Understanding People’s Occupations in their Proverbs: The Case of Fulɓe Ethnic Group

Cite this article as: Shede, A. (2023). Understanding People’s Occupations in their Proverbs: The Case of Fulɓe Ethnic Group. Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture, (2)2, 77-84. www.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2023.v02i02.009.

Adamu Shede, PhD

Department of African Languages and Cultures,
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.


Literature and culture are two inseparable entities. The former exploits the latter and represents it in a literary form. This is so because literature is a product of people’s experiences either individually as in the case of written texts or collectively as in the case of orature of which proverb is a part. This paper aims at using Fulɓe proverbs to study the way they encapsulate and portray herding which is the major occupation of the Fulɓe. The proverbs were collected over a long period from various literature as well as from individuals by the researcher. The analysis which is based on the researcher’s cultural experiences as a native of Fulfulde (the language of the Fulɓe) as well as the use of literary criticism strategy reveals that herding is encapsulated in the proverbs as an important occupation of the Fulɓe. This is because both the cattle rearers and the cattle as well as the various activities and ‘paraphernalia’ involved in the cattle rearing are also encapsulated in the proverbs. This has further justified that literature can be used to study a societal culture.

Keywords: Occupation, Proverb, Fulɓe Ethnic Group

1.0 Introduction

Every human society has a culture. According to Taylor (1874), culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Linton, (1945) defines culture as “the configuration of learned behaviour and results of behaviour whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society” (Honigmann, 1973:2). Similarly, Malinowski (1944:36) is of the view that, culture is “the integral whole consisting of implements and consumers’ goods of constitutional charters for the various social groupings of human ideas and crafts, beliefs and customs.” Again, Linton, (1964:29) says culture is “an organized group of learned responses characteristic of a particular society.” The culture of any given society is made up of material and non-material cultural traits like buildings, paintings, marriage ceremonies, and a system of justice. Material culture is normally a product of the various arts and crafts of a particular society. It also consists of the various occupations practised by the people in such a society. The Fulɓe has herding as their major vocation and heritage and this has a great influence on their entire way of life. This paper, therefore, aims at studying herding as a major occupation among pastoral Fulɓe using the Fulɓe proverbs.

Literature is a discipline that has been used and will continue to be used as a vehicle through which a society or some of its cultural aspects are studied. It usually exploits societal culture and portrays it in a literary form. Literature, especially the oral form, has proverbs as one of its important constituents. Proverbs are an important vehicle for the study of any given society. According to Hammond (1978), understanding a people’s orally transmitted literary traditions is important because the content of verbal art frequently reflects important aspects of their culture. The proverb is one of such orally transmitted literary traditions which is usually a true statement of communal authorship that serves as a means through which a society preserves its culture and passes it to the younger generation. This is because the proverbs, and indeed all other oral forms of literature are formulated from the experiences of the people and the totality of the experiences acquired by people is what constitutes their culture.

Literature is a discipline that normally exploits culture and portrays it in a literary form. People use their knowledge and experiences to create literary works either individually or collectively. In the case of proverbs which scholars argue are of communal authorship, the knowledge, experiences, beliefs, customs and other aspects of the societal culture are used in their formulation. This ultimately makes literature and culture almost two inseparable entities.

Fulɓe (singular, Pullo) are one of the African ethnic groups with a unique culture. They are the cattle owners’ tribe of West Africwhichho is called Fulani in Hausa land, Fula in Sierra Leone and the Gambia and Fellata in Sudan. They speak a language which is known variously as Pulaar in Senegal, Pular in Guinea and Fulfulde in Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroun and Sudan. They are found throughout the West African sub-region roughly between 10th and 15th parallels and extending from Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea on the Atlantic through Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon eastwards. They are also found in Benin, Ghana and Mauritania and other parts of Africa and beyond. They are the major tribe among African pastoral nomads (Arnott, 1985:1).

Fulɓe is also among the West African ethnic groups that are blessed with numerous proverbs. The Fulfulde word for proverb is balndi (singular, balndol). Fulɓe attaches much value to proverbs and these proverbs are custodians of various aspects of their culture. The study of their culture especially cattle rearing among pastoral Fulɓe of Northern Nigeria, as reflected in their proverbs, is therefore, the focus of this paper. Cattle rearing is the major occupation especially among the pastoral Fulɓe because it is the major, if not the only means of their economic livelihood.

