Part of my heart will forever live in Fulani, a settlement, not a village, strung out over many acres, that is home to a semi-nomadic community.
These people have it hard, even by the standards of rural Ghana.
Mostly Muslim immigrants they come from differing countries to the north: Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. These countries are home to the Tuareg, a people that hit western headlines as a result of the In Amenas, Algerian hostage crisis of early 2013, when the focus of western media turned to North Africa, the area known as the Maghreb, and those shrill voices created a new boogey man for us to lose sleep over.
The truth, as is often the case, is somewhat different. I’d like to talk a little bit more about the Tuareg, it’s a digression, but it helps provide some context to the story of Fulani, that I want to develop further in future articles.
As is so often the case in Africa the ‘journey’ forced upon the Tuareg, from remote and proud Saharan nomads who minded their own business and wanted no more than to continue their ages old existence, to internationally recognized and vilified ‘terrorists’, started with colonialisation.
Their traditional homelands knew no boundaries, until Europeans arrived and carved them up into the modern day states of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Prior to this the Tuareg were the masters of the desert, their herds of camels not only provided them with food and milk, but also gave them a livelihood as supervisors of the salt and gold caravans that crossed it.
Social changes have marginalized them as a minority within these new states. Drought has compounded their problems and the good land within their communities has been taken away from them, with most of the water sources and pastures they used for cattle grazing and breeding being fenced off by absentee landlords. This has impoverishing many Tuareg communities and forced them to give up their nomadic lifestyle.
At the same time their traditional lands have born riches of oil and uranium, but these have enriched governments, not the Tuareg who have seen little or nothing of this wealth, only the pain of disruption to their way of life.
There is much to admire about the Tuareg, not least the elevated role of women in their traditional societies. You see, Tuareg women own property, but not just some or any property, women own the majority of the tribe’s property, more than the men folk. Women are also charged with preserving tradition by maintaining highly developed poetry and music.
The injustices that have been perpetrated against them have, surprise, surprise, made some of them somewhat rebellious over recent decades and they have fought back against their oppressors. Skirmishes have taken place regularly with government forces of the various nations that stake their homelands, as the Tuareg have sought to re-assert their ingrained ancient right to a nomadic and borderless existence.
As masters of the desert, the rebels within the Tuareg ranks are able to disappear unrecognized back into day to day life and this has led to indiscriminate violence by State military against civilian settlements in retaliation. The outcome? Yes you guessed, it’s further stoked their feelings of injustice. Think of any civil rights and freedom causes around the globe.
To compound matters the plight of these people appears not to be a very saleable proposition for western media. They have no legitimate (legal) right to territory, other than by tradition, they live in cross borderlands and their strong and proud sense of community and identity is diluted in western eyes because of their ‘backward’ nomadic lifestyle. All of this is not easy to explain within the sound-bite news we have in the west and it therefore remains largely unreported. They therefore lack a voice.
As Tim English writes of the Tuareg in Overlanding, The Ultimate Road Trip:
“Marginalised in the states they have ended up in, and not able to gain a footing in the new African order, many have become modern warriors mounted on Toyotas armed with Kalashnikovs.
“What better way of gaining money for their struggle, then, than by robbing a group of wealthy Westerners?”
Now I don’t condone violence, robbery or any form of aggression and I should make that very clear, yet it is obvious to me that when the Tuareg finally got to the point where they were mightily pissed off by people just taking from them, guess what they decide to do? Yep you’ve guessed it, they learnt from these colonialists and modern day governments and took a leaf out of their books.
They’d watched the French and Italians come in and carve out states from land that didn’t belong these Europeans, they’d seen post colonial governments take away their watering holes and grazing land, they’d seen mineral and oil rights exploited. All of these thefts were perpetrated by powers with access to a greater armoury, the stronger taking from the weaker. So the Tuareg armed up and preyed on weaker targets than themselves, taking hostages to extort ransom money.
Well, this is the end of my socio-political background history except to say that not all of the Tuareg and other disposed desert people took to violent rebellion. The vast majority did not seek this course. Some of them decided that deprived of an ancient way of life in their traditional lands and facing increasing conflict their best course of action was to get the hell out of Dodge….. and that is a potted history as to how these immigrants from the north ended up 1500km or so further south in Fulani, Ghana.
Fulani is a special place, that teaches you all you’ll ever need to know about the power of community in adversity. It inspires. It reminds me that collectively we are better, than when greed and selfishness are allowed to take hold. It shows that determination to pursue a collective vision allows a better future to triumph.
Sadly, like a lot of migrant communities around the world they frequently find themselves vilified and discriminated against. It seems that any bad event that occurs within a 20 mile radius of them will be attributed to the Fulani people. Yet I know them, they are wonderful, friendly people whose only desire is to live peacefully and pass onto their children the chance of a better future.
The community sustain themselves by eking out a livelihood of sorts, grazing other people’s cattle and growing crops. After keeping what they need they sell the surplus produce at local markets.
They do not seek hand-outs or aid for their day to day existence, but they have actively and admirably sought help to better their ability to help themselves. This is best exemplified in their quest to see their children receive an education.
As a new community in an extremely rural area, their children had no access to a state education (which is in theory provided free by the Ghanaian government to children up to the age of 14), and no hope of the state building a new school to serve them within the foreseeable future.
Rather than accept this state of affairs the community, lead in this particular endeavour by the wonderful Karim, sought out, petitioned and pressed local voluntary organization SVG (who have many competing demands to juggle), for help.
The result being that a towards the end of 2012, following significant fund raising by the inspiring British volunteer Anna Newington, plans crystalised to build a single room school. By 2013 with building work complete teaching began and the community at Fulani realized a dream.
The school was funded, built and teaching is carried out entirely by volunteers. The project is a testament to a community’s vision, coupled with the wherewithal of the local voluntary organisation SVG and western volunteers.
Another example of their admirable sense of collectivism is demonstrated in their approach to senior high school education. This is education from age 14 and in Ghana it is not provided for free by the State. The poverty of the Fulani community means that they cannot fund all of their children to attend senior high, indeed they can only fund one or two children at a time, so as a community they decide which of the children at senior high age will benefit from their available funds.