Saturday, 26 May 2012

A Look at the WoDaaBe Ethnic Identity

When God created WoDaaBe, God gave them migration movements (gonsul) as their tradition. Thus, when WoDaaBe came into existence they had migration movement. That is to be WoDaaBe. They are WoDaaBe because of migration. All of them migrate. WoDaaBe leave a place, they find grass, call their cows, take them

These words, from an elderly WoDaaBe herder in Tchin-Tabaraden, express clearly the intrinsic value of mobility, as integrated with pleasure, meaning and a sense of an ethnic identity. Scholars of pastoral communities have emphasised animals as source of symbols and social connections as well as reproducing the social system through creating and maintaining social relations. WoDaaBe engagement with cattle thus creates certain embodied experience that cannot be simplified into either economic or symbolic terms. WoDaaBe identification with cattle and mobility is a strong theme in the various origin myths collected by scholars at different times, generally stating that the WoDaaBe as an ethnic group and cattle came to existence at the same time. In many such stories, WoDaaBe, cattle and migration movements are seen as an integrated part of each other. WoDaaBe have an extensive vocabulary to refer to migration movements, classifying for example movements according to the length being covered, or the season during which migration takes place. The importance of cattle and mobility for WoDaaBe self-image and subsistence is also expressed in the extensive taboos associated with these spheres of life.

WoDaaBe often explain their ethnic identity by directly juxtaposing themselves in relation to other ethnic groups; the sedentary Hausa frequently constituting a major sign of counter-identification, which is interesting when considered that a majority of the population in the Tchin-Tabarden area is composed of Tuaregs with a smaller population of individuals identified as Arabs, WoDaaBe and Fulani. This could be explained by the fact that Fulani ethnic identity, as Burnham and Last have pointed out, was in the 19th century much articulated through a contrast with Hausa. This conceptualisation of WoDaaBe in relation to other ethnic groups draws a strong binary polarisation of the bush and the city/villages, of purity and dirt, identifying the former with WoDaaBe, the latter with other ethnic groups. WoDaaBe furthermore characterize agriculture as drudgery, and generally state that they as WoDaaBe never engage in it. In more informal inter views people, however, assert that agriculture has constituted an important fall back activity for WoDaaBe during difficult times. WoDaaBe views of the bush (ladde) are contradictory, in some contexts drawing such binary oppositions of the city and the bush, while in other contexts towns are conceptualised as a part of the bush, and agriculture and pastoralism as integrated spheres of activities.

Most classical scholarly works characterise WoDaaBe as a part of the Fulani, speaking the same language and sharing many similar traditions. Fulani groups also place strong emphasis on pastoralism as an aspect to their ethnic identity. In spite of sharing the same language and many cultural traditions, the relationship of Fulani and WoDaaBe is entangled in various ambiguities and contemporary WoDaaBe generally do not identify themselves as belonging to the Fulani ethnic group. This relationship of WoDaaBe to wider Fulani society is a good indication of the ambiguities and fluidity of WoDaaBe ethnicity. While Fulani also draw up typologies when characterising their ethnicity, studies have shown that Fulani ethnicity is in practice quite fluid, having changed in various ways. Some Fulani groups have emphasized pastoralism as important to their ethnicity even in cases where they have become fully sedentary, while other Fulani groups have emphasised aspects not related to pastoralism in new conditions. Different Fulani groups, furthermore, classify their boundaries with other groups and within themselves in various ways depending on various historical factors.