2.0 The Fulɓe

There are many theories regarding the origin of Fulɓe. Most of the theories are based on Fulɓe oral legends (Awogbade, 1983:1). One such theory is the one postulated by Awogbade (1983:1-2) which relates the Fulɓe’s origin to Uqba, an Arab, who migrated to Africa and married an African, Bajjomanga. The couple were said to have begotten children who were said to be the progenitors of the Fulɓe. The first child was said to be dumb until on one occasion when his mother went to take her bath after giving birth to the second child, the second child began to cry and the elder began to comfort him, speaking a language completely unknown to the parents. According to the legend, this language is what is today known as Fulfulde.

The Fulɓe are traditionally nomadic people who move from one place to another in search of pasture. Their putative home is generally considered to be between Senegal and Gambia (Daudu,1995). Their economy used to be dependent on agriculture, especially animal production, and cattle is the outstanding animal known to them. They are so attached to the cattle to the extent that most of them devise a means of ensuring that their subsequent generations continue to own the cattle through what is called cukkol (giving). This is a cultural act of the Fulɓe through which the young ones (usually at the age of seven or less) are given a young calf (usually a female) which is hopefully going to produce a line of cattle in the future. (Shede, 2014).

The Fulɓe are classified into three (3) based on their degree of urbanization. The first group is Mbororo’en who practice complete pastoral life and move from place to place in search of pasture. The second group is the FulɓeNa’i who have settled down in rural areas combining herding and farming. The third group is referred to as FulɓeSaare who live in the urban centres and most of whom are elites but have long ago lost their cattle (Yakubu, 1997) in Abdulmumini, (2007:60).

3.0 Related Literature on Fulɓe Culture and Fulɓe Proverbs

There is a considerable amount of research on Fulɓe culture and Fulɓe proverbs. The research on Fulɓe culture includes that of VerEeck (1991), Sa’ad (1991) and de st Croix (1999). Although the researchers dwell on the material culture of the Fulɓe but none of them uses proverbs as a vehicle to arrive at his or her findings. Catherine VerEecke (1991) is of the view that one of the outstanding identities of the Fulɓe is cattle. It is a cultural heritage of the Fulɓe. In fact, because of the way she sees its importance, the first part of the title of her paper goes thus: Na’i Ngoni Pulaaku ‘Fulɓe code of conduct is simply cattle possession’. This shows the relevance of cattle and the herding vocation in the Fulɓe culture.

De st. Croix (1999) notes the pastoralists attachment to their cattle and states that they can speak to their animal by its name. That is the name by which it is known for its hair colouration and or the shape of its horns. He also noticed that the pastoral Fulɓe often have hoore na’i ‘the mother cow’ that is believed to be the progenitor of a herd or a line of cattle in the herd and is hardly sold by the owner for whatever course.

 In his research, de St. Croix (1999:50) has described the shape of the traditional Fulɓe houses as follows:

It is unusual to find that the cattle Fulani have made for themselves any housing more elaborate than their customary beehive-like circular grass huts, windowless and with entrances so low that one has to crouch to get in. The result is floor space of bare earth of perhaps from twelve up to fourteen feet at the centre of the domed roof, and a perfectly good water-proof room, which can vouch for as being snug enough on a cold night even on the bleak hilltops in the Cameroun highlands.

Commenting on the same issue, Sa’ad (1991) notes that the Fulɓe place a premium on structures that could be easily dismantled or abandoned depending on the building resources and level of mobility. Regarding the types of houses used among pastoral Fulɓe in northern Nigeria, Sa’ad (1991:210-214) classifies them into four as follows:

a.       Ephemeral or transient dwellings which are structurally very rudimentary, usually erected in less than two hours, used by highly mobile pastoral nomads.

b.       Episodal temporary dwellings in which both symbolic and social considerations are made in their layout are used by pastoral nomads who spend several weeks or months in a place.

c.        Periodic regular semi-temporary dwellings, according to him, have the influence of settled agricultural communities in their construction. It is used by seasonal migrant nomadic Fulɓe.

d.       Semi-permanent dwellings are erected structures that are semi-substantial and used by semi-nomads who live there for a considerable length of time.

It is worth noting at this juncture that, the herding vocation is responsible for all the above modes of housing by the Fulɓe. This shows that herding is so important to them so much so that it controls their entire lifestyle any societies have a vocation and heritage for which they are known. The Toureqs, for instance, are known as camels. The Fulɓe are known for cattle. The cattle must have been an important social marker from the earliest times. A large number of cattle must have implied high social status[1]. The majority of Fulɓe in Nigeria live in the northernmost provinces. Their cattle are of Zebu type, of which there are several distinct breeds in Nigeria, a modification evolved by the Fulani (de st. Croix, 1999:1). The breeds include Sokoto gudali, wadara, red mbororo and adamawa medium-sized zebu.

