William Derman
Serfs, Peasants, and Socialists:
A former Serf Village in the Republic of Guinea

University of California Press. 1968. 280 p.


Both Fulbhe and former serfs view life as the unfolding of a plan made by Allah. Allah decides the destiny of each individual. Life is to be accepted as it comes, and passivity and resignation in the face of life are virtues. An illustration can be found in the poem, « A propos de l’impot, » in which the point of view of the poet is that the Fulbhe should pay taxes and not oppose the French. The reason proposed was that those who pay taxes in this world will receive in the next, and those who are the collectors will pay in the next world by going to Hell
In this chapter we shall be concerned only minimally with the Fulbhe side of Islam, concentrating instead on what was observed in a former serf village. The focus of the chapter is the growing adoption of Fulbhe practices and beliefs by the former serfs and the continuing Fulbhe ritual domination over their former serfs.
The inhabitants of the Fouta-Djallon have long been known for their religiosity and education, although the following description could not be applied to the serfs:

Most surprising of all, to those previously unaware of the civilizing influence of Islam, the Fulani of Fouta Jallon revealed themselves as a literate people, their chief men possessing books on divinity and law, their children taught to read in the schools which were maintained in almost every town (Watt and Winterbottom 1803 272).

The study of religion, education, and ideology in a serf village provides a very different picture from the one described by early explorers. Access to religious status was denied to serfs. It was their masters who, in ways to be described, interposed themselves between the serfs and Allah. In short, Islam was used to justify and support the institution of serfdom. The non-Islamic practices of the serfs served to validate this subordination.
However, with the decline of serfdom major changes took place in the ideological realm. The major differences in ritual between the Fulbhe and their former serfs are ending. Thus there are no significant differences between the present-day ceremonies of Fulbhe and former serfs. According to informants, however, Fulbhe and serf ceremonies forty years ago were very different


The life-cycle and its ceremonies constitute what can be called the traditional Fulbhe way of life in the Fouta-Djallon, or more precisely those aspects of Fulbhe life which have changed least since colonialism. The ceremonies accompanying changes in the life-cycle embody « Fulbheness. » Islam also serves to reinforce the traditional way, but is not exclusive to the Fulbhe, although all ceremonies are viewed by the Fulbhe as part of Islam.
An individual’s place in the life-cycle is an important (although not by any means the sole) determinant of his rights and privileges. Statuses based on membership in particular descent groups are declining in significance. Statuses connected to life-cycle stages remain. Men and women go through similar stages of the life-cycle, but these are not entirely equivalent, either in terms of age, status, or responsibilities. Women have an inferior status to men from an ideological, religious, and social point of view throughout their life. For both sexes, one’s status increases as one gets older.
Babyhood. From birth until two and one-half to three years’ an infant is breast fed, and all his whims are catered to. He remains a continual center of attention and he has no responsibilities. The period of breast-feeding is three years for boys, and two and one-half for girls. Thus, even in the earliest stage of life, a difference in sex roles exists. As a child approaches the age of weaning, the mother’s breasts are used less for food and more for comfort.
Weaning. The transition between babyhood and childhood is marked by the two to four week period during which a child is abruptly weaned. Typically, the child is cared for by his maternal grandparents, away from his mother during this difficult time.
Childhood. Childhood is divided into two stages. The first lasts from ages three to six, the second from six to circumcision or clitoridectomy. The first part of childhood is marked by the beginning of association with one’s age-mates and the gradual decline of continual supervision by one’s mother. By the time a child reaches six years of age he spends a good part of his time in play with his age-mates, usually out of his mother’s immediate presence (although not out of the presence of other adults of the village.) During this period the child is still not considered capable of taking on responsibilities, but is expected to begin learning how to share and take turns with his age-mates and to not fight with older siblings. The life of boys and girls is very similar during this period, although girds are kept under closer supervision by their mothers.
At the age of six or seven children are considered ready to begin learning and to gradually take on the essential responsibilities and skills of Fulbhe life. From this point on sexual differences become marked, girls having considerably less freedom and free time. Children spend their free time with age-mates of their own sex, except during moonlit nights when they sing and dance together. Boys work hardest during hoeing and harvest time. During the several months of the dry season they spend most of their time with their age-mates in search of excitement and games. There is evidence, moreover, that this life is freer now than it used to be. Formerly, in serf villages boys were apprenticed to craftsmen at around eight years of age, whereas few of the boys are now apprenticed. In Fulbhe villages boys no longer serve as herdsmen for their father’s or paternal uncle’s herds. The greatest area of new freedom for former serfs’ boys (and girls) however, comes from the ending of labor obligations to Fulbhe masters and the chef de canton. Girls work during all seasons helping their mothers in their various economic tasks. They are free at night and during holidays to play with their age-mates.
Clitoridectomy. Unmarried girls in general are referred to as dyiwo, which means « girl » and « virgin. » The latter becomes very important after the clitoridectomy, and attempts are made to see that she stays virgin until her marriage. In earlier times girls were betrothed after their clitoridectomy and went to live with their new husband’s family until their first menstruation, after which time they became true wives. This custom is just recently ending. From her clitoridectomy to marriage, a girl’s responsibilities increase as she learns all the skills necessary to be a good wife; preparing food, gardening, and, theoretically, obedience. She generally works as hard as her mother at the various economic tasks, but usually has evenings free to visit with her age-mates.
Circumcision. Prior to colonial rule the ceremony of circumcision (sunningol) marked a dramatic and sharply defined change in status from childhood to adulthood . Since at least 1900 there has been a tendency for the age at which a boy is circumcised to decrease. The result has been a longer period of transition to adulthood, since few men marry before the age of twenty-five.
Young men are in a changing position in Fulbhe society. On the one hand, they consider themselves dominated and restricted by their elders. On the other hand, they are beginning their lives in a new and changing society, and it is often to them that the elders have to turn for advice and financial support. In general, young men balance reliance on their elders with autonomy in the J.R.D.A. Decisions for the village as a whole are made by the elders. The expression of their status in the eyes of the elders can be seen at all ceremonies. Young men and older boys, although the most numerous of any group in the village, receive relatively the smallest portions of food. In the context of the ceremonies they are referred to as sewbhe bhen, literally « those on the side. » Young men consistently complain of the lack of adequate portions for them at ceremonies, a complaint which has a great deal of justification, for most adults receive as much as a full meal at the ceremonies, whereas young men usually receive only two or three fistfuls of food.
In precolonial times, as now, allowances were made for the restlessness and « irresponsibility » of the young. In the relatively strict Islamic society of the Fulbhe it was the young who could go to the moonlit dances at serf or Diakanke villages. There were also violin and flute players, and those who told funny stories (nyamakala). The traditional story-telling and music have now been replaced by the « High Life » and « balls » organized by the J.R.D.A. Moreover, the young were and are not expected to meet all their religious obligations.
Although young men are not expected to carry out many responsibilities, they do work a good part of the time. Particularly, during the cultivating season and at a kile they make up the core of the household work group. Many have trades or skills – as barbers, petty merchants, or fence or house-builders – by which they gain some money around the village. As they reach marriageable age, it becomes necessary to seek work that will enable them to earn enough money to set up a household and pay for the ceremony. A large number leave the village for cities in Guinea and surrounding countries for this purpose.
Adult women. Young women enter adulthood sooner and more abruptly than their male age-mates. Typically, women marry shortly after puberty, although there is a growing tendency toward marriage at fifteen or sixteen. If a girl marries out of her natal village, the break from childhood to adulthood is even more abrupt, for she is then no longer with her age-mates. Those in her new village who are of the same age never replace the friends of childhood. Pregnancy occurs generally (no statistics were collected) within one to one and one-half years after the couple begins cohabiting. The birth of the first child marks the full entrance of a woman into adulthood. From this time until she enters the next stage of life, a woman works continuously, in fact many more hours than her male age-mate.
An adult woman’s status is generally inferior to her male age-mate’s in terms of authority and rights. However, there are signs of some movement in the direction of increased autonomy for women. Although a woman has always had control over the distribution of crops raised in her garden, her opportunity to sell a surplus at the market gives her increased economic independence This surplus is usually very small, although for women who are called commerçantes, the profit derived from market trade enables them to buy a modest amount of clothes and other items independently of their husbands. One reaction to this monetary « wealth » of women is represented by the husband of a successful commerçante, who felt that his wife should start paying her own taxes. Not surprisingly she refused, saying that taxes were the responsibility of a husband.
As seems to be true in many societies, the fidelity of wives to husbands is said to have been much greater in the past. Complaints of increased adultery have at least two bases in reality: the result of the labor migration of young men who leave their wives in villages, and the restrictions on the actions of an aggrieved husband and his kinsmen against his wife and her lover. By national law some of the officials of the committees and of the J.R.D.A. are required to be women. While women in the countryside still play only a nominal role in this capacity, urban women are increasingly active politically, and hold increasing political authority.
Adult men. Young men are not considered adults until after they have had children. Marriage itself does not suffice. Even after the first two children a young married man is apt to find himself still eating from the plates of youths at ceremonies, although assuming full economic responsibility for his family. There are certain circumstances which determine the time a man establishes a household. When a boy’s mother dies, he is usually forced to marry at an early age because of the reluctance of a woman (usually another wife of his father’s) to continue caring for him. Both of the two youngest married men in Hollaande had lost their mothers; one through death, the other through divorce. Later attainment of adult status results primarily from the inability to obtain the financial resources necessary for setting up a household. A man is not considered fully adult until he has renounced cigarettes, the search for lovers, and other frivolities, and meets all his religious obligations This stage usually is not achieved until a man reaches age thirty or thirty five or later. Adulthood for men means full participation in all aspects of life. Adults are expected to maintain their kin and ceremonial and religious obligations, and are held responsible if they do not.


