Friday Discourse (111): Pulaaku among the Fula


Dr. Aliyu Tilde

This is the second article on Fulani and their problems in Nigeria. We have sufficiently focussed on language in the previous article last week. Today, we will look at an attribute with which the Fulani are distinguished. It is a feature that is eroding in Nigeria, on one hand as fast as life is becoming difficult for its citizens, and on the other, as gradual as the ruler becomes encapsulated by the norms and adulterations of sedentary life.

We will start with its meaning, then its examples, origins and benefits. Finally we have offered a prescription on how it will be maintained among those who still practice it sufficiently and how those who lost it could recover it.


The single feature that cuts across the behaviour of the Fula is what he and others call pulaaku. It is the altruism ((Hausa: kara) that makes him consider the interest of others first, before his. It is also the shyness (Hausa: kunya) that prevents him from enjoying what is lawful like gifts, or prevents him from publicly showing his attachment and concern to a beloved one. It is also the endurance (Hausa: juriya) that enables him to withstand pains and difficulties silently, without complaining. It is also the caution and pride that makes him to avoid anything ignoble and degrading.

Seen from the above perspective, it is difficult to understand why some people would like to see pulaaku as limited to the Fulani. I will rather consider it as one of those traits common to human cultures. All civilizations, if we have the freedom to discount capitalism, consider self-sacrifice praiseworthy, and selfishness blameworthy. All revealed religions preach pulaaku in many of its forms.

In one place, the Medinite companions of the Holy Prophet received the migrant Meccans to their city after the Hijrah with a selflessness that earned them a divine praise. God described them as people who “prefer (the fugitives) above themselves though poverty become their lot. And whoso is saved from his own avarice, such are they who are successful.” (59:8). The Meccan migrants who were deprived of their possessions, on the other hand, were praised with the pulaaku of endurance when God said: “the unthinking man accounteth them wealthy because of their restraint. Thou shalt know them by their mark: they do not beg of men with importunity…” (2:273). The Holy Prophet, the epitome of good conduct, shied from expressing his annoyance over the offensive conduct of others towards him: “…Lo. That would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of (asking) you (to go); but God is not shy of the truth.” (22:53) In one of his traditions he was reported saying, “if it does not make you ashamed, do whatever you like.” This tradition supports our assertion that pulaaku, in decrying the ignoble, is a universal human attribute.

Having established that pulaaku, in many respects at least, is not is not restricted to the Fulani, I am now comfortable to hold that the Fula differ from others because he has taken pulaaku a degree, or degrees as someone would claim, higher than how others did. It is the medium of his conduct, and the substratum on which it is anchored. To the Fula, absence of pulaaku defiles the noble of his dignity and its presence could earn a slave the respect of his master.


Pulaaku, in its simple form, expects a woman not to mention the name of her husband or that of her first child. In case of the first son, both parents, but especially the mother, are expected to ignore him throughout his life. In extreme cases mothers shy from saving their children from risks, including fire or drowning! (I won’t go that far). Parents with sufficient pulaaku will find it difficult to side with their children or relations in case of misunderstanding with others.

Pulaaku demands utmost privacy in habits of eating, drinking, sleeping and intercourse. A friend from Dukku once told me how his grandfather used to eat in hiding, so secretly that none of his wives ever saw him eating throughout his life. A Gobir trader (bagobiri) once rebuked me for refusing to be served with Coke outside his shop, along Waff Road, Kaduna. He said: “Ku filani kun ramma mutane”, meaning, “you Fulani have an inferior impression about others.” I explained to him how I have always obeyed this form of pulaaku, until when I decided to break it one day in Abuja, thinking that I was away enough from home. It was not long after I started taking a snack outside a restaurant that I heard an approaching voice saluting me. I raised my head and found, to my utmost shame, that it was a brother to my father in-law. The bagobiri laughed, saying, “And so what if your in-law saw you eating?” He just could not understand why.

The Fula will abhor whatever is discerned as shameful in the society. Lack of remorse is considered as antithesis of pulaaku. In times of deprivation, it is shameful to ask anyone, including his relations. Begging is taboo. As one of his proverbs signifies: there is enough shame when a request is granted; where it is not, the shame cannot be described. If you would ask him, as a guest in your house: “Do you mind some food?”, no matter his condition, he will certainly reply with a smile, saying, “mi haari.” (I am okay).

If he will receive a gift (he does reluctantly and sometimes only to avoid embarrassing the donor), he will add, “hai! torra non?” (What! Why suffer so much?). Thereafter, even if he is a child, he will hurriedly disappear, because he feels ashamed to receive something from someone. He must be seen to be self-sufficient. That is why, a child is stopped from visiting a house where he will be given gifts. He must also not eat from another house. The adult would usually boycott, wherever possible, people who offer him gifts. He concurs with al Motanabbi who held that generosity buys the noble but encourages the poor-minded to rebel.