On the part of proverbs, the Fulɓe are among the African linguistic communities that are blessed with proverbs. Many scholars and researchers have either collected the proverbs or studied them in various ways. Whitting (1940), Abu-Manga (1981), Tukur (1982), Ahmed (1989), Aliyu and Hamajooɗa (2004), Abiss (2004) Daudu and Ahmed (2008) Mustapha (2010) and Shede (2014) are some of the various researchers that have, in one way or the other, contributed to the study of Fulɓe proverbs. Whereas the works of Whitting (1940), Aliyu and Hamajooɗa (2004) and Abiss (2004) were collections, the rest are analyses of various kinds. All these researchers unanimously concord with the fact that the Fulɓe proverbs are rich in both content and style. Abu-Manga (1981) and Aliyu and Hamajooɗa (2004) add that, they transmit wisdom and principles of life and embody the attitude of Fulɓe to the flora and fauna of the environment. This implies that the proverbs embody the culture of the Fulɓe including herding which is their major vocation and heritage. But none of the research acknowledged the above concentration on the study of this aspect of culture (cattle rearing) as portrayed in the proverbs even though the proverbs are custodians of culture.

4.0 Cattle Rearing and Herding as Mirrored in Fulɓe Proverbs

Fulɓe proverbs have some features in them that portray cattle rearing and other things related to it such as the activities involved and the materials/instruments used in it as well as the people who carry out the activities. This is so because cattle rearing is not only an occupation but a heritage to the Fulɓe. Several proverbs portray the cattle as the Fulɓe heritage and they are discussed below and are classified based on what they focus on.

4.1 Proverbs Focusing on the Cattle

Some proverbs are formed using the names of cattle. They include both general and specific names given to the cattle by their owners. The general names include cattle, cow, bull and so on. The specific names are those names given to each cow and bull based on several factors which include but are not limited to shapthe e of their horns and the colour of their hair (see Shede, 2019 for details on this). One of the proverbs is one the in which the Fulɓe say:

Nagge nge rimaayi ɓirataake– a cow that is yet to reproduce cannot be milked (literal meaning). This proverb means that you cannot bury someone until they die. But since we are not after the actual meaning here, let us go back to the literal meaning and scrutinize it very well. It is clear from the look of the above proverb that the first word in it is a cow. Normally, when a cow begets a young one, the owner becomes happy for two reasons: they have an additional calf and secondly they are going to obtain milk and even butter from the cow. The cow is normally milked in the morning after it has been separated from the calf during the night. But this is only possible if the cow produces a young one and only milk can be directly gotten from it as suggested by the following proverb:

No nagge woodiri kosam fuu, ɓirataake leeɓol­– no matter the amount of milk in a cow, it cannot be milked butter (literal meaning). This means that everything has its limits. The proverb is closely related to the one preceding it and demands some cultural explanations. When milk is extracted from cattle in the morning, it is kept in a safe place for about twenty-four hours. Then the top layer is removed and processed by constant shaking ina the gourd in order to get the butter out of the sour milk. Apart fthe milk and butter, another important edible product obtained from the le is beef as contained in the following proverb which says:

To ɓernde nagge mettaayi, takay (li’o) welataa – if the cow is not hurt, the soup will not be delicious (literal meaning). In other words, every gain is preceded by pain. People, including the Fulɓe, need a delicious soup. But this is only possible when the necessary ingredients (which include meat/beef) are provided. This meat could be obtained after slaughtering a cow or a bull. This hurts the cattle concerned as well as its ‘relatives’. The cattle also live in groups (herd) and are not without leaders as demonstrated by yet another proverb which says:

Kalaldi daga to daangol suɓtetee­­– a leading bull is normally identified and chosen from when the calves are being tied on the calf-rope (literal meaning). This means that nothing happens without a sign. In the preceding discussion, we were made to understand that the cow and its young one are normally separated in the night to milk the former the following morning. This is done by tying each of them separately. In the case of the calf, it is tied together with other calves on a long rope away from the mother cows. This is called daangol‘calf-rope’. Although it is only the young cattle (calves) that are tied on the rope, one can easily detect the possible leading bull, kalaldi from among them because of some particular characteristics it exhibits. But it is not the leading bull that is always at the forefront of the herd, another cow may be as emphasized by the following proverb:

