A Fula in the City: Redefining ‘authentic’ African culture

I was once sitting in a lecture on Africa and the discussion, as it is often wont does during sessions/discussions on Africa turned to culture and the importance of its preservation and respect and so on and so forth. Different opinions were coming out across the room, and everyone seemed to think they were talking about the same thing, as if this one word, irrespective of context, addressed the same exact thing. I got the impression that culture was this special African ‘thing’ that was precious and should be preserved, the same impression a person often gets when discussing nature reserves or heritage sites.

No one appeared to be concerned with learning more about these cultures that they were all so passionately protecting. Rather, they were  more concerned about the preservation of these cultures, almost akin to tangible museum pieces. This got me further thinking about culture as a word, its meaning, and of course how it applied to me as an African. What is my culture? Is it an all-encompassing African culture? (Does this even exist?) Is it a Peul/Fulani/Poullo[1] culture? What about the external cultural influences I have had? Are these removed from my culture and identity thereof? Is culture one of those words that we use without really being sure how much meaning it holds? Of course, the first natural place to look up the word would be in the dictionary.

The Oxford Dictionary Online defines culture (amidst other definitions) as “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” Pretty straight forward definition one could say. Culture then is identity in relation to one’s immediate society. From as early as I can remember, every thought, word or action undertaken by myself and coming out of my immediate circle was governed by a Peul code of conduct, commonly referred to as Pulaaku. The interesting thing is that this cultural code of conduct wasn’t written anywhere  nor  taught. Almost as if one was born with it tattooed to one’s veins and naturally behaved or ascribed to what was the Poullo thing to do. Everything outside of this was again, just as naturally inappropriate. Every positive action was met with an, ‘of course you are Fula, it is natural that you behave in this way.’ Whilst every negative action was met with a, ‘this is so un-Poullo of you, what’s wrong?”. To the curious mind, such as myself, it is not enough to just somehow naturally know what it means to be Fulani.

Is there only one kind of Peul across the continent? Fortunately, a number of authors have covered the idea of Fulani culture, whether this is in works of fiction or historical descriptions. My favorites are Amadou Hampâté Bâ and Tierno Monénembo[2]. Their innate ability to trace out Peul culture and explain these in the best way possible has resonated strongly with me; in the sense that they allowed for an identification of a cultural way of being that could be understood beyond immediate family ideas of one’s identity; and even beyond what one grew up into.

The difficulty of course arises then when one lives outside of this immediate, reassuring cultural circle. What happens then? Is one’s culture replaced by another? Does one adopt the social behavior of the society one has migrated into or does one simply keep one’s cultural appartenance and attempt to adapt to the new society?

I will make an example with the Peuls for example: Peuls are known to be extremely proud, and attached to this pride is the ability to bear grudges that last a lifetime, without necessary displaying this to the outside world or concerned parties. When visiting people, a Fula, once invited to eat or drink will naturally refuse. In other societies this is not understood and is at times perceived as being rude although for the Fula, this is a normal cultural practice. Moreover, a Poullo would rather die, than have his/her embarrassment be witnessed by people he/she knows. Some, after having lost all their cattle and thus primary source of revenue, would just leave their town and go and ‘make-do’ elsewhere instead of asking for help. This departure is not accompanied by goodbyes and is understood by those around as “Poullo ndika maaya do semta”. Loosely translated this means, “the Peul would rather die than be shamed”.  Of course, these general Fula stereotypes are noted as part of the culture, but do not necessarily apply to everyone all of the time.

Given that one cannot walk around with Hampâté Bâ’s books and offer to everyone to read in order to understand how or why one behaves in a particular manner; a Fula in the city usually would have to find the right balance between adapting to a new society and a different culture; and preserving his/her primary identity. This is easier said than done. Of course, I doubt that this is particular to Peul culture only. The issue here really is, how does one develop societies that are accepting of these various cultures that enrich our lives? It is not enough to assume that minorities will adjust or find ways in which to adapt to lifestyles that often clash with their cultural appartenance. It is equally unfair to expect others to have knowledge of every single cultural background.