Pulaaku demands resilience. Enough of it is expressed in the annual festival that is called sharo in Hausaland. There, the Fula will bare his chest to be beaten by any challenger in the crowd. As the fresh stick of the attacker awfully tears his skin apart to expose his flesh before the viewing public, he neutralises the sympathy of his spectators with beautiful smiles and cheerful jubilation. Many times, hit on one side of the chest, he will challenge his opponent further by turning the other side. He will retire from the occasion to prepare for a hurtful revenge the following week.

While some cultures celebrate the proof of their daughter’s virginity the morning following her first intercourse as a bride, Pulaaku demands that the Fula to conceal even her pregnancy, especially the first one, until it is impossible to do so any longer. And when she comes to deliver a child, she must do so quietly. Even a sick child should not complain of pain by crying. This is where an Arab will shout, wa musibataaaa, or wailiiii, or yaa naass, yaa khooooy… and the Hausa will cry, “wayyoooo Allah…” There are no such words in fulfulde, at all.

The dying should also bid farewell to the world quietly. The loss of anything, a son or a property, should not warrant the slightest discomfiture. A mother is denied the tears that would sooth her eyes from the pain caused by the death of her child or husband, no matter the attachment she had for him. On such occasion, the Persian will be piercing his head with a knife; and the Arab will throw dust over his head and cry, “ya khasrataaaa...

I think the point has sufficiently been made, given these illustrations, that few cultures, if any, as we said before, will be ready to take their pulaaku to this extent.


We may be tempted to ascribe pulaaku to religion, since all religions preach endurance, self-denial and so on. What a convenience! If it were so, we will expect to find a strong correlation between pulaaku and the religiosity of the individual Fula. On the contrary, pulaaku is also practiced impressively by those naturalis who care very little about religion. It is therefore safer to see it as a purely cultural trait among the Fula, which Islam has in some instances condemned or tolerated, and encouraged in most others. It is like the tradition of generosity among pre-Islamic Arabs, which I remember the author of Meccan Crucible was able to trace back to their Jahiliyya customs.

I will argue that pulaaku, to the extent that the Fula practises it, is a habit that was cultivated or rather derived from his nomadic life. The features of pulaaku are the most deficient properties in modern technological societies. Thus the more traditional a society is, at least in the Powelian paradigm of social science, the more will its culture be characterised by generosity, hospitality, selflessness, and so on. Conversely, the more advanced a society is technologically, the lesser will it be characterised by such traditional values.

This argument is more plausible in capitalist societies due to the enormous social pressures that their exploitative mode of production provokes. In traditional societies however, the means of production and distribution are simple: resources are readily supplied by nature and require little processing or marketing before they are consumed.

The nomadic state of the Fula, in other words, is what generally granted him the liberty of selflessness. Their farming system permits self-sufficiency, extensively using shifting cultivation and mixed farming. Their close marital practice produce unified communities whose members are closely related. Under such circumstance, sacrifice becomes easier, if not natural.

It is now easy to understand why the Fula, over a long period, is stripped of his pulaaku anytime he settles to face the harsh realities of urban life. If his abundance remains, like where he maintains a large herd of cattle, the likelihood of his pulaaku remaining is higher. But if he has to capture his livelihood from amidst the thick air of competition, like through contracts and marketing, then he will soon realize that pulaaku will be a detriment to his survival above the margin of poverty. He would also learn to save his small hard-earned resources for himself because there is none who will come to his aid, as any other person is trying to work out his own survival arithmetic. In the absence of his cattle, farm, fruits, rivers and space, over generations, preference to self becomes irresistible, if not inevitable.

The courage component of the Fula’s pulaaku can easily be traced to the necessity of self-defence in his nomadic state. This is a habit he shares with other cultures that grew under conditions of seclusion. The Arabs were equally courageous, until when they learnt how to enjoy the sanctuary of sedentary life and to indulge in the luxuries of the nations they conquered. Today, they cannot raise even a finger against Israel, in protest to the atrocities it is committing against their Palestinian brothers.


From a utilitarian perspective, what benefit has the Fula derived from his Pulaaku? The benefits, I believe, are many but we will restrict ourselves here to three. One, internally, it ensures peaceful coexistence among members of the genus. With pulaaku, there is a good understanding among the members of the genus as to the standard pattern of their behaviour. It is the normative law. Also, by restraining the self from eyeing the property of others, pulaaku has helped to demobilize the greatest precursor to quarrels – the struggle to acquire what belongs to others.