The major ceremonies in the life-cycle of an individual are

  • the naming ceremony (dennabo
  • clitoridectomy for girls (kooriko
  • circumcision for boys (fidyo) – which is becoming more linked to the completion of reading the Koran (alluwal
  • marriage (peera) – which we have already discussed
  • the funeral (faatunde).

Underlying all ceremonies is an ideology of reciprocity. This means that everyone expects to receive back at the ceremony approximately what he has brought or contributed. The specific individual and household for whom the ceremony is undertaken, however, do not fall within this category. Although they will receive many gifts, it will not compensate for the sums of money dispensed. The father who buys and sacrifices an animal, who buys much of the food and kola, will not be recompensed for the value of the items. However, he will view these expenditures as obligations toward his child; he will be recompensed by his child in the future. This is to be differentiated from the clear expectations of the major patrilineages and the matrilateral kindreds that the food and gifts they receive will be essentially what they contributed. Ill-feeling will easily develop if it is thought that one side or the other did not contribute their share. Moreover, reciprocity cannot be understood simply in terms of what one contributes economically. Obligations also have to be met in terms of personal appearances and interest in the affairs of one’s kin groups. For example, there was one man in Hollaande, a merchant who economically met his share, but who rarely came to the ceremonies. When his wife gave birth, very few men came to the naming ceremony, whereas a full number of women attended the women’s afternoon part of the ceremony, because the merchant’s wife participated fully.
Ceremonial obligations—attendance and economic support—conflict with the search for money. Merchants who make the rounds of the markets will not attend ceremonies on market days. Ceremonies that fall on market day at Popodara show a much lower attendance than those held any other day. It is not only the men who are affected; women similarly are affected. Thus, one day before a circumcision and alluwal, the mother of the boy did not have the assistance of her close kinsmen for preparation because they were at the market.
However, it is not simply that the Fulbhe sees a conflict between demands of work and demands of attendance of ceremonies. They are coming to view the expenses incurred through ceremonies as burdensome and in conflict with their own and their children’s needs. The result seems to be a decrease in the scale and lavishness of ceremonies, particularly marriage. Other ceremonies, such as the one held when someone attains the status of tierno, have remained the same in size and importance. The outcome seems clear. Ceremonies will continue, for even in cities among full-time employees the ceremonies marking the different life-stages are held. However, as the support for such ceremonies falls more and more upon individual households, and as reciprocity diminishes both in ideology and practice, the attendance, size, and wealth involved at the life-cycle ceremonies will decrease
We will now discuss the naming ceremony, circumcision, clitoridectomy, and funeral ceremonies.
Naming ceremony. On the eighth day after the birth of a child, the Fulbhe hold a naming ceremony. The completion of the ceremony marks the acceptance by the major patrilineage of a new member . The major responsibility for planning the ceremony – notifying the appropriate individuals, obtaining an animal to be slaughtered, obtaining and preparing food – falls on the father and his brothers (the father’s minimal lineage). The major participants in the ceremony are the major patrilineage of the father and child, the matrilateral kindred of the child, and the Fulbhe of both the mother and the father.
The most significant part of the ceremony in the morning is the actual giving of the name to the newborn child. Formerly one could almost tell whether someone was serf or Fulbhe simply from the individual’s name. Certain names were characteristic of serfs:

For Men For Women
  • Manga
  • Dyan
  • Samba
  • Sabala
  • Tallatou
  • Dyuma
  • Saini
  • Seini
  • Manson
  • Fode
  • Yero
  • …………..
  • Sira
  • Kumba
  • Penda
  • Dyiba
  • Tenin
  • Teli
  • ……………

Fulbhe names are taken more from Islam and the Koran. Some examples are Mamadu, Mamudu, Alpha Oumar, Ibrahima, and Boubakar. There were a few names in common, principally Ahmadu and Oury (derived from wuurugol, « to live, » given to help insure the life of a child). In recent years more and more former serfs are naming their children with what were Fulbhe names.
The name is given with the slaughtering of an animal, which in Hollaande is a goat. When all the necessary parties have arrived, the elder of the major patrilineage asks the Fulbhe of the father to slaughter the sacrificial animal. The goat is held by the villagers while the Fulbhe utters the phrase necessary to spill the blood of an animal and then announces three times the name of the new child. It is the Fulbhe of the father, therefore, who before the eyes of Allah gives the name to the infant, although the actual name of the child is chosen by the parents. Once the animal’s throat has been cut, and the name stated, the child becomes a member of the patrilineage of its father.
In all but two of the naming ceremonies I attended, the Fulbhe did come. On one of these two occasions, after a long wait, a karamoko from Hollaande slaughtered the animal, reluctantly and only with the decision of the elders of the village. When questioned whether they thought they could do without the presence of the Fulbhe, their answer was no. The continued performance of the naming ceremony by a Fulbhe constituted the perpetuation, at least ideologically, of the notion that a child « belongs » to his Fulbhe. The Fulbhe who came to the village to perform the act were often young and less learned than the elders of the village. This indicated the continued acceptance of the ideological inequality between Fulbhe and former serfs, at least in the ceremonial sphere.
The Fulbhe of the father usually comes with a small delegation of his patrilineage, who, like all others, bring a gift of money. Typically they sit apart following formal salutations, until the sacrifice of the goat. They then go into a separate house and are given their portion of food. They do not stay long after eating (some elderly Fulbhe refuse to eat in a former-serf village), leaving upon receiving their portion of meat and kola.
The items distributed at a naming ceremony are the meat of the slaughtered animal, money, kola, rope, and other food. The father is responsible for acquiring a goat, and for providing kola to the major patrilineage, matrilateral kindred, and Fulbhe of the child.
He also has to provide at least three mats employed to carry the meat and kola to the matrilateral kindred and Fulbhe of his child. His major patrilineage provides rope and some mats, and each individual who attends contributes money. Within the village of Hollaande each married adult man gave about 50 francs ($.20). If he were particularly close – a brother or age-mate – he gave 100 to 200 francs. Money is not given directly to the father, but to the head of the minimal lineage, who in turn gives it to one of the elders of the major patrilineage. Everyone who attends the ceremony receives kola. The Fulbhe receive their portion first, then the delegation from the matrilateral kindred. The remaining kola is divided afterward among the elders and the heads of each minimal lineage, who redivide the kola among all the members. Kola is given separately to the younger brothers and sisters of the mother (keynan). The money is collected and counted. One portion is set aside for the matrilateral kindred of the child, and another for the Fulbhe of the child. The remainder is either given to the father to help him defray his expenses or is redistributed among his major patrilineage.

  • one-quarter to the mother
  • one-half to the matrilateral kindred
  • a leg to the Fulbhe of the mother
  • a large piece to the Fulbhe of the father;
  • and the rest to the major patrilineage of the child.

A typical list of items distributed at a naming ceremony is as follows:

  • 45 kola (goro) brought by the father
  • 12 mats (gate)
    • six given by the father
    • one given by each of his three older brothers
    • two by the head of his minimal lineage, and
    • one by his affines
  • 20 cords of rope (bhoggi) brought by five different members of his major patrilineage; and
  • 4000 francs from all those attending.

These were divided as follows:

  • 9 mats, 15 cords, 1000 francs and meat to the matrilateral kindred
  • 3 mats, 5 cords, 500 francs, and meat to the Fulbhe of the mother ; and
  • kola equally divided to all those attending the ceremony.

All major ceremonies among the Fulbhe involve the preparation and eating of food. For a naming ceremony the father is responsible for providing the food, and preparation is the task of the baby’s mother, her co-wives, her sisters, and her mother. The Fulbhe are fed first, then the representatives of the matrilateral kindred. The rest of the food is divided among the various age-groups within the village, who eat together. The elders receive couscous with sour milk, (lattyiri kaaba e kosan) the preferred food. If no milk is available, the elders are given rice and peanut sauce. The rest are usually given fonio or rice and peanut sauce.
After eating, two delegations are constituted to bring the name of the child to the child’s matrilateral kindred and to his Fulbhe. The delegations usually consist of

  • seven men to the matrilateral kindred and
  • three men to the Fulbhe.

