More Customs of the Fulbe

Body Language: Shaking hands with both hands, or holding your right forearm or elbow with the left hand when shaking hands, are signs of deference. This honors the person you are shaking hands with, so is appreciated among the Fulbe. Another way of showing deference is looking to the ground or away from the person you are greeting. Looking someone straight in the eye, like you father told you to, can be interpreted as aggressiveness.

Holding Hands: Unlike the habit of North Americans, it is not unusual to see men holding hands with men or women, with women. This is a sign of friendship, not of any kind of “orientation.” Starting in the capital and with the youth, this pattern is changing, as now young men and women may also be seen holding hands. But traditionally, and still in villages, this isn’t done.

Greetings during Prayer Time: Often older men pray while walking home around sunset. They are not supposed to interrupt their prayer, and will answer a greeting with a nod or grunt. If you see someone walking home holding prayer beads and with their lips moving, you may greet them by smiling, nodding, or clasping your hands together in front of your chest.

The Will of God: “Si Allah jabhi” means ‘God willing’ (literally ‘if God accepts’) and is a common response to “See you tomorrow” or other assertions about the future. Even the firmest of arrangements with someone will always have this caveat.

Women and Islam: The Fulbe are not as strict with women as other Islamic societies; women are not segregated from men in day-to-day life, and they are not required to cover their heads and faces. They will keep their calves and knees covered, and covering the shoulders brings more respect.
In general, in the Fouta as in most of the world, women have a harder time than men getting respect and being taken seriously outside traditional feminine roles. Although white women receive more respect simply for being white, and are sometimes treated as honorary men, they will still likely find that they are accorded less respect than their male peers.

Age: Traditionally, the Fulbe do not make a big deal out of birthdates, and it is not unusual for someone not to be sure exactly how old they are. Those born about the same time, or who experience significant events together, like circumcision, are considered “goreebhe” or agemates.

What’s in a Name?

Four major last names exist among the Fulbe of the Fouta Jalon: Bah (or Balde), Barry, Diallo and Sow. Each one has a joking relationship with those of another name, the Diallos with the Bahs, the Barrys with the Sows. One will playfully accuse the other of being a theif. The other might reply that the first are known to be liars. One might “comment” that the other group are slaves (and that they themselves are rulers), while the other might shoot back, “Oh you folks eat snake” (something no self-respecting Pullo would do). Sometimes other pranks follow, and the stories about each other can be quite comical. The games they play to poke fun at one another add a lighter touch to life. But there is also a serious side to relationships.

One mark of Fulbe culture is showing proper respect. A youger person will refer to older people as “mawbe” (‘great’ or ‘honored ones’) and treat them with deference. He or she will also use plural pronouns when refering to them. While this is done generally, it is particularly observered between person and their parents, a married person and their in-laws and a wife of her husband. These are important relationships for the Fulbe and they treat them that way. A related mark of respect is seen in people not using the names of a mother- or father-in-law when refering to a child named after that in-law. For example, a daughter named after her grandmother might be nicknamed “neene galle” (‘mother of the household’) so that the grandmother’s name would not be disrespected in correcting the child. A boy named for a grandfather might be nicknamed “Baaba-en” (‘our father’) for the same reason.