Two, externally, pulaaku has made it easier for the Fula to be accepted by other people. Without it, his nomadic life would have been difficult. Here he differs from other nomads. The Jew, for example, is mainly preoccupied with how to acquire what belongs to others. If he has ninety-nine sheep, he will plan to snatch the only sheep belonging to his brother. Greed is the hallmark of Jewish trade and a fundamental article of his association with others. On the contrary, pulaaku asserts self-sufficiency that is achieved and maintained through honourable means. Where deprivation visits the Fula, he is expected to overcome it without revealing his secrets to others. He would rather die than beg. With this self-pride, others found him a guest enough light to accommodate easily, and who does not pose much threat to their possessions. Men will remain amiable, according to Machiavelli, so long as they do not show interest in the wealth and women of others.

Thirdly, the Fula demesticus has found pulaaku important in his leadership role. In the various parts he settled in West Africa, apart from farming, he has also engaged in scholarship and administration. Pulaaku is necessary to both professions. To become a good leader, self-sacrifice and trust are indispensable qualities. To be a formidable scholar, self-denial is necessary. And pulaaku supplies the Fula with both habits in abundance. He thus finds the commandments of Islam regarding these matters easy to follow. This might have contributed to the acceptance of Shehu Danfodio in Hausaland. The caliphate that he established enjoyed the respect of the people as long as the leadership was ready to live by those qualities. How long they did so is a question that only historians can best answer.


Unfortunately, this fundamental identity of the Fula, much of which is praiseworthy, is fast becoming eroded in the genus. Among the Fula domesticus, very little of it is left; and even among the naturalis, it is increasingly becoming difficult to sustain. The selflessness of Fula leaders is falling far short of the measure of pulaaku. They have put their interest and that of their children first, and failed to attend to the problems of their subjects. They loot the treasury as much as others do; the difference between them, except in few cases, is marginal. The misconduct of some of their daughters, especially some of those brought up in the GRAs and who have become bereft of shame and shyness, is enough to make their grandparents in the villages faint or go berserk.

The present habits of many naturalis is not better than that of his doemesticus brother. They are also finding it difficult to keep trust. Some of them run away with cattle that others kept in their custody. Some are involved in petty habits like theft. Worst is what we have been learning for the past five years about their participation in armed robbery and banditry. Do not mention alcohol and other vices. I remember a goge artiste who used to perform in our village on market days. One of his songs was: “Karyar wade-wade ta kare ga dan Fulani na sai da giya”, meaning, “pulaaku is finished since we have a Fulani selling alcohol.” I wonder what he would say today, were he alive.

These are the reasons why I strongly hold the view that pulaaku is endangered. Its decline among the Fula when the country needs it most to overcome predicaments triggered by avarice is deeply lamentable.


It is difficult to practice all the ramifications of pulaaku in the present world of political boundaries – local and international – that exacerbate poverty by limiting movement and restricting the economic choices of the individual; of growing predominance of capitalism and its values; and finally, of acculturation through western education. Fighting against these factors is like standing in the way of a flood.

Nevertheless, we must know that facing the flood is better and more honourable than drowning in it. It will take the capitalist societies to nowhere. Such societies will sooner or later revert or their civilization will perish, for no civilization lasts by living on bizarre exploitation and unguarded avarice like theirs.

My prescription is a simple pill. In a struggle between civilizations, like in fighting against a flood, it is wiser to hold on to a firm support. I am referring to systems that are more enduring, that are held at higher esteem and that possess higher values than those of traditions inherited from ancestors.

Here, Islam comes handy, to the Fula and the non-Fula alike. Fortunately, the Fula have accepted it very long ago. Therefore, it is unnecessary for them to return to the old pulaaku that was passed through ancestry. When they practice it under Islam, in obedience to God, they will be executing His commandments for which they will be rewarded in this world and in the Hereafter.

It will delight many readers to note that Islam has made sufficient provisions for all the praiseworthy properties of pulaaku, and much more. A devout Muslim will flout pulaaku only in few respects, all of which are unnecessary. If he follows the traditions of the prophet, he will be able to drop the terrible and the tedious in his old definition to adopt simpler versions that will endure the aggression of external values. By this, we are most assured that the values we cherish in pulaaku will live to be inherited by our distant progenies. God said: “Lo! this Quran guideth unto that which is straightest..” (17:9) Regarding the traditions of the Prophet, they have emanated from someone described by God in the best of testimonies: “And Lo. You are of great conduct.” (68:4).

Readers, that was pulaaku. Those were the threats to its survival. And this is Islam; its best saviour against the formidable flood of urbanization and capitalism. No other system will offer the Fula a better alternative. With it, wherever we go, we do not believe that we have missed anything that is praiseworthy in our heritage. Neither will we lose touch with nature for Islam is built on nature. We feel at home.