From So-and-So to Somebody
By Amy Bareham Chapman | Nigeria in West Africa
Photo by Joni Byker.
For ages, they have orbited the villages of Nigeria seeking respite for their animals. They have sheltered on the outskirts, far removed from the social rhythms of local community. And they have waited patiently for the right moment to move on, leaving just as quickly as they came.
The Fulani are masters of herding and a majority Muslim people with a storied past. Approximately 40 million Fulani dwell in West and Central Africa, with an estimated 20 million residing in Nigeria alone. Historically in Nigeria, Fulani have identified with one of four class structures: the nomadic; the semi-nomadic; the settled, town Fulani; and the ruling class. In fact, all emirs of the emirates in northern Nigeria are Fulani. But in stark contrast, it is widely believed that the semi-nomadic Fulani (the largest of the four classes) are not worth being understood. They have been deemed outcasts and left on the fringes of society.
There is a nuanced explanation for this: the Fulani prioritise the wellbeing of their animals, following well-established grazing patterns. These patterns lead the Fulani to linger in rural areas.
Jon, SIM Regional Ministry Coordinator for Fulani Ministries, said: “Because they have only ‘come in from the bush,’ in recent years, they are marginalised and not trusted by most settled people. Even the name Fulani seems to be a somewhat othering derivation of the Arabic word fulaan, meaning ‘so-and-so.’”
Furthermore, the Fulani are governed by a social code called pulaaku i.e. “Fulani-ness.” It encapsulates the principles of reserve and endurance, in which the Fulani take great pride. And while the Fulani are typically a peaceful people, several pockets appear to have recently formed affiliations with extreme Islamic groups, adding fuel to the fire of suspicion that keeps much of the world at arm’s length.
It is unsurprising that this demographic is living and dying without hearing the good news of Jesus; they’ve simply had little opportunity to learn about him in their cultural framework.
Soon this will change. Over the past few months, Faithful Witness has mobilised a team of missionaries anointed to bring the good news to the Fulani in northern Nigeria. A few Christians have been ministering to them already, but Faithful Witness will bring further coordination and support to this space.
Although obstacles complicate connection with the semi-nomadic Fulani, they’re not inherently unlikeable or even unavailable. Jon explained: “If the Fulani are to be reached, it will require an approach that is as unique as they are. It will mean employing all the principles of cross-cultural understanding at the disposal of the workers.”
For Faithful Witness, the best approach to build relationships is language learning. Traditionally, the Fulani speak Fulfude. According to Jon, this is a remarkable but complex language that takes years to master, let alone use articulately. Jon befriended Fulani in Niger and said: “I spent hours and hours and hours hanging out and just talking. Your back gets sore from sitting on [a] mat. But life happens around you, and you learn the culture. There’s no word in Fulfulde for please. But it’s in the way you say it – there’s the right way to say it and the wrong way…Language is a verbal expression of culture.”
“A key step in effectively working among them [the Fulani] begins with first learning their language … This allows one to effectively communicate to them in their heart language, while showing them your love in Christ.”
Grant Birks, Interim Nigeria Director, agrees. “Working among the Fulani is both a rewarding and challenging task,” he shared. “A key step in effectively working among them begins with first learning their language…This allows one to effectively communicate to them in their heart language, while showing them your love in Christ.”
Fulfulde language immersion will happen in due course. For now, the Faithful Witness team is starting with Hausa because the region uses it more widely and it is generally a more versatile language.
Another facet of relationship-building is appreciating the felt needs of the Fulani people. As more Fulani choose to put down roots and establish permanent homes, they are facing new challenges. They must arrange education for their children and source clean water, but keeping and herding the cattle, which are practically extensions of their families, are also significant responsibilities. Since the Fulani value outsiders showing interest in their animals, missionaries with veterinary experience could successfully form connections.
Grant said, “Empowering the local church and Fulani believers to minister among the Fulani is a key step at reaching them for the gospel. Major ministry opportunities include theological education, the production of Fulfulde gospel materials, medical and movie-based outreaches…and supportive based ministries.”
His charge to the Faithful Witness team, and to anyone considering mission work in Nigeria, is to, “come and tell the stories – good stories – of what God is doing here.” He noted, “Although work among the Fulani often seems slow going, God is actively working.”
The outsider is close to the Father’s heart, so let it be said of the Fulani, they are not So-and-So, they are Somebody: image-bearers of the one who knitted them together with lovingkindness.
• Grace for the team as they adjust to cultural differences.
• Peace for the transition, especially as the team gets settled.
• Perseverance and encouragement throughout the language learning process.
• Stability in the nation and opportunities for those persecuting Christians to come to know Christ.
• God to raise up a strong community of Fulani believers in northern Nigeria.