The eldest person in each delegation is appointed to act as head, who presents formal greetings and their share of the ceremony goods. The father of the newborn child never goes, nor does the father of the mother receive the delegation.
When the parents of the mother live in another village, the bringing of the name (nabhugol inde) is treated seriously. A delegation is chosen which represents seven ot the eight minimal lineages of Hollaande. The labor of those individuals is lost for the day because quite often it may be an hour’s walk to the mother’s natal village. When the delegation arrives at the village, the most respectful forms of salutation are employed. Following the salutations, the matrilateral kindred of the child provides the delegation with a large bowl of food, which is eaten prior to any announcement of the ceremony that has just taken place. Only upon completion of eating does the delegation thank the child’s matrilateral kindred for their hospitality and present their share of the ceremony. When the mother comes from Hollaande, the villagers, not without humor, have to choose among themselves who is to be the matrilateral kindred and who is to be the major patrilineage. If relations are strained, sending a delegation is taken more seriously. Bringing the name to the child’s Fulbhe is done rapidly with little more than formal communication. No one from the Fulbhe’s patrilineage gathers to greet the visiting men. The Fulbhe simply presents a plate of food, and then hears the announcement of the birth of the child and its name. In one case, a delegation found upon arrival that no food had been prepared. This was viewed as an insult, although clearly ties between the mother and her Fulbhe had lapsed as a function of distance (the villages were 15 kilometers apart). It appears likely that the next time the woman has a baby the name will not be brought to her Fulbhe unless he attempts to reestablish ties in the intervening period.
Although there are two major patrilineages within Hollaande, the entire village is always present at, or at least invited to, every ceremony. Because of the kin ties that relate various members of the village to one another – either through the male or female lines or through residential proximity (kawtal) the village operates as if it were one lineage in many situations. This presents an interesting circumstance for role analysis. Given the limited population, it is quite clear that any one individual can play different roles in any ceremony. The head of the lineage might be, for example, intimately involved both with the major patrilineage and matrilateral kindred. And, in fact, this happens. If both parents are from Hollaande, following the slaughtering, naming, and eating, a delegation has to be taken from within the village to act as the matrilateral kindred. The men chosen to be the matrilateral kindred then leave the area only slightly before the representatives of the patrilineage proceed to the compound of the mother’s father. Those men who had just before been talking as members of the same major patrilineage then face each other as members of the patrilineage and matrilateral kindred, respectively. The same procedure as described above is followed – and food is always given, as is the ceremonial share due the matrilateral kindred. The only difference occurs following the presentation of the name and ceremonial share. All the men of both groups sit together to then redistribute the share of the matrilateral kindred. When such a situation arises, it is not infrequent that someone who has given 50 francs in the morning will receive 50 francs in the afternoon as a result of the redistribution of the money given to the matrilateral kindred.
In all Fulbhe ceremonies there is segregation between men and women. The women’s part of the naming ceremony takes place in the late afternoon at the house of the mother. The critical act of the ceremony is shaving the baby’s head. However, there are instances when due to suspicion of sorcerers, or perhaps a karamoko’s warning that it is a bad day to shave a baby’s head, shaving can be put off until another day, when those who have access to the baby can be controlled.
For the women the mood of the ceremony is set by whether the child is a boy or a girl. Solemnity and seriousness mark the birth of a boy, joking and horseplay the birth of a girl. A strong preference is expressed for sons. The women who attend the ceremony bring gifts of dried taro or manioc, or about 25 francs. The amount of dried food given is roughly equivalent to 25 francs worth at market price. The gifts are given to the mother.
The father’s responsibility to the women is to procure food for his sisters (nyiiri yaaye), and a plate of food for those who shave the baby’s head (nyiiri femboobhe). Food is prepared by the mother, her mother, co-wives, and sisters and by the father’s sisters and brothers’ wives. Food is divided by the child’s paternal aunts who are helped by the elder women of the child’s major patrilineage. A plate is first given to the wives of the mother’s Fulbhe, next to the old women of the matrilateral kindred and major patrilineage, and then to the rest of the women present.
Those attending the shaving are the women of the patrilineage of the child, the most important members of which are the father’s sisters. The women’s ceremony is directed and carried out by the father’s sisters, the eldest « true » sister being in charge. Women who have married members of the child’s patrilineage also attend and are treated as members of that group. Women of the child’s matrilateral kindred also attend. However, the maternal grandmother does not come.
The wife of the Fulbhe of the mother (and therefore the child) attends the afternoon ceremony, although her role is not nearly as important as that of the Fulbhe of the father. The baby’s head is shaved by several individuals, each one taking her turn. These are primarily members of the child’s patrilineage, his father’s sisters. While the baby’s head is shaved, a representative of the matrilateral kindred holds him. The father’s sisters take the shaved hair from the baby and hide it to prevent a sorcerer from doing harm to the newborn child. After the baby’s head is shaved, he is carried three times around the house by his father’s sisters. If the newborn is a boy, the women carry him around with a machete and basket; if a girl, with a hoe and a basket. .As the women carry the child and the basket, old women in the house throw corn and dried taro into the basket. This is followed by the division and eating of the food. Finally, the father gives money to his oldest sister, which she then distributes to the rest of the father’s sisters (in its classificatory sense).
Circumcision. As in other African societies circumcision in the Fouta-Djallon marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. The circumcision ceremony has also become deeply involved with Islam, having been joined with an Islamic ceremony marking, the completion of reading the Koran. This integration was true in the past only for Fulbhe boys. Circumcision of serf boys and clitoridectomy of both Fulbhe and serf girls remained unconnected with any Islamic ceremonies. Now, with the former serfs able to participate in Islamic education far more than was traditionally possible, the religious difference between the circumcision ceremony of Fulbhe and former serf boys is rapidly diminishing.
A simple circumcision (without the inclusion of any Islamic rite) is call fidyo. The ceremony that marks both circumcision and the completion of the Koran is called alluwal. The circumciser (baridyeli) of both Fulbhe and serf boys was always a serf, and continues to be a former serf. The circumciser symbolizes the non-Islamic elements of a circumcision, for he is also considered a sorcerer. The circumciser also led the fidyo, but the leader of an alluwal is always a Fulbhe and a tierno. In former years the roles of circumciser and tierno were irreconcilable. The latter was concerned with Islam and the ways of Allah, the former with sorcery and connections with spirits. The circumciser is still often referred to as a chief of sorcerers. Yet at Hollaande, the circumciser has also become a tierno. In short, he has reconciled what had formerly been opposite positions. However, because of his former serf origin he cannot lead an alluwal.
Circumcision ceremonies epitomized the differences between the religious Fulbhe and their serfs. Previously, the nights before and after a serf’s fidyo were marked by the dancing of serf mut, a practice regarded as non-Islamic and forbidden to Fulbhe men. The former serfs have adopted the Fulbhe view that such dancing is non-lslamic and prevents them from being properly religious. Dancing at circumcisions is therefore forbidden. One of the reasons why women are only rarely viewed as being properly religious is that they dance to the drummer (dyeliba).. At one circumcision, the matrilateral kindred of one of the boys, who lived in a faraway village, came to Hollaande beating a drum They were promptly told that the ceremony was an alluwal and that there was to be no singing or dancing. Former serfs strive to hold alluwals for their sons, even though this ceremony entwines them more with the Fulbhe than would a fidyo. Although former serf children may have former serf teachers, it is rare that the teacher of a boy who has terminated the Koran is a former serf. The teacher is a significant member of the alluwal, as it is he who gets the major portion of the slaughtered cow. Further, only a Fulbhe can lead the alluwal and slaughter the animal.
The Fulbhe of a circumcised boy usually contributes a large plate of food and assists in the ceremonial dressing of the boy just prior to the actual circumcision. Traditionally, the formal consent of the child’s Fulbhe was required for circumcision. Today in many instances his formal consent is still asked for, and in all cases he told of the decision before the ceremony takes place.
The major and minimal lineage of the child bear the brunt of the expenses for the ceremony. The matrilateral kindred of the boy shower him with gifts (laba). This is composed of grains, dried taro, manioc, and money. His mother’s brothers give him money (550 francs at Hollaande) and large roosters.
The period of healing is set at about six weeks. During this time the boys are not permitted to work or to pray, and they live in their own houses, continually looked after by an older brother (baho). The wounds are cared for by the circumciser. In the case of Fulbhe this period of healing may be passed either in their natal village, or in the village of the circumciser. There is a small ceremony that marks the end of the healing period.
Although circumcision remains the most important dividing line between childhood and adulthood, boys are now circumcised at an earlier age. Hence the transition to adulthood is less abrupt, and in most cases the boys are not sexually mature. Nevertheless, newly circumcised boys are expected to start meeting some of their religious obligations, in particular, fasting for the entire month of Ramadan and to begin preparation for building their own little houses. Their new adult status is symbolized by the fact that when they want to enter the house of an adult male they must say Asssalam Alaikum and not enter unless the person responds Alaikum Salam. This particular practice is referred to at most circumcision ceremonies.
Clitoridectomy. As circumcision marks the transition from childhood to the preparatory period of adulthood for boys, clitoridectomy signals a girl’s period of preparation as wife, mother. and economic producer. The clitoridectomy of both Fulbhe and former serf girls, in contrast to circumcision, remains one of the few rituals that still has no connection with Islamic ritual or ideology.
Serf women in the past, and former serfs now, perform the clitoridectomy. They are also called Baridyeli and, like their male counterparts, are believed to be sorcerers. It is interesting that whereas the female baridyeli continues to wear a special dress of red with a belt of bells for the ceremony, the male circumciser has eliminated everything but a red handkerchief.
The most important part of the clitoridectomy ceremony takes place not at the time of the actual clitoridectomy but three weeks later. The operation itself is done at twilight in the compound of the baridyeli, with the girl’s paternal aunts attending. The circumcised girl then goes to her paternal grandmother’s where she stays for three weeks. During this time she is not required to do any work. A Fulbhe girl goes to the home of an older former serf woman rather than to her grandmother’s.
The kooriko is the ceremony that takes place when a girl is healed. The ritual indicates the non-Islamic character of the clitoridectomy ceremony. The ceremony takes place at a stream near the village and at the paternal grand-parent’s compound. The ceremony at the water involves acts to protect the girl from the actions of sorcerers and to secure her fertility. There are a number of different songs attached to different parts of the ritual at the stream. The words to these songs are non-Fulfulde. The second part of the ceremony at the grandmother’s compound involves the women of the girl’s major patrilineage and matrilateral kindred. Gifts are given while the women sing and dance around her. The mother and the baridyeli are also given small gifts. As with the boy’s ceremony, ceremonial plates of food are distributed to the different groups of participants.
Funerals. The ceremony at the death of an individual reflects the Islamic nature of the burial, the role of the Fulbhe for the former serfs, and the relations and relative importance of the kin groups as indicated by their different obligations.
According to Trimingham (1959), death rites and mourning customs vary less from pure Islamic practice than does any other sphere of Islam in Africa. Trimingham (1959: 178) states that the distinctive elements are:

  • ritual washing with prayer
  • incensing
  • specified types of grave clothes
  • use of a stretcher
  • separation of the sexes
  • speed between death and burial
  • graves of specific form and orientation
  • ritual funeral prayer
  • mourners
  • participation in carrying corpses
  • repetition of phrases
  • throwing earth on grave
  • widow’s ritual mourning, washing seclusion period and purification; and
  • ceremonial gathering offering and feasting

All of these are elements of funerals in the Fouta-Djallon.

