times threaten to turn the national post into their own fiefdom. The struggle of various coalitions of "electors" and "eligibles" for power constitutes the third part of the anthology.

In the middle of the 19th century Fuuta was threatened much more seriously by two external forces. The French began to transform the relations of interdependence which they had maintained with the middle valley into relations of domination, particularly under the leadership of Governor Louis Faidherbe (1854-61, 1863-5). The second intrusion came from a native son, Umar Taal. Umar came from Tooro province, whose grievances against the domination of the central region he expressed during his entire career. He left home early in the century, made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and returned with considerable prestige, ambition and following. In the 1850s he launched a holy war against the predominantly non-Muslim Mandinka and Bambara to the east. To achieve his goals he recruited heavily in Senegambia, especially in his native land. The recruitment process, in which Umar evoked the founders of the Islamic regime, reached its culmination in a massive drive in 1858-9. It had the effect of undermining the charter and position of Almaami even more. The French and Umarian intrusions constitute the fourth portion of the anthology.

The authority of the regional chiefs, and particularly that of the electors, was compromised much less than that of the Almaami. One of these leaders, Abdul Bookar Kan, emerged as the dominant force in the middle valley between 1860 and 1890. He was able to fend off the challenges of Islamic reformers, who now evoked the example of Umar Taal as well as Abdul Kaader. He effectively challenged the authority of the Klan lineage (see Text 14), who in turn came increasingly to rely upon French support. The period of his hegemony constitutes the fifth part of the book.

By the late 1880s it was obvious that the French would conquer all of Fuuta as part of their subordination of Senegal and conquest of the Western and Central Sudan. The middle and upper valley became essential staging areas for the expansion into the regions today known as Mali, Upper Volta and Niger. Abdul Bookar resisted the conquest, as long and effectively as possible, but succumbed in 1891, the year which marks the end of the independence of Fuuta. His defeat and the French takeover constitute the last portion of the anthology.

D. The Fulfulde Language

The language of the Fulbe is spoken by over ten million people in West Africa and by about 25% of the population of Senegal. Within Senegal there are two major groups of dialects, those of the northern areas and those of the south. This collection of texts focuses on the northern cluster and specifically the the speech of the Haalpulaar'en of the middle valley.

For elaboration on the structure and applications of this very complex language, see the works by Arnott, Fagerberg, Ka, Sapir and Sylla.

E. The Literature on the History and Language of Fuuta Tooro

The French colonial regime had a significant impact on the development of the literature on Fuuta Tooro. Saint Louis, the old headquarters of European commercial operations near the mouth of the Senegal River, became the capital of both Senegal and Mauritania. This structure sustained a certain level of interest in the middle valley in the 20th century. In particular, it encouraged the publication of a number of studies of land (see the works by Cheruy, A. Kane, A-S Kane, and Vidal in the bibliography) and it made possible the career of Henri Gaden, the great pioneer in the study of Fuuta. Gaden, a colonial administrator based in St. Louis for many years, married a Fuutanke woman, mastered Pulaar, and became a collector and synthesizer of information on the language, culture and history of the region. His Poular and Proverbes, the Arabic chronicle which he helped Maurice Delafosse to translate and edit (see Soh), and the Pulaar chronicle of the career of Umar Taal which he translated and edited (see Tyam), are invaluable sources and tools.

In spite of the old riverine orientation, the French shifted the emphasis of the colonial economy to the peanut basin of western Senegal. This change was symbolized in the Dakar-Bamako and Dakar-St. Louis rail lines, the highway system, and the concentration of services in Dakar, capital of the French West Africa Federation. It has led to an emphasis on Wolof language, culture and history and to some neglect of the contribution of Fuuta Tooro and other regions at some distance from the coast. Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania has used the last two decades to establish a capital city in Nouakchott and stress its Arabo-Berber or Moorish heritage, as distinguished from the cultures of the river valley. The changes in Senegal and Mauritania help explain the paucity of material on Fuuta Tooro between the 1930s, when Gaden was still active, and the 1960s.

At the same time, Fuuta and the Haalpulaar'en have benefitted from a continuing scholarly interest in the Fu16e people in West Africa. The large concentrations of Fulfulde speakers in the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroun have sparked considerable work among students of language, literature and history in Africa. One need only consult the bibliography completed by Christiane Seydou to see the results.

The general interest in the Fulbe, the development of national languages, the drought conditions of the last fifteen years, and the initiatives of Pulaar speakers in Senegal and Mauritania have generated a resurgence of scholarly and applied work on Fuuta Tooro reflected in the bibliography.

F. The Informants and Texts

The texts in this volume describe the Islamic regime of Fuuta Tooro from its inception in the late 18th to its demise in the late 19th century. They are drawn from a much larger body of interviews conducted by David Robinson in Fuuta in 1968-9 with a wide variety of informants spread over the whole social spectrum. The interviews themselves were conducted primarily by Muusaa Gey (Moussa Gueye), a middle-aged man from one of the supporting artisan classes of the precolonial regime. He was well known because of his paternal ancestry and by virtue of his work in Animation Rurale, a rural development program encouraged by the Senegalese Government in the 1960s. Mr. Gey, in consultation with Robinson, allowed the informants to work in the areas of their greatest knowledge. The result was often a set of long narratives with relatively little interruption. The narratives fall between the categories of oral tradition and oral recollection established by scholars with intensive field experience (Curtin, "Field techniques"; Miller, African Past). They are recited publicly on occasion and are thereby subject to a certain degree of correction. The accounts of the griots, who receive special training in their apprenticeship, approximate a fixed oral tradition more closely.

Almost all of Robinson's informants, and all those included in this anthology, were men recognized in their villages and regions as knowledgeable about the history of Fuuta. Almost all of them are now deceased. The younger generation of oral historians cannot begin to approach the detail and quality of insight of the preceding generation. Consequently the whole collection and this anthology become vital for the reconstruction of the history of Fuuta and for insight into the use of the language.

The texts have been chosen on the basis of several criteria: 1) their ability to illustrate the major events and changes of the period of the Islamic regime; 2) the richness of detail about events, changes and relationships; and 3) the capacity to represent a variety of perspectives of dominant and subordinate lineages and classes. Robinson's research was oriented particularly towards central and eastern Fuuta in the late 19th century (Robinson, Chiefs and Clerics, 1975); this distorts the collection to some extent, but we have tried to compensate for that in the selection of texts for this work. The whole body of interviews from which these selections are taken are described in Johnson and Robinson, "Deux fonds," and Robinson, "Supplement." Copies of the Pulaar tapes are on deposit at the Institut Fondemental d'Afrique Noire in Dakar and at the Archives of Traditional Music at the University of Indiana. Cassettes of the excerpts used here are available through the African Studies Center at Michigan State University.


Sampling from L'Institut Fondemental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN)

Phil Curtin Collection

Collection Boubacar Barry

Collection Charles Becker: Recherches et documents sur le Sida

Photographs from “Passport to Paradise’: Sufi Arts of Senegal and Beyond

Mosques of Bondoukou

Futa Toro, Senegal and Mauritania

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