West African Leather production- Who, why, where? The Fulani People.
(Originally published November 13, 2016)
Traditional cattle herding in West Africa- The Fulani tribe
The Fulani tribe is one of West Africa’s most expansive tribes, spanning across Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Niger, Togo, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Liberia, and as far as Sudan in the east.
They are a minority in almost every country they reside in with the exception of Guinea, where most of Sareptha Rose’s leather is sourced from. Over the centuries, many Fulani’s have also come to identify with local indigenous tribes in the countries they live in, such as the Mandingo’s of North Western Liberia and North Eastern Sierra Leone.
A tradition that has run through time in the Fulani tribe is the gendered division of labor in the care of the family’s ‘riches’ (i.e. the cows!). Women will usually perform the more nurturing aspects of care, such as the milking, dairy processing, feeding and the general upkeep of the animals. The men take them out to graze, and handle the process of producing meat and leather products (even tents!) from the older animals.
Traditionally, their lives revolved around and were dedicated to their herds. The more cattle a family owned, the more notoriety and ‘wealth’ the family had in the community. Today, as many as 18 million Fulani are scattered across the countries of West and Central Africa. The 200-year old annual Dewgal festival takes place in the town of Diafarabé in Mali, where herdsmen cross their cattle into the Niger river, as they move in a direction choreographed by the herder as a display of his skills. At the end, each group of cows is judged by community elders for their health or ‘fatness’. It signifies the reunion of traveling herdsmen with their families, so women adorn themselves with their best ornate jewelry of gold, silver, amber and cowrie shells, makeup and body art using henna and indigo, as well as some of the most exquisite and intricate hair braiding seen in the region. Homes are decorated, and the festivities last several days, often attracting tourists.
They are one of the largest nomadic pastoral tribes in the world, but over time, as with most indigenous tribes, many have acquiesced into mainstream patterns of living in the blended cosmopolitan cities and towns they now live in. Many Fula people can be found trading as butchers, artisanal leatherworkers and shoesmith’s across West African cities. However, even today, if you are in the countryside of any of these countries and spot a herd of goats, sheep or cows roaming, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find the shepherd is a Fulani!