Hooree yoolata-ɗi– It is the fore-front cow that is always responsible for the drowning of the whole herd (literal meaning). This means that leaders are responsible for the success or failure of any given community because they serve as models and are emulated by the followers. Normally, the leading cow in every herd is followed almost blindly by the rest of the cattle in the herd. Should it enter the overflowing river, the rest are undoubtedly following suit. This is why any dedicated herder is always more watchful over the actions of leading cattle than those of the rest of the cattle. The herder is normally more dedicated when alone than when they are many as indicated in the following proverb:

Maa ɗɗuuɗii waynaaɓe boo ɗi nyalla to wuro – They (cattle) are more likely to miss being looked after if there are many people responsible for the job (literal meaning). The meaning of this is akin to the English proverb ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. The cattle are always looked after by someone mostly male teenagers and youths. In a situation where a family has one person that takes care of the herd, he has it in mind that the job is daily. But when there are many people assigned to the job within a family, they run shifts based on the agreed timetable. Therefore, the probability of someone not showing up on his duty day for one reason or the other is higher than in a situation where it is only one person that carries out the duty. It is worthy of note that the purpose of doing this is to take care of the cattle. Although the cattle may bear distinct names, they have many things in common as justified by the proverb which says:

Ko nyaami wuule ɗalataa daake– whatever devours wuulewill not spare daake (literal meaning). This means that the cattle,and all other similar species have many things in common. Both wuule and daake are names of cattle based on their hair coloration. Therefore, what hurts one is likely to hurt the other and what makes one happy is likely to make the other happy too. But at times, something good approaches one but one fails to get it, as demonstrated by the proverb that says:

Nge jiimi ɗam, nge yaraa ɗam– It (cow) peeps at it (water) but it did not drink it (literal meaning). This proverb is similar to the Hausa proverb ‘ta leƙo ta koma’ (it peeps and retreated). Although the meaning of the proverb is general, the fact that the nominal class of cattle /nge/ is used in its formation justifies how important cattle are in Fulɓe culture. Something else would have been used instead for the significance of the cattle in the culture.

4.2 Proverbs Focusing on the Herders

A herder is someone who takes care of or manages a herd or a flock of domestic animals. This is usually done in an open land and may take a nomadic form which necessitates a change of location as the need arises. Although someone who looks after cattle alone is called a cowboy, the one sheep, a shepherd and the one for goat, a goatherd, herder seems to be the general name for all of them.                 

After analyzing proverbs that focus directly on the cattle, the next category of proverbs to ananalysere those focusing on those who take care of the cattle (herders). There are a number of them in this category and they include the following:

Mo yillaayi haadeeji yilluma goɗɗuɗi– He who refuses to turn back cattle from nearby will do so when they go farther (literal meaning). This proverb simply means the earlier, the better. The cattle are usually controlled by the herder who is supposed to turn them tina the proper direction. But if he decides not to turn them early enough while going towards the wrong direction, he would have to do so when it has become almost too late, thereby increasing the labour on the part of the herder. Perhaps the importance of herding over crop cultivation is what pushes the Fulɓe to say:

Njahirɗo yeeso maa no history sakko njahirɗɓaawo- one who moves forward escapes with difficulty talk less of one who moves backwards (literal meaning). What this proverb is trying to show is a comparison between a herder and a farmer. A farmer using traditional implements (hoes) normally bends down and moves backwards in the process of his work. But a farmer remains standing and moves forward in the course of his duty. This is a reality. But above this, the Fulɓe consider farming as the last option to do only if herding is no longer possible for some rreason So the proverb also has a connotative meaning that, herding means prto ogress (moving forward) while farming means a reverse progress (moving backwards). So the Fulɓe consider tending cattle as their exclusive occupation and this is why they say:

Nagge sey pullopullo sey nagge – cow (cattle) cannot do without a pullo and a pullo cannot do without cattle (literal meaning). This proverb is trying to buttress the commonbeliefe among the Fulɓe that cattle are better taken care of by them compared to any other ethnic group. They always pity any cattle that find themselves in the hands of non-Fulɓe. Similarly, they pity any pullo who happens to be without cattle. They see that as part of the characteristics of being non-pullo and that is why they say:

Pullo mo walaa nagge laatake kaaɗo – a pullo without cattle has become a non-pullo (literal meaning). This proverb emphasizes the common belief among the Fulɓe that part of the characteristics that qualify one as a pullo is possession of cattle. The absence of that is an important attribute that may make one look like a non-pullo. The Fulɓe also say:

(Bano) waɗɗoo ngaari huɗa nagge – (it is like) to mount on the bull and insult the cow (literal meaning). The cow is the mother of any bull. Any benefit obtained from a bull is indirectly from a cow. Therefore, it will be a sign of ungratefulness to insult a cow while mounting and enjoying on a bull.