When a person is gravely ill, members of his patrilineage and his affines gather to pay their respects to his family and to see him if possible. When he dies, the elders of his patrilineage stay together at his bouse (or the house of the husband if a women dies, or the house of the father if an unmarried person dies). There they assign the various tasks to be performed prior to burial. These include:

  • digging the grave by members of the village, something the serfs did for the Fulbhe
  • cutting and bringing wood to be placed in the grave, a task for young men
  • acquisition of food for the tyobbal, the ritual dish eaten on all Islamic ceremonial occasions
  • acquisition of a mat on which the corpse is placed, usually given by the major patrilineage
  • acquisition of white cloth necessary for the ceremonial dress (kasange
  • notification of the rest of the matrilateral kindred, patrilineage, all brothers and sisters, the Fulbhe of the deceased, and any other possible members of the bolondaa
  • acquisition of an animal, or animals, to be sacrificed. In the case of a married woman, animals are given both by her affines and by her major patrilineage.

The body remains in the house until interment. Incense is placed in the house. The corpse (once a person dies, he is not referred to by name but as furee, or « corpse » ) is washed, dressed, and placed on the ground by its closest kinsmen. At the same time those men who are attending the funeral gather at the traditional gathering place close by the cemetery outside the village. The women gather and remain in the compound of the deceased, but separate from the men. No women attend the burial ceremony, but they do pray in the compound. Many of the those going to the funeral pass by where the elders of the patrilineage are seated to pay condolences, and then go on to the cemetery.
When all preparations are complete, and all the necessary parties have arrived, the body is placed on a mat and carried by close kinsmen – representatives of both the patrilineage and the matrilateral kindred. The body is placed in front and to the east of the gathered assemblage. The prayer must be led by a Pullo, never by a former serf. As soon as the prayer is completed, the body is carried as rapidly as possible to the grave, where members of the matrilateral kindred, patrilineage, and affines, and the Fulbhe of the individual (also the Fulbhe of the father if a child) place the body deftly into the grave. Wood is then placed on top, and everyone attending throws earth onto the grave . Everyone immediately washes his hands before thanks is given to Allah (duagol). With the completion of the duagol, the tyobbal is distributed to all those who attended, by maximal lineage if they are Fulbhe and by village if they are former serfs. The sacrificial animal is slaughtered and the meat distributed. If the deceased is a child, no animal is slaughtered.
All those who attend the ceremony, aside from very close kinsmen, give a little money, which is redistributed among those who have given the most for the funeral.


Having outlined the life-cycle and its attendant ceremonies, we have a perspective on the importance of Islam in all aspects of Fulbhe society. Every Fulbhe considers himself a Muslim . However, the knowledge and practice of Islam varies greatly, not only between individuals, but between former serfs and Fulbhe and between men and women
The mosque is recognized by all as the center of religious activity, and the almamy as the religious head of the area. This recognition is given public expression by the two mass prayers marking the end of Ramadan and Tabaski, and by the work and gifts given by everyone in the misiide to the mosque and the almamy.
Although the mosque had equal religious significance for both Fulbhe and serfs, serfs did not – and former serfs do not now – participate very much in the affairs of the mosque. Today the mosque is still run by those of Fulbhe origin, brought up during the era of serfdom and maintaining traditional attitudes toward serfs. Illustrative of these attitudes was one of the elders of the mosque, a deeply religious man who, while maintaining that the life of an ant and of a man were equal before Allah (meaning that man should have a very good reason for taking the life of another living creature), would not attend any ceremony in a former serf village, including the investiture of a tierno.
The almamy of the mosque is always a Fulbhe. Most of the inhabitants of Hollaande viewed him as an object of fear and veneration, which is very different from the Fulbhe attitude toward him. The Fulbhe of Popodara have far more contact with him, in his position as almamy as well as in non-religious contexts
At Popodara the mosque is located on the top of a hill in the middle of the town, just across from the house of the former chief de canton. The physical organization of the mosque is in itself revealing of the social organization of the Fulbhe and the place of the former serfs. At every mosque there are four doors:

  • The door facing east is used only by the almamy and the muezzin (salli). At Popodara the other three doors are divided among the maximal patrilineages of the area:
  • The west door is for the Khalduyaabhe
  • the south door for the Seleyaabhe, and
  • the north door for the Ranhaabhe.

The former serfs enter through the door of the maximal patrilineage of their former masters. These divisions are still respected.
Very few men from Hollaande attended the mosque on a regular basis, and this is true of former serfs in general. Most serf men were found performing their normal work on Friday, when Fulbhe gather at the mosque to pray. Only one man from Hollaande participated actively at the mosque, while two or three others went occasionally. Interestingly, the most religious and devout men at Hollaande preferred to attend the mosque at Koula, a religious center about fifteen kilometers from Popodara, rather than the mosque at Popodara. Former serfs performed many menial tasks around the mosque which others did not. There are also limits to the religious leadership a former serf can exercise, no matter how deserving he may be in terms of education and piety. In a mixed group of Fulbhe and former serfs, the former always lead the prayer.
An example of menial tasks performed by former serfs around the mosque was furnished one Friday afternoon when I went to the mosque. I observed four men from Hollaande working on the roof of a house of the former chef de canton. They did not enter the mosque, nor did they pray with the others despite their proximity. Such an incident exemplified the separation of the villagers from the mosque. However, there have been changes. Formerly, if serfs had requests to make at the mosque, they would do so through their masters; today they do so for themselves.
Women’s participation at the mosque is limited, whether they be former serfs or Fulbhe. Women are not allowed inside the mosque. A small house has been built for them on the west side of the mosque so that they are behind the men when both pray. However, Fulbhe women are less involved in the tasks of cleaning than the former serf women. As do their male counterparts, the women perform many of the work functions necessary for the maintenance of the mosque.
Young people (up to age 40), Fulbhe and former serfs, do not as a rule go to the mosque. The extent and degree of religious practice depends on the age and sex of the individual involved, but it is not expected that young men will be properly religious It is believed that those who are very pious and devout before their time will die young. It is expected, however, that the young learn the prayers and their religious obligations. The Fulfulde word tuubugol, « to repent, » expresses the act of a man between the ages of 30 and 40 who gives up his vices – smoking, taking lovers, and drinking alcohol – and becomes religious, attending to his obligations both as a Muslim and a full adult within Fulbhe society.
Villagers or patrilineages do not pray together daily except under extraordinary circumstances 10. The five daily prayers are performed individually. However, as in all Islamic societies, the hours of prayer are marked by the call of a muezzin. At the misiide the muezzin calls from a small tower, but in the surrounding villages one man serves as the muezzin for a village. This is true even in the former serf villages. The role of muezzin in the former serf village has served until recently as the main way to obtain recognition for knowledge and piety.
The Fulbhe make a distinction between obligatory acts and recommended acts (between farilla and sunna). The obligations of a practicing Muslim, whether a Fulbhe or former serf, are

  • the five daily prayers
  • the fast during the month of Ramadan, and
  • the giving of alms 11

The pilgrimage cannot be considered obligatory on the same level as the others, because very few actually undertake the trip. Among the recommended acts are fasting during the month of Raadyibi

  • going to the mosque every Friday
  • slaughtering a sheep or goat at Tabaski
  • helping to support the mosque, and
  • helping in some way with the fields of the almamy of the mosque.

The focus of Islam is on meeting one’s religious obligations. All life and death are the will of Allah. It is He who decides whether a person goes to Heaven or Hell. Exactly when this decision is made and its irreversibility are subjects of controversy. One elder of Hollaande, a tierno, who had been familiar with the French, considered life as a system of credit. Whatever one gave in this world would be returned in the next world. In short, there is a direct relation between one’s good works and actions in this world and his fate in the next world. If one doesn’t pray now, he will pray later; if one steals here, he will pay later; if one gives here, he will receive in the next world. However, there were other villagers, although few in number, who maintained that a final decision was made within the first forty days of birth as to whether one was to go to Paradise or not. The general view is that after the last person to leave the graveside is three steps away, two angels sit on the shoulders of the deceased and begin to question him about his life. If he is going to Paradise, he is questioned for forty days; otherwise for sixty days. It is said there is a huge hammer that drives a deceased person to Hell, and when this hammer is driving someone down he screams. The screams are heard only by goats and sheep who paw at the grave.
Part of this belief system emphasizes the individuality of one’s religious responsibility. Before Allah, a man stands alone. No one can help another in his religion. No one can pray for or meet any religious obligations of another. One could speculate that the individuality of Islam complements the individuality of Fulbhe lives. Fulbhe men need no company to meet their religious obligations.
Islam is well integrated with Fulbhe society. Kin obligations and status differences are expressed in a religious as well as a social way. There is little separation between what might be called the secular and the sacred spheres of Fulbhe life. In the specific context of the naming ceremony it is not possible to distinguish the obligation to slaughter a goat as being a social or a religious act. On the one hand the naming ceremony is viewed as required by Islam, and on the other, it is the means by which patrilineages recognize new members.
In discussing four religious ceremonies, three points will be distinguished:

  • the intertwining of kin obligations and Islam
  • the continuing Fulbhe ritual dominance over former serfs; and
  • the integration of Islam with the earlier non-lslamic practices.