In addition to associating their ethnicity with herding life, WoDaaBe base their identity as a group on certain typological moral rules that they perceive as unique to themselves. MboDagangaaku, semteDum and munyal are key concepts in this context. The idea of mboDangaaku is particularly important because many WoDaaBe use it to differentiate themselves from other ethnic groups, including the Fulani. Fulani, however, express the core of their ethnic identity in the idea of pulaaku, seen (as WoDaaBe’s mbodagansi) as separating themselves from other ethnicities. The concept mboDangaaku to refer to key components of WoDaaBe identity, research conducted among WoDaaBe groups in Nigeria at a similar time uses the term pulaaku. WoDaaBe abandoned the term pulaaku in favour of the term mboDangaaku in order to reaffirm their separation from the Fulani which, Bonfiglioli claims, WoDaaBe felt had become too absorbed in values they associated with the Hausa. I will not attempt here to define the difference between these two terms or the complex relationship between the Fulani and WoDaaBe, but focus on mboDangaaku in relation to WoDaaBe. It is, however, clear that the boundaries between these two groups are not easily defined and that these two concepts share in many respects similar general meanings even though being probably interpreted differently by individuals and groups.

The concept mboDangaaku is composed of the concept mboda, meaning taboo or avoidance in English. The name ‘WoDaaBe’ is derived from the same root, coined by more orthodox Muslim Fulani to refer to those who had been banned by the prophet due to their pagan beliefs. WoDaaBe themselves usually explain their ethnic label as referring to those who respect taboos. Even though presumably deriving from the same root, the contemporary meaning of mboDangaaku and mboDa differs somewhat. If asked to describe mboDangaaku, most individuals mention rather formal acts. These acts include those that can be characterised as mboDa but are not exclusive of it. Included are expressions of respect to parents-in-law; inclusion of a mother after the pregnancy of her first child(bofido), in addition to a stress on obeying general rules of hospitality, and generosity with one’s kind. The strong association of MboDangaaku with hospitality is demonstrated in an elderly man’s expression that someone with a mboDangaaku is generous in giving cattle-loans (habana’i) . Many Fulani groups have mboDa, these thus not being exclusive to the WoDaaBe.

WoDaaBe themselves generally explained mboDagaaku as deriving from mboDa (as the term itself implies) but here I want to suggest that it is very possible that it derives more from the name WoDaaBe, than from taboos per se. I am by this not disclaiming the importance of mboDa for WoDaaBe ethnicity, because following taboos is an important aspect of WoDaaBe everyday actions in all spheres of society, as I have discussed in relation to cattle and migration. The concept pulaaku derives from the same root as FulBe (singular Pullo), the Fulani term for themselves, and it is, in my opinion, thus possible that the concept mboDangaaku is simply derived from the name WoDaaBe (singular Bodaado) and points more to ‘qualities appropriate to WoDaaBe’, than taboos per se (similarly to pulaaku meaning ‘qualities appropriate to the Fulani’). WoDaaBe abandoned pulaaku in separating themselves from Fulani, this could mean that the WoDaaBe coining of a specific ethnic code for themselves was built on references to qualities appropriate to them rather than to taboos per se. MboDangaaku is thus associated with rather formal rules of conduct, some based on accepted taboos, others associated with general respect towards others, but in short, it can be seen as referring to an adherence to WoDaaBe values.

In addition to mboDangaaku, WoDaaBe mention semteDum (shame) and munyal (patience) as central to their ethnic identity. To have semteDum is to know the correct moral behaviour in certain situations, such as how to interact with one’s parents in law and those who are older. There are several ways in which a person can behave shame fully, all involving that the person has in one way or another lost his or her self-control. Usually such situations involve the persons showing that they are not in control of their emotions or that they have some primordial needs, such as eating, defecating and/or need for other people. The need for self-control becomes more crucial when in certain culturally defined relationships, such as in inter action with one’s parents and parents in law. Again, we can benefit from insights in terms of pulaaku, but he points out that people are said to lack semteDum if they perform those actions that indicate lack of pulaaku. The concept semteDum can thus, according to Riesman, be translated as the lack of pulaaku. Assuming that the meaning of pulaaku and mboDangaaku is closely related (if not the same), it can thus be suggested that semteDum in relation to WoDaaBe refers to a lack of mboDangaaku.

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