However, respect and a thirst for knowledge are basic human qualities that most can ascribe to. The point here is that culture is not some far off African thing that one learns of in school and debates endlessly about. Culture is just a way of life and is relative to different communities. Imagine the beauty of not having to explain why one behaves in a certain manner. Imagine the beauty of not being looked at as some African who does some strange African-like things. Respect for individuals’ way of life is paramount to generating societies that are more tolerant and accepting of differences within their midst. Aside from allowing for peaceful transitions for those not living within their immediate comfort zone, imagine the wealth of knowledge that could be borne out of simply understanding the various cultures that regulate lives around us.


[1] Peul/Fulani/Poullo is an ethnic group of people spread over many countries, predominantly in West Africa, but found also in Central Africa and Sudanese North Africa. The terms will be used interchangeably for the purposes of this article.

[2] Amadou Hampâté Bâ – Amkoullel. L’enfant peul. Mémoires Paris. Actes Sud. 1991. and Tierno Monénembo – Peuls. Seuil 2004.

Nadia Ahmadou

Nadia Ahmadou is a young African scholar who has published widely on peace and conflict related events in Africa.

7 Responses to A Fula in the City: Redefining ‘authentic’ African culture

  1. Very interesting and very real for many others not only Africans, as you pointed it out. I believe this is the struggle many immigrants around the world are going through trying to get “integrated” into the host society. And there lies the main issue…from the conception and premise that one has to be integrated, or most of the times integrate oneself, into the new society. I believe integration is a one-way process that steals the magic of reciprocity and learning from one another. Integration requires merging oneself into the other society, threatening one’s identity and right to enjoy freely and fully ones’ culture and traditions, which are blended with the experiences we have had and not only shaped by family and original social surroundings, as you expressed.

    I don’t think that even when the host society forces us to “integrate” into it, our original “culture” is replaced, I believe it threatens our capacity and possibilities to express our identity fully. One manifestation of cultural violence.

    I also think that this concept of integration alienates people who resist it, and at the same time make them apathetic to the society. In many cases people just use the society for their own benefit but there is no feeling of being welcomed or even respected. Therefore, the concept of integration when used to assimilate people is counterproductive.

    One needs to be wary and critical as well if ones’ cultural traditions are in line with respecting human dignity and life, and if not, then that is the limitation.

    “How does one develop societies that are accepting of these various cultures that enrich our lives?”
    I think intercultural education is one way, or perhaps one of the best ways to do it. However, this kind of education needs to help transforming relationships and structures and not only be a vehicle to get to know more about other cultures. It needs to move forward to generate more equal and respectful relationships that are reciprocal and recreate more just societies.

    Great food for thought and for exploration of many other issues concerning culture, assimilation, integration and the current policies, especially in the EU regarding immigrants.

  2. Very nice piece Nadia, enjoyed reading it. It’s beautifully written and reads like an Anthropological opinion piece, with proper use of ethnography to support argument. Well done.

  3. Thanks GQ! Much appreciated (: Any thoughts to share about your own culture? And related experiences you may have had? Or different experiences even?

  4. Thanks Nadia for this delicious piece. Yes, I said delicious! I think somehow especially when we talk about Africa there is always a seduction to reduce Africa to one thing. For that matter Africa is the only continent one can ‘dream’ about, can you imagine a movie called “I dreamed of Europe”? but ofcourse we do have that popular movie “I dreamed of Africa.” This is because when we think of other places in the world we are careful of simplifying them and undermining their complexity. But not with Africa, as you point out when it comes to Africa we can all be easily convinced that we are speaking of the same thing. This becomes very clear in most African studies causes that begin with the question, “what is Africa?” Mbembe has made the assertion that Africa must be that space that allows “displacement, circulation, in betweeness and intersection.”

    Perhaps to answer your question, how does one develop societies that are accepting of these various cultures that enrich our lives? we must look back to Fanon. He was aways sceptical in discussions of blackness about movements such as negritude that sought a particular representation of blackness. Fanon was very clear that each must decided for themselves what it means to be black or what it means to be African. Therefore we do not need to have a united definition of what it means to be Peul/Fulani/Poullo or Xhosa or Zulu, but we can be united in our commitment that each person must define for themselves what those identities mean. Freire says the gist of it is our name “human beings” thus humans in a process of being. This makes it clear then that we can never have “authentic” African culture but as Fanon in the world through which we travel, we are endlessly creating ourselves.

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