The four ceremonies described are:

  • Ramadan (the fast month)
  • Tabaski (the slaughtering of sheep)
  • Dyom Bente (New Year), and
  • the sadaka (sacrifice).

Although sadaka refers to any sacrifice, it refers specifically to the village-wide gatherings called during the year to ensure a successful harvest.
Ramadan. As in most parts of the Islamic world, the month of fast is characterized by an outpouring of religiosity and by strong pressures on all to fast. Only women in an advanced state of pregnancy, women who have just given birth, and those who are sick are exempt from the obligations of the month of Ramadan.
In a village anyone who does not fast without legitimate reason will be subject to ridicule. Fasting is adhered to so completely that in Hollaande three men who were seriously ill during Ramadan not only maintained the fast, but did not take medicine between sunrise and sunset.
The month of Ramadan is the only time during the year when there is daily communal eating. Each minimal lineage (there were eight at Hollaande) gathers at sunset for prayer and then the meal. Men of the minimal lineage eat with each other, while their wives eat together in an adjoining compound. In villages where the minimal lineages are small, the major patrilineages eat together. In either case eating together is an expression of closeness, and the Ramadan has become a vehicle for reemphasizing kin ties.
During Ramadan there is a particularly long prayer said at the time of the evening prayer. In most villages, including Hollaande, this prayer is recited by the most learned men of the village with the entire village in attendance. This daily gathering by the entire village, men, women, and children, takes place only during the month of Ramadan.
Ramadan does not go by without continuous comment on the difficulty of fasting. The fast is also a subject of continual conversation, as though everyone, particularly the younger men and women, were demonstrating their seriousness and religiosity.
Ramadan ends when the new moon is seen. 12 The fast is broken that morning and there is then a mass prayer, known as iidi (al-id in Arabic), involving all individuals of a misiide. In the misiide of Popodara the prayer is held in a large field, for the number of people that come cannot fit into the mosque. The almamy leads the prayer and then gives a message to the members of the mosque. At the iidi I attended he reminded everyone that they had to give at least two measures of grain to a religious person or else their fasting would be worthless in the eyes of Allah. He then observed that improvements were being undertaken at the mosque and more money was needed in order to complete them; 10,500 francs (approximately $40) was collected on the spot. At the end of his talk he led everyone – Fulbhe and former serfs – to the mosque, where the men stayed for almost two hours singing religious chants In this context Fulbhe-former serf differences are not of great importance, except insofar as those who direct prayer and who make up the cortege of the almamy are all Fulbhe. Of greater importance is the unification of all the members in a common ceremony at the end of Ramadan. At the end of Ramadan the youth hold dances, which are not held all during the month, the adults and elders bring gifts to their affines, and those former serfs who retain close ties with their masters bring gifts to their Fulbhe. All spend the days visiting their kinsmen.
Tabaski. Tabaski (al-id al kabir in Arabic, dyulde donkin in Fulfulde) lasts for two days. On the morning of the first day each minimal lineage eats a morning meal together. The members then disperse for ablution and to dress for the mass prayer that is held in the same field as that used at Ramadan. The same prayer as that for the ending of Ramadan is recited by the almamy. He also uses the gathering to give a religious message. After the prayer all those attending escort the almamy to the mosque and then to his compound while singing religious chants. The almamy, attended by other important personages, slaughters a sheep. The former chef de canton, who while chief slaughtered several goats and sheep which were distributed to his followers, now slaughters two sheep while attended by his kinsmen and a few of his former serfs. The rest of the day at Hollaande is celebrated by a cessation of work.
Others who slaughter an animal do so the next day. The sacrifice of a goat or sheep is recommended (sunna). At Hollaande five animals were slaughtered; all but one were goats. Three elder men and two elder women did so; both women were widows, and their sons supplied the animals.
Fulbhe who want to offer a sacrifice perform the act themselves. Former serfs still must have their former masters perform the act for them. The Pullo slits the animal’s throat while the former serf holds his hand. In short, the Pullo acts as intermediary between the former serfs and Allah, a continuing recognition that former serfs are not the religious equals of Fulbhe. The serfs, however, are not the only ones denied the right to slaughter an animal by themselves. Women cannot do so. A Pullo woman holds the hand of her husband, and a former serf woman holds the hand of her former master.
The division of the meat of a slaughtered animal differs from other ceremonial occasions. The liver and heart of the animal are grilled by an elder over a fire and are eaten by all. Care is taken to make sure that everyone receives a morsel. The rest of the animal is then divided. A large share goes to the Fulbhe of the owner, at least an equal share is set aside for the owner’s household, and the rest is divided among the assembled men of the village to grill and eat on the spot.
The New Year. The holiday celebrating the New Year (the first day of the month Dyom Bente) appears less connected with Islam than the other holidays. Dyom Bente is celebrated for two days. The evening before, age-mate groups of boys and girls go from house to house singing. It is interesting that the traditional Fulbhe songs sung by the boys (rabbingol) are being replaced by Islamic religious chants (dyaarugol). The girls’ traditional songs (soorugol), on the other hand, have remained unchanged. The next morning everyone goes to the stream, where they bathe and put on new clothes. The men then go the cemetery where prayers are said for the « corpses » (in Fulfulde, dyangangol fureedyi dhin). This is the only time of the year when prayers are said for the dead or when the cemetery is visited. This aspect of the ceremony appears to stem from pre-lslamic times. It is performed by both Fulbhe and the former serfs.
The rest of the day is spent in visiting kinsmen, affines, and – if one is a former serf – one’s Fulbhe. There is a phrase that refers to this period of intensive visiting on Dyom Bente: « dyokkere endhan. » Gifts are brought on this occasion to one’s affines and Fulbhe.
The Village Sacrifice. In the Fouta sadaka means a « sacrifice » that can be performed by anyone, at any time, for any reason 13. For example, if something is stolen from a house, a religious leader (karamoko) may suggest that the owner offer a sacrifice of three white objects to anyone (the most appropriate sacrifice being kola), which would cause the unmasking of the thief. Sadaka also refers to a ceremony held three times a year by the village as a whole, the purpose of which is to pray for plentiful rains, no destructive winds, and a bountiful harvest.
Decisions about the time to hold village sacrifices are announced to the villagers by the religious leaders at the mosque. All the villages whose members pray at the same mosque on Friday hold their sacrifices on the same day. Today there are no differences between the Fulbhe and former serf ceremonies. The sacrifice is carried out by the village as a whole, acting as a single unit. There is no ambiguity as to who is the ceremonial head of the village; it is the eldest male (unless, of course, he cannot perform the tasks required).
The ceremony itself is simple. Each household head decides what food his wives will prepare. The entire village gathers for the ceremony. At Hollaande the prayer site is called (ngeru). The men arrive first, bringing dried corn, peanuts, fonio, kola, and taro, which constitute the sacrifice. At the last sacrifice I attended a goat was also slaughtered to make the sacrifice « extra strong. » This is unusual and was due to a series of misfortunes in the village the lack of cultivable land, the burning down of one of the houses in the village, and several serious illnesses that were said to have been caused by malevolent spirits. The sacrificial animal is consumed, each member of the village receiving a part. The produce, however, is not eaten, but is symbolically thrown away, following the completion of the ceremony.
Once the village has gathered, the eldest male of the village recites a particular prayer (fatiha), and then all give thanks to Allah. The food is then eaten and all remain together to perform the prayer at sunset. The women also participate in the prayers but stand behind the men, where they can barely hear the leader.


Many observers have noted both the intensive and extensive nature of Islamic education in the Fouta-Djallon. In the past, however, religious education, beyond the bare minimum required for prayers, was only for the Fulbhe. Former serfs now participate to a degree impossible fifty years ago.
All children, both boys and girls, are required to begin their Koranic education around the age of six. Typically, parents find a master (karamoko) to initiate them into reading Arabic letters. Koranic school is held five days a week for about two hours.

  • The first stage of Koranic education begins with the first letter and is therefore known as the Ba stage. During this stage all the letters are taught.
  • Then come the sigi, when the child learns the various signs.
  • This is followed by the third step, the findituru, when the child begins to read words and phrases.

