History. Culture. Islam

Louis Brenner
West African Sufi
The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal

University of California Press
Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1984. 215 p.

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Appendix IV
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.

  • Bambara
    The Bambara, known generally to themselves as Bamana, constitute the majority of the population of Mali. Their language is of the Mande family, and they are primarily agriculturalists. Much of al-Hajj Umar'sjihad was fought against Bambara populations, and his conquests of both Kaarta and Segu resulted in the demise of Bambara kingdoms. Although the Bambara represent only a small minority of the Masina population, and Cerno Bokar seems to have had little contact with them in Bandiagara, his mother may have left Segu because of the general fear after the French conquest that the Bambara were to be retumed to political authority there.
  • Dogon
    The Dogon are a Mande speaking people who live along the Bandiagara cliffs as well as on the plateau above and the plain below. The Fulbe called them Habe, a derogatory term for all non-Fulbe, and this name was used by the French until about 1914 when colonial administrators began to gain adequate access to the Dogon and to acquire reliable knowledge about them 1. An extensive anthropological literature exists for the Dogon, but unfortunately very little has been written on their history. They were organized in relatively small political units, and considerable variation exists among them in social and religious practice and even in dialect. Consequently one should be wary of any generalizations put forward about “the Dogon.” Having said that, we will generalize by adding that the Dogon of the Bandiagara plateau, where they constituted about 45 per cent of the population in 1914, tended to side with the Futanke in their struggles against the Fulbe in the nineteenth century. They also maintained a lengthy resistance against the French. In the twentieth century when some Dogon began to adopt Islam, they often did so through the agency of Futanke religious teachers. Cerno Bokar enjoyed considerable influence among certain Dogon communities.
  • French
    The French are included as an ethnic group because they share all the generic qualities of other groups listed here: common language, culture, religion and socio-economic structure. Most important, they were seen by all Africans as a separate, clearly identifiable group. The French were the most recent conquerors and rulers of the middle Niger River valley, following in the footsteps of the Futanke, the Fulbe and the Bambara of Segu. French rule was more extensive and more effective than that of its predecessors, although it was administered by a very small number of people. The vast majority of Africans never had any direct contact with Europeans, so that stereotypes about them were plentiful.
  • Fulbe (singular, Pullo)
    The Fulbe are found throughout Sudanic Africa from Senegal and Guinée in the west to the modern Republic of the Sudan in the east. In Masina the Fulbe are divided into a complex social and economic system of classes or castes. The semi-nomadic pastoralists consider themselves the “true” Fulbe, who uphold the traditional values of their culture, and who maintain rather strict endogamous rules of marriage. But these pastoralists are in close relationships with the so-called “settled” Fulbe whose ranks include not only farmers and craftsmen, but warrior classes and even certain groups of Muslim clerics. The origins of these various Fulbe classes are shrouded in myth. Certainly many of the farmers and craftsmen are descendants of former slaves or ftee immigrants who submitted to Fulbe hegemony. But the origins of the “warriors” or the Jawaambe (a class of free men who acted as the clients and associates of Fulbe rulers 2) or even of the Muslim clerical classes, still demand fuller exploration by scholars 3. In the early nineteenth century Masina had been united into a tightly controlled Muslim state as the result of a jihâd led by a Pullo cleric, Shaykh Amadu Lobbo. Hamdullahi, the captial of the new state, became an important centre of Islamic scholarship, and the people of Masina were subject to an intense campaign of Islamization. But by the 1860s the ideals of the founders of the new Masina were in decay, and the armies of al-Hajj Umar conquered Hamdullahi on the pretext that they had supported the non-Muslim state of Segu against thejihdd. In 1914, the Fulbe constituted about 30 per cent of the population of the Bandiagara plateau.
  • Futanke
    Literally, “the people of Futa” (known also as Futankoobe in Fulfulde and as Tukolor in the French literature). Strictly, the Futanke were by origin Fulbe; they spoke varying dialects of Fulfulde and resided primarily in the regions of Futa-Toro, Futa-Jallon and Futa-Bundu. They tended, however, not to be pastoralists but members of the settled classes and castes of Pullo society. Recruits from the three Futas formed the core of al-Hajj Umar's early religious community and fighting force. As the jihâd was extended, an increasing number of persons from various ethnic backgrounds were absorbed into Umar's army and community, and in Masina the term Futanke came to refer to all those who fought for the jihâd and governed the conquered territories of the nascent Umarian state. At the end of the nineteenth century many Futanke emigrated eastwards in an attempt to escape Christian domination, and in the twentieth century they constituted only a tiny minority of the population of the French Sudan (less than 1 per cent of the population of the Bandiagara plateau). Nonetheless, even after their political eclipse by the French, their religious influence was extensive, both as scholars and as leaders of the Tijaniyya Sufi order. Cerno Bokar was a Futanke.
    Hausa. The Hausa are the major ethnic group in what is now the far north of Nigeria. Cerno Bokar's maternal grand-father al-Hajj Seedu Hann, who was either Pullo or Futanke, had joined al-Hajj Umar in Hausaland; it is possible that his wife, Inna, Cerno's grandmother, was Hausa. Aissata, Cerno's mother, sought and received support among the community of Hausa merchants in Bandiagara when she moved there in 1893.
  • Jula. See Marka.
  • Kunta
    The Kunta are an Arab group residing in the central Sahara. One of their number, Sîdî al-Mukhtâr al-Kuntî (d. 1811) was responsible for the extensive spread of the Qadiriyya Sufi order in West Africa in the eighteenth century. As a shaykh he gained a certain political as well as religious influence, especially among the inhabitants of the south-central Sahara and the Sahel. His descendants attempted to retain this influence; by the mid-nineteenth century the most prominent Kunta leader was Ahmad al-Bakkây who was then resident in Timbuktu. He sought first to contain the rising power of the Fulbe of Hamdullahi, and later that of al-Hajj Umar. Al-Bakkây and the Kunta were the major opponents to al-Hajj Umar's proselytization of the Tijaniyya in West Africa.
  • Marka
    Marka is the Bambara term for the Soninke merchants (also called Jula) who have been plying trade in the western Sudan for many centuries. They speak a Mande language, are Muslim, and have been responsible for the early spread of Islam in much of West Africa.
  • Moors
    The Moors are the Arabic speaking inhabitants of southern Mauritania. Their social organization is reminiscent of the Fulbe in that it is composed of putatively dominant warrior groups as well as subordinate castes of craftsmen and Muslim clerics. Many Moors were also involved in long distance trade. Shaykh Hamalla's father was a Moor.
  • Mossi. The Mossi are the most prominent ethnic group of Upper Volta [Furkina Faso], and major Mossi settlements existed not far from Bandiagara. Some Mossi were resident in Bandiagara and many others came there to trade or to pursue religious studies.
  • Pullo. See Fulbe, of which it is the singular.
  • Soninke. See Marka.
  • Somono
    The Somono are a Mande speaking fishing group who live along the Niger River in the region of Segu. They had been influenced by Islam; one of Cerno Bokar's early teachers was a Somono.
    Wolof. The Wolof are one of the major ethnic groups of Senegal. Wolof were present in the French Sudan primarily as merchants.
  • Notes
    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 this article.
    2. See VE, 108.
    3. See the introduction to Willis, ed., Studies in West African Islamic History.