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Keeping Up with the Fulani - Jewelry, Parties, and Romps in the Forest

Have you heard about that culture where the men participate in beauty contests, and the women's earrings weigh more than your social studies book? It's the Fulani tribe, the cattle herders of West Africa. I met Alliye, who is of Fulani descent, while visiting Djenne, and he told me of these amazing people.

The Fulani have traditionally been herders, roaming across the plains and river valleys of Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. Alliye says the Fulani "are the ones you see selling milk in the market, or carrying it on their heads in the streets," and indeed, the Fulani relationship with their cattle is a strong one.

Click image for larger view
It pays to get married

In fact, the most famous festival in all of Africa, the Cure Salee (Salt Cure), is a Fulani festival centered around cattle. During the Cure Salee, in early September, the grasses outside of Ingal, in Niger, contain high amounts of salt. Cattle, like most animals, need salt to stay healthy. For most of the year the Fulani people are spread out over a huge area, but because their animals need salt they all come together in Ingal at the same time. They don't miss the opportunity to have fun and try to show off for each other!

This is where the men put on their makeup!! The Cure Salee is a time when the men show off their finest features and their charm in a yaake (dance performance), to woo the Fulani women. The men blacken their lips to make their teeth seem sparkly-white, paint streaks down their foreheads and noses, braid their hair, and wear beads, bangles, and shiny jewelry with hopes of attracting the attention of a special woman, and marrying her.

Relevant Links

For some great pictures of the Fulani in their ceremonial and traditional clothes click here:

The Olu Oguibe Home Page

To see an Fulani woman wearing kwotenai kanye(earrings) click here:

Ram Images

For more on the Fulani try these sites:

Art & Life in Africa
Nasz Trans Sahara Expedition
The women in turn are well-known for their amazingly huge gold earrings, kwotenai kanye (quote-an-eye canee). These earrings, made of 14-carat gold, are so heavy that when the women wear them, often with little red silk strings looped through their pierced ears, they also attach a string to the earrings, and wear that string over their head to support the weight. Alliye says that if a woman doesn't inherit her jewelry from her mother, the woman's husband has to buy the gold earrings, usually selling off many of his animals to raise the cash. He claims, "each earring weighs more than a human heart."

Besides the Cure Salee, the Fulani are known for their long and elaborate courtship, wedding, and post-wedding rituals that take place in villages. For example, Alliye claims that friends of the bride-to-be bring her to the forest, where friends of the groom-to-be find her, chase her and carry her back to the groom's house. She has to cry the whole way to show how emotional she's feeling! Further, there is a book with the statement, "Do you love (insert name)?" written in it. Both the bride and the groom sign their names to the statement, making the marriage official.

Every wedding guest gives a gift to the couple. The gift might be a cooking pot, or it might be lots of cooking pots! Alliye took me to his cousin's house, where all her wedding gifts were arranged on a cabinet. What most struck me were the numbers of pots in different colors: black, white, blue, red, and green...sixteen different sets! There were also plates, cutlery, and cloths.
Click image for larger view
Madame N'Boye Youro Bocoum at her cloth workshop

Alliye and I visited his great-aunt, Madame N'Boye Youro Bocoum, at her cloth workshop. She weaves traditional Fulani designs into large cotton coverings that can hang on the wall for decoration, over the door to keep out mosquitoes, or even to wear. When Fulani women marry, they always receive cloth like this as gifts. Although Alliye's great-aunt wanted me to buy one, I explained to her that our backpacks were pretty heavy already and I couldn't carry it with me. The Fulani culture, fascinating and beautiful, remains a part of West Africa that I can only carry in my heart.


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