At no point in this process is a child taught the meaning of what he is reading. With the beginning of reading the Koran (dyangugol dyande) there is a little ceremony in which the karamoko, in front of assembled kinsmen, teaches the child the first sentence of the Koran.
Once a child begins the Koran, he is expected to read until he finishes it. The process is arduous. The karamoko (or an older student) writes a section of the Koran on a plank of wood (alluwal), which is supplied by the student. After a passage is written for the student he is expected to go home and learn it. In Hollaande the children gathered almost every evening at a small house, built especially for the purpose, to practice and recite their work in front of the karamoko of the village. At another village I visited kerosene was much scarcer, and the children gathered in little groups after sundown to read by the light of a fire. After a child can read these passages perfectly, they are erased and the succeeding passages are written. Depending on the ability and conscientiousness of a student, reading the Koran takes from one to four years. It is quite rare for a girl to finish reading the Koran. Girls usually stop after their clitoridectomy, somewhere in stage three.
In return for the education of their child, parents periodically give gifts to their child’s karamoko. The child cuts and brings firewood to his religious teacher once a week. The greatest gift for the karamoko is saved until the student completes the Koran and is circumcised. The linking of Islam with circumcision can be seen clearly in the number of times that a child can read the Koran prior to his circumcision without the alluwal ceremony that marks the completion of reading the Koran being performed. The three boys who were circumcised during my stay were fourteen years of age and had read (and therefore recopied) the Koran at least twice. Two boys just a year and a half younger than these had already read the Koran three times. Yet the alluwal ceremony was not held until the boys were circumcised.
The education of children does not stop with the completion of the Koran. There are many other books to be studied. Whether a child continues depends on his inclinations and the pressure of his family. When a child reaches the age of sixteen or seventeen his Islamic studies often cease entirely, to be taken up again when he becomes much older.
Islamic education is theoretically unceasing. Those individuals who wish to continue their studies do so by attaching themselves to a master, depending on their level and ability. The most common form of continued study is the translation of the Koran into Fulfulde. This process is known as tafsir (according to Trimingham (1958: 78) it is a wolof (??) term meaning commentary ») [See also Marty]. The completion of translating the Koran into Fulfulde entitles the scholar to the title of tierno, and it is marked by a ceremony also called an alluwal. Becoming a tierno is a long and difficult process. Formerly, the time and expense devoted to such a commitment was impossible for the serfs. Without religious leaders, the serfs had no effective voice at the mosque.
The difference in Islamic education was important in maintaining the difference between Fulbhe and serf. Formerly serfs were given no more than a minimal education, sufficient for them to recite prayers, and a supplementary knowledge of Arabic letters and words. Therefore, few adult former serfs can read Arabic even now. There were three older men in the village, however, who had attained the status of tierno since 1958. In addition, and interestingly indicative of the greater emphasis beginning to be placed on Koranic education for women, one woman became a tierno during my stay in Hollaande. That she was not given equal status, however, was indicated by the fact that whereas a cow was slaughtered at the alluwal for each of the three men, only a goat was slaughtered for her.
With the opportunity for Koranic education, former serfs, even those who are themselves illiterate insist that their children study. One of the most serious infractions a child (particularly a boy) can commit is to skip Koranic school. It is one of the few things a child is beaten for. At Hollaande only two boys did not attend Koranic school: the father of one had died and he therefore had to help his mother; the other was a very rebellious, disobedient child considered « ruined » by the village. Even though former serf men have attained the status of tierno, former Fulbhe-serf distinctions usually still supersede in religious situations.


Ideological changes within the former-serf village, set in motion by the legal and economic end of serfdom, are particularly obvious in the area of sorcery. The distinction between witchcraft and sorcery, used so frequently in the African literature, is not employed here. It is quite possible that such a distinction would have been appropriate in the past. However, I have adopted the usage of the Fulbhe themselves in referring to all those who now use spirits for either good or evil as sorcerers. Although sorcery was traditionally associated with the serfs, the increasing Islamization of the former serfs is weakening both the belief in and the practice of sorcery. Rather, there appears to be a growing depersonalization of the forces that cause harm in the form of spirits (dyinna, from the Arabic jinn) that are clearly associated with Islamic belief. A nonhuman world exists for the Fulbhe which is basically a dangerous place for humans. The most threatening part of that world are the potential actions of the spirits 14. French-speaking Fulbhe use the word diable to translate dyinna, which is misleading, because there are many different kinds of spirits. In the area of Hollaande it is believed that three kinds of spirits exist:

  • dyuldhi, the Muslims
  • keefeeri, the heathens
  • ngotte, little spirits.

This classification itself reflects the integration of Islamic and non-Islamic beliefs 15. Only heathens and little spirits cause trouble for human beings, mainly in the form of illness, although the ngotte also do little things that frighten or cause annoyance, but for which no medicine is required. For example, a ngotte will scare babies by pulling at their arms and legs. This, of course, explains those times when babies cry for no apparent reason. The only example of a spirit specifically helping someone directly in a folk-tale that resembles a fairy tale with a good spirit of a spring helping a poor, disliked daughter to obtain wealth and happiness. Dyinna do help teen, by helping them to identify sorcerers. Although those spirits who aid such work do not completely fit into one of the above classifications, they tend to be regarded as the « heathen spirits. »
The spirits exist in many different forms and in many different places. They are said to live in certain large trees, in large termite hills, in certain spots on the land (which are not to be cultivated), and by all springs from which drinking water is drawn. There are also spirits in unknown places in the bush (.). It becomes known through time whether the spirit who lives in a particular spot is reputed to be a Muslim, heathen, or ngotte. Thus it is said that a good spirit lives in the large tree (kurahi) in the village because the children climb and play there without being harmed. But it is also maintained that if someone were to cut a limb from the tree, he would immediately die as a result of the anger of the spirits.
Dusk is considered the time of day when the spirits are most likely to do harm. There are certain special phrases that many individuals read if they expect to be out at dusk. These prayers are said to keep the spirits away.
The circumstances surrounding the reroofing of a mosque deserve to be described, as they illustrate the integration of Islam with the notion of spirits. A spirit is said to live in the top of the straw roof (warnyakere) of a mosque. (It is interesting that this spirit is not one of the three kinds of spirits described above.) When the roof is repaired or replaced, the top of the roof warnyakere has to be taken off and placed on the ground while the work is done. The time the top is on the ground is dangerous, because spirits are free and may strike someone. It was claimed at Popodara that who would die depended on which side of the mosque the top of the roof was placed. This is connected with the location of the two dominant maximal patrilineages, the Seleyaabhe who live to the east and south of the mosque, and the Ranhaabhe who live to the west. This belief has led to an actual physical struggle between the two maximal lineages and their serfs. Informants maintained that a general brawl erupted every time reroofing took place (every three or four years) and that it involved all the men of one maximal lineage and their serfs ranged against the other. The chiefly lineage did not take part. No weapons were used in the fighting.
However, now the spirit has been driven out according to some informants or given a permanent home according to others. This has resulted not from any action on the part of the Fulbhe, but rather as a consequence of technological innovations. It has become prestigious to build mosques of cement with aluminium roofs. This, of course, has ended the necessity for frequent reroofing, and the fights have become phenomena of the past.
The distinction between sorcerers and spirits is illustrated in Fulbhe beliefs about illness. Illness is attributed to three causes.

  • First, there is illness with no known cause (ko nawnaare tun) – such as measles, smallpox, or chicken pox.
  • Second, there is illness caused by a spirit (ko dyinna) – illness without specific symptoms or swelling and infection without known injury.
  • Third, there is illness caused by a sorcerer (ko nyanne).

Almost all illnesses and deaths of children are associated with the actions of a sorcerer. There has been a change in concept of the role of sorcery in death, particularly among men. This point will be discussed later in the chapter.
Only specialists can discern whether the cause of an illness is a spirit or a sorcerer. Two kinds of specialists existed in traditional society:

  • the mbileedyo, who used non-Islamic means to discover and cure illness, and
  • the karamoko, the religious leaders whose powers were thought to stem from Islam.

The word for sorcerer (both male and female) is nyanneedyo or nyanne, « To do sorcery » is nyaamugol; it carries the primary meaning « to eat. » A sorcerer kills someone or makes him ill by « eating » his victim. Most informants were reluctant to describe how a sorcerer actually acts on a victim. One elderly, very knowledgeable religious leader gave this account:

A sorcerer eats a victim by sucking his blood, each breath extracting blood from him. The sorcerer then leaves the location of the victim and either fries or roasts the blood. As the sorcerer eats the blood the victim falls ill. This was just one technique among several.