4.3 Proverbs Focusing on other issues or situations related to Fulɓe Herding

The preceding section discusses proverbs that are based on the herders. This section of the article focuses on materials and perhaps, animals that have conna ection in one way or the other with herding. The first proverb under this section is the one in which the Fulɓe say:

Lelellu maayirii mone linngu– a tick dies anxious of having an opportunity to catch a fish (literal meaning). A tick is a parasite that is commonly found in animals, especially cattle. Fulɓe traditionally use to check all nooks and crannies of the cattle and remove the ticks every two to five days especially during the rainy season so that they don’t harm the cattle. This is how the Fulɓe got to know about ticks. But the tick cannot have access to fish talk less of harming it. This is because the former lives in a land habitat while the latter lives in aquatic habitat. Another proverb related to activities of herding is the one in which the Fulɓe say:

Ko tummbude yaawani nyoogol? – why should a calabash be anxious about sewing? (literal meaning). This proverb is used to caution someone who is too eager to get something which must surely get to him. But our concern here is the relationship of the proverb to herding. Calabash is normally the container used by the Fulɓe for milking. It is also the container in which the milk is kept. This makes the calabash so important among the Fulɓe to the extent that one may be able to identify the clan of some of them by the artistic designs on their calabash. In connection to this, the Fulɓe also say:

Gummbal wajii laalawal- the gourd taut the broken calabash (literal meaning). The gourd is the imperforated calabash which is harvested and later processed into a calabash. The calabash is so delicate that it can break when it fell or hit a hard surface. This means the gourd can one day or the other become broken as well. Therefore, the proverb is used to caution people against making negative comments about something that will become of them in the future. But most importantly here, the proverb is connected to herding for the fact that gourd and calabash are mentioned in it just like the one preceding it. In the same vein, the Fulɓe have another proverb that says:

Konu ndiyam tawii laalaaje– the war of running water have met calabash (literal meaning). The connection of this proverb to the topic of discussion is clear as it has the word calabash just like the two proverbs preceding it. The calabash is not only delicate as stated in the preceding discussion, but also very light. Therefore, it can easily be carried away by running water no matter how little it is. Another important thing related to herding which has its name mentioned in Fulɓe proverbs is the rope that is used in tying the cattle. Consider the following example:

A waala yeeso, ɓaawo e firtoo– you weave the rope and it is unravelling (literal meaning). This proverb is used when progress is intended but something else is militating against it. But most importantly here, there are about three types of rope which the Fulɓe use in tying different categories of cattle. The calf rope dangol is the first type on which the calves are tied every night so that milk could be obtained from their mothers the next morning. The second type is called jomorgol and is used for tying cattle to remove ticks for them, castrate them or take them to the market. The last type is called raande and is used for tying the grown-up cattle at night so that they remain in one place. This last type is the one referred to in the proverb that says:

Nde seway sewgo amma nde ta’yataa– it (the rope) may be so thin but it will not sever (literal meaning). Although the main focus of this proverb is shame/shyness, the fact that it contains nde which is a nominal class for raande ‘cattle rope’ makes it important for the analysis in this paper. A similar proverb in which rope is mentioned is the one in which the Fulɓe say:

Ɓoggol yaalata jomorgol– the rope moves together with another rope (literal meaning). The proverb is symmetrical to the English proverb ‘birds of the same feathers flock together.’ The first word which is ɓoggol is the general name for all kinds of ropes used for various purposes but jomorgol is specifically used for tying castor to either remove ticks, castrate them, or give them injection sake to the market.

5.0 Conclusion

This paper discussed how Fulɓe proverbs symbolize their occupation in particular and their culture in general. The study identified and analyzed twenty (20) Fulɓe proverbs that are, in one way or the other portraying herding. This is sufficient to further justify that provproverbsparticular and literature, in general, can be used to study the culture of any particular society. Similarly, this is further indicating that herding is one of the major occupations of the Fulɓe. It is, therefore, recommended that proverbs should be used to study other aspects of Fulɓe culture such as their customs and beliefs. Similarly, this research has challenged scholars to look into the possibility of using proverbs or other literary forms of other ethnic groups to look into their various cultural aspects. Although this may seem challenging to the researchers, it is possible, especially through a gradual process of data collection and analysis.


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 [1] www.digitalegypt.ulc.ac.uk/food production/cattle4.html

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