Sorcery has always been associated with serfs more than with Fulbhe. Both the Fulbhe and the former serfs maintain that sorcerers are most likely descendants of captives. Although there are fewer sorcerers in Fulbhe villages, most villages have at least one. Sorcerers in Fulbhe villages are almost always women, whereas in serf villages they are both sexes. The Fulbhe continue to frighten their children from going into former serf villages by warning them of the sorcerers that live there. Moreover, because Fulbhe children are always coming into contact with former serfs, they need to be protected from the actions of sorcerers.
There are many different explanations for why a person is a sorcerer, including inheritance from a parent (from a mother in the case of Fulbhe, from either parent in the case of serfs), but women beyond child-bearing age are the most likely suspects. The term for a woman who has never had any children (maamaare) is a synonym for sorcerer. Those who perform circumcision and clitoridectomy are also considered sorcerers. At Hollaande women who have married into the village are more likely to be considered sorcerers than women who were born and married in the village.
Estimates of the number and identity of sorcerers at Hollaande varied greatly depending on who the informant was. Informants from one major patrilineage always estimated a greater incidence of sorcerers in the other patrilineages than in his own. Outsiders claimed more sorcerers for Hollaande than the villagers themselves perceived. Moreover, Fulbhe saw more sorcerers within the village of Hollaande than did residents of surrounding former serf villages. Because there are no longer any direct and public accusations, it was not possible to estimate reliably the actual number of sorcerers.
The manifestation of sorcery is most often connected with the illnesses of children. All children, whether they be the son of an Islamic scholar (tierno) or the son of a mbileedyo (someone who discovers sorcerers), are susceptible to the actions of sorcerers. One interesting way in which sorcerers were said to use their power in the past, and which is now disappearing, is connected with the consumption of meat, which is more widespread in recent times. Eating meat in public risked the envy of a passer-by, who might employ sorcery. Children dared not eat meat in front of elders, because these would employ sorcery against the privileged young. Sorcerers are also said to keep women from conceiving, and to prevent the attainment of other goals as well.
Direct accusations of sorcery have ended, at least in Hollaande. Prior to independence, disputes still occasionally gave rise to accusations of sorcery. Accusations were dealt with by elders of a village or by a mbileedyo. The mbileedyo cured individuals from the effects of sorcery, neutralized the potential actions of a sorcerer, and also identified sorcerers. These functions are also performed by the religious leaders. The mbileedyo, however, was always a serf, or a non-Fulbhe, primarily Malinke.
An informant reported that ten years ago he came upon a large group of men and women, Fulbhe and serfs, gathered in a field between two villages. Directing the group was a mbileedyo (who is still living, is very wealthy, but no longer practices his craft in the same manner). The mbileedyo and his two apprentices offered a potion for everyone to drink. Anyone who did not drink the potion was immediately suspected of being a sorcerer. The potion was supposed to affect only those who were sorcerers. Anyone who became drunk or lost consciousness was a sorcerer, About fifteen people fell to the ground and began speaking in delirium. Those who showed no reaction to the potion received another potion with which to wash their faces, which enabled them to see the sorcerer’s pot (fayande nyanne). This pot was the symbol of sorcerers’ activities. In it the fingernails, hair, and other parts of the bodies of their victims are to be found. Everyone looked around for the pot until the mbileedyo pointed toward the top of a very tall tree. He then fired his gun at the top of the tree, causing the pot to leave its resting place. Everyone then chased the pot until they came to a stream. At the stream the mbileedyo said he saw the pot in the water. (My informant did not know whether it was a pot or an animal. The latter appears more likely, because one of the abilities of sorcerers is to transform themselves or objects). Inside was a collection of bits of fingers, hair, nails, rings, and jewelry – some of which was identified as having belonged to recently deceased individuals. In order to release these objects the mbileedyo « slit the throat » of the pot, which killed the sorcerer. Following this act everyone returned to the village where plates of food and gifts were presented to the mbileedyo.
The ceremony described above is no longer performed at least it has not been performed for the past five years in the area of Popodara. The dramatic seeing, following, and slaughtering of the sorcerer’s pot appears to be a phenomenon of the past. The mbileedyo, however, continues to perform his role, although in a more limited fashion. The mbileedyo gives general advice to individuals on how to avoid sorcerers or to achieve success in life. I had the opportunity to observe an mbileedyo at a former serf village five kilometers from Hollaande. For an hour and a half before the actual ceremony began there was singing and dancing. The mbileedyo first called a young girl from the audience to come up to him, and asked to whom she belonged. The girl’s father came forward and gave the mbileedyo money. The mbileedyo gave his advice, which was that the girl had to have a ring made for her to avoid the sorcerers, and that the mother has to pass a fistful of food around her head three times and then give it to a dog. He gave this advice because the girl got sick often. The mbileedyo then called out a name and asked that person to come forward. Three times no one came forward. The person finally did identify himself, and was told to carry a few grains of fonio, rice, and corn to a stream and throw them into the water as a sacrifice (sadaka). That evening the mbileedyo stipulated an appropriate sacrifice for each individual he spoke to for safeguarding against the actions of sorcerers (always unnamed and unknown.) The only reference to particular, potentially dangerous individuals was made to a young man who was told that two people in his village could make him fail in his life. These were two people whom he loved and thought of as friends but who were really his enemies. Further, they were members of his major patrilineage. The required sacrifice in this case was to take a whole white kola and throw half of it to the east, the other to the west, then take some very clean water and throw part of it to the east, the rest to the west.
In earlier days several kinds of action against suspected or proven sorcerers were available. In the case of the potion ordeal described earlier, people assumed to be sorcerers because of their reaction to the potion were simply shamed. No greater retribution was asked of them. However, informants maintained that in earlier years if someone were caught walking about nude at night, or if a person with whom he argued fell ill, he was suspected of being a sorcerer and was either beaten or had to give a sacrifice. The last time a mbileedyo was invited to Hollaande he stayed two weeks. Toward the end of his stay, the villagers came together to hear him. He said that within the village there was a young man with a very large head who was a sorcerer. Everyone in the village knew who this was, as there had been earlier suspicion. Interestingly, the young man named had been born in another village. Hollaande was the natal village of his mother (who had died), and he was living there with his maternal grand-mother, who had married the son of a captive.


The religious leaders (referred to as karamoko and tierno) serve a variety of functions other than formal religious instruction. Due in part to their knowledge of Islam and long contact with the Koran, the religious leaders are seen as integral parts of the way of Islam; their power is thought to derive from Islam and not from world of spirits and sorcerers. From an analytic point of view much of what they do appears no different from what is done by sorcerers, but from the point of view of the people they are seen, and treated, as very different.
Religious leaders can use their power to do good or evil. Certain religious leaders can perform kortugol.Kortugol involves reciting certain verses (which were not told to me and are known to only a few) and then pointing a finger toward the place where a person to be struck down is thought to be. The main reasons for employing kortugol are to take vengeance on an enemy or to kill someone who is stronger. Among the Fulbhe it is said there are very few who are powerful enough to perform kortugol. At the same time it is something that former serfs are not supposed to be able to do. I could not obtain the name of any serf who had the ability to do kortugol.Kortugol is considered to be the way of Islam, even though it is clearly magic. It is not thought of in the same way as sorcery, the way of spirits and heathens. And yet sorcery and Islam, Allah and spirits are blended into one system, with differences in practice associated with difference in social status.
One of the more important functions of the religious leaders is to make medicine against sorcerers. Children wear around their waists and necks leather amulets containing Arabic writings that are written by religious leaders, primarily to protect them against sorcery, but also to make them strong, to make them succeed in what they undertake and to protect them against the harmful actions of others besides sorcerers. To ward off danger from spirits, children are washed with water that has been used to wash Koranic verses or wooden planks (alluwal, sing.; alluudye, plur.). This practice is called nasi. Both nasi and amulets are used against spirits, in which case different verses are used.
When an individual falls ill, he might call a religious leader, whose principal weapon is a variety of Arabic phrases he has learned from a teacher. However, he might call an mbileedyo rather than a religious leader. It is here that the roles of mbileedyo and religious leader conflict. They compete in their ability to prevent sorcerers from harming people and to cure them once they have become ill. Their roles also conflict in matters other than curing. Both the religious leader and the mbileedyo are said to be able to foretell the future; however, as in the case of sorcery, the basis of their ability is supposedly different. The mbileedyo has contact with the world of spirits, and it is the spirits who aid him to cure, to prevent illness, and to foresee the future. In contrast, the religious leader in a vague and undefined way, derives his ability from the way of Islam, although not directly from Allah.
In the past there may have been significant differences in the definitions of the sources of power to do good or evil, whether spirits or sorcery. At present, however, the distinction between spirit power and sorcery is disappearing (nyanne e dyinna ko gootun). This means that the distinction between the use of spirits for good or evil purposes is disappearing also. Use of spirit power is now sufficient to bring a man into suspicion of practicing sorcery. It is important once more to recall that individuals suspected of using sorcery are likely to be former serfs.
There appears to be growing recognition among both Fulbhe and former serfs of a contradiction between belief in an all-powerful Allah and belief in sorcerers. This was stated in many conversations, especially those that touched on disease and death. An old former serf expressed it this way. « It is only Allah who gives us days. Before, whoever had a child, the child would be cut down. The Goodness of Allah, and those of Koula [a religious center] have stopped that now. Here. [the death of children] has diminished. But there are many areas where [it still continues]. » 16 The old man went on to say that no children’s deaths in the past five years were attributable to sorcery, and that « whenever death comes, it comes from Allah. » Decisions are therefore attributed solely to Allah: « Someone can be angry with you, but to kill, only Allah [can do that]. » 17
Awareness of the basic contradiction between belief in sorcery and in all-powerful Allah is not the same for all members of the population; in general it is men who are most bothered by it. Women hold very strongly to their belief in sorcery and still attribute almost all children’s deaths and illness to the actions of sorcerers. Women tend to seek out an mbileedyo for advice on how to protect their children and themselves, whereas men are satisfied with the recommendations of a religious leader.
The need to reconcile their beliefs is felt differently by Fulbhe and former serfs, Fulbhe men tend to deny their acceptance of the existence of sorcery by saying that it was only serfs who were involved with sorcery. They claim that spirits and sorcerers are the same thing (Dyinna e nyanne ko gootun). Because of the increasing Islamization of former serf men as religious education and positions become open to them, and because of their greater involvement with sorcery in the past, former serf men are most directly affected by the need to reconsider earlier beliefs. They comprise the part of the population that is most rapidly changing its belief system.
One incident illustrates how former serf men are attempting to bring sorcery under control and how former serf women remain closer to earlier beliefs about sorcerers. Not long before my arrival at Hollaande, the elders of the village had reached a decision to bar all mbileedyo from the village. When a fire destroyed one of the houses in the village, one of the elders of a major patrilineage publicly forbade the women of the village, who had gathered together with the men at the site of the burned house, from consulting a mbileedyo about the identity and reasons of the person who had set the fire.
In a sense, the former serfs’ declining belief in sorcery as the cause of illness, death, and other misfortunes increases Fulbhe ideological dominance over them. Although greater numbers of former serfs are becoming karamoko and tierno, the inhabitants of the former serf villages still remain dependent on religious leaders for protection against sorcerers and spirits. Knowledge about medicines used against sorcerers and spirits is learned through an apprenticeship system from elder Fulbhe karamoko and tierno. These have not yet accepted many former serfs as students in such matters. However, as more former serfs become religious leaders, they will undoubtedly become more independent.
In addition to ideological pressures on traditional ideas about sorcery, political forces have also played a part in the growing rejection of belief in sorcery. Direct accusations and retribution against suspected or proven sorcerers have ended. The Fulbhe attribute this to the French, whose judicial system did not recognize the actions of sorcerers or the punishments meted out to them, which had ranged from simple shaming to severe beatings. The French viewed such actions as crimes and punished those who carried them out. Thus the Fulbhe were prevented from dealing with sorcerers in their traditional way, that is, holding them responsible for their acts of sorcery.
The Guinean government has also taken a position against considering people to be sorcerers. The role of the mbileedyo is discredited by the P.D.G. However, political controls inhibiting the punishment of sorcerers, coupled with a continued belief in sorcery leaves one impotent to do battle against them. This may have led to the increasing unification of the idea of sorcery and spirits, or, in other words, to a growing depersonalization of the forces of evil.
There are probably other influences contributing to the changing attitude toward sorcery. The introduction by the Guinean government of hospitals and clinics into the countryside since independence presents the possibility for alternative explanations for illness and its cure. Villagers, particularly young men, commented on the decrease in the death rate of children. They claimed that the age-mate groups of young men were the largest Hollaande had ever known.
Sorcery still poses a serious dilemma for those youths attempting to break with their traditional ideological system. Boys between the ages of ten and fifteen spoke continuously of sorcerers and their fear of them. Initially such concern could be interpreted as reflecting a situation in which sorcerers continued to have their earlier ideological importance. Upon reflection it would appear the contrary is true. Such continual verbalization does not reflect a stable condition but a changing one. The youths were grappling with a declining, but nevertheless dangerous, institution.
Young men have more difficulty than anyone in reconciling traditional beliefs with the tremendous changes their society is undergoing. One of my close friends, who continually questioned the beliefs and attitudes of traditional society, and who consistently maintained that all mbileebhe (plur.) were liars, nevertheless related two incidents that indicated his belief in sorcery and the power of religious leaders. The youth’s older brother had a young girl come to his house to sleep with him one evening. She stayed all night and the next day. The following sunset she set off for her village. The brother called for an age-mate to accompany him and the girl to her village. They went as far as the large tree on one side of the village (the kurahi described earlier) when the girl told them to turn around and go home. The two men, however, stood and chatted while the girl went on her way. After having walked a little further the girl crouched behind some bushes to relieve herself. Two shooting stars came out 18. The two men ran home afraid.
When someone plans a trip, whether long or short, he goes to a religious leader (karamoko) to find out what would be a good day to set out. If he is going for a long time, very often he will ask to know his future. When my friend was planning to go to Conakry, he sought advice from a karamoko. Prior to giving advice the karamoko asked that he offer a sacrifice of tyobbal (mixture of rice, corn, and honey). To demonstrate his power, the karamoko also specified to his client the conditions under which the sacrifice should be completed. My friend was to walk east dawn about ten kilometers from the village, where he would meet a light skinned woman with a boy baby on her back. It was her that he should give the sacrifice. He claimed that this is exactly what occurred.
Despite questioning and skepticism, incidents such as these confirm belief in the existence of sorcerers and the powers of karamoko. Even when an individual personally refuses to accept them (and these cases are rare, generally involving university students), he learns through his friends and family of many incidents that cannot be explained any other way.
The merging of spirits and sorcerers is of great importance. Without such a union the contradiction between belief in the all-powerfulness of Allah and the powers of some human beings to kill others by supernatural means would stand out in high relief. The admission that such a contradiction exists would result in great difficulties. If human beings are truly responsible for such harmful actions, then action must be taken against them. But the political situation proscribes such action. Political constraints and ideological difficulties are leading to the unification of sorcery and the spirit world. No longer do men blame illness and death on the action of a sorcerer, for it is only Allah who can take the life a human being.

. Author and date of poem unknown (Sow 1966: 119)
. Unfortunately, the former serfs were reluctant, and in many instances refused, to discuss these questions because they were ashamed of their earlier practices. In particular, they viewed as pagan such practices as men dancing at the circumcision of boys, even though this has ended only with the past fifteen years. For an excellent description of an area where such dancing at circumcision continues, see Dupire (1963: 222-298). However, the ceremony in the Fouta was quite different due to differences in cultural influences from surrounding peoples.
. The fact that mony circumcised boys are not sexually mature is recognized. A true suka is someone who can also ejaculate (hellifaadho).
. If the child dies prior to the dennabo, it is buried as rapidly as possible in the woman’s garden, not in the cemetery.

. The word alluwal has two meanings:
the plank of wood used for writing the Koran and other religious works
the ceremony marking the completion of reading or translating the Koran.

Any time one finishes reading the Koran, an alluwal is held. In the case of a boy it is thought to be of great significance, because it marks the first time he has done so.
. It is made of rice, honey (or sugar), and sometimes fonio and corn.
. Normally graves are unmarked, but in the case of celebrated political or religious leaders their place of burial may be marked by a little house without a door, or now with a tiny cement house without windows (maisonnette).
. The Fulbhe of the Fouta now consider themselves to belong to the Tijaniyya sect, which involves learning the wirdu, a litany recited after the first and fifth daily prayers. However, this is to be distinguished from a political hierarchy.
Formerly, all the Fulbhe belonged to the Qadriya, but Tijaniyyism from the Maghreb has replaced it.

A still more peculiarly African but a much more recent order is that of the Tijaniya, founded about 1195/1781 by an ex-Khalwati disciple Ahmad al Tijani (d. 1230/1815), at Fez. This order considerably simplified the ritual and laid greater stress directly on good intention and deeds, a face which has contributed to its rapid success at proselytization and has also given it, at times, a more militant outlook. It makes no separation between the spiritual and the temporal. Whereas in Algeria it has been on good terms with the French colonial administrations, it has resisted actively the foreign domination in Morocco. From Morocco it spread in French West Africa during the 13th/19th century, propagated by Muhammad ibn Mukhtar (d. 1245/1830), and was carried into French Guinea by al-Hajj Umar Tall killed (1270/1854) in fighting (Fazlur Rahman 1968: 197).

. There is an interesting trend now of villagers (Fulbhe, not former serfs) building their own mosques, selecting their almamy from among themselves, and no longer attending prayers at the other mosque.
10. Every village (and often every section of a village) has a place for prayer, which is used only on special occasions. It is referred to as ngeru (the same word for the stone area in a compound, which similarly serves as a place of prayer). Within the village of Hollaande there were three stone areas, which were used by the village as a whole. The most important of these was the one under a very large tree. This particular tree was important for the people of Hollaande because it is maintained that there is a spirit (dyinna) who lives in the tree, and that although he is good to children (the children climb and play in the tree all the time), anyone who cut off a branch of the tree would die. The second place of prayer and meeting is located by the same kind of tree, but that tree is spiritless. The third area is by the cemetery and is used for assembly and prayer at burials.
11. Alms-giving takes two forms in the Fouta the muudo, giving a number of measures of grain following the end of Ramadan, and giving ten percent of the harvest, known as farilla.
12. During my stay the new moon was not seen. The Guinean radio station announced it had been seen in Senegal and that the fast would therefore end the next day.
13. It has been noted by Trimingham (1959) that sadaqa in Arabic refers to alms-giving, whereas in Fulfulde its best translation is « sacrifice. » Trimingham goes on to observe that the word sadaqa has played a great role in « desacralizing the sacrifice. » In animist religion « sacrifice is an offering to a divinity to please, propitiate, and sustain its energy, and when consumed by the worshippers, constitutes a form of communion. Acceptance of Islam leads to a complete desacralizing of such ideas, for Islam has no idea of sacrifice in the African sense » (ibid.:74). While it is interesting and important to observe what happens to Islamic words and ideas in Africa, it does not explain the change. To say that Islam has no idea of sacrifice in the African sense does not explain why sacrifice continues in the Fouta and why sadaka is the word and concept employed for such practices.
14. Trimingham argues that Islam brought the word jinn to Africa as a « synonym for spirits in general or depersonalized spirit agencies without necessarily displacing old terminology » (1959: 55).
15. This classification appears to be of recent origin and does not coincide with the number and diversity of spirits which existed earlier.
16. Ko Allah tun okki men baldhe. Hari hebhaadho wo bhe tolay mo. Barke Allah e bhe Kula bhen dhun attyii dyooni. Dho’o no bhutti dyooni. Kono seraari ndin, haa!
17. Goddho no waawi monanaade ma, kono warugol ngol ko Allah tun.
18. Shooting stars (dyowlol nyanne, or « sorcerer’s light ») are thought to be [manifestations of